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UK Hoops rejuvenated, aiming high heading into NCAA Tournament

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Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell holds practice at Carnesecca Arena in preparation for UK's first-round game against Navy. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell led practice on Saturday at Carnesecca Arena in preparation for UK's first-round game against Navy. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It will have been exactly two weeks since the Kentucky women's basketball team played an actual game when the Wildcats tip off against Navy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

Kentucky's last game, a forgettable loss to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship, occurred on March 10 in Duluth, Ga. After the loss, head coach Matthew Mitchell gave his players three full days away from basketball to let them clear their minds and refocus on a new goal.

"We are ready to go out there and get a win," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "The ultimate goal is to go to the Final Four so, just to have that goal, it'll be very achievable. We're just excited to play."

The previous goal that UK had focused on heading into the season was winning the SEC regular-season crown for the second season in a row. After falling just short, the Wildcats regrouped and set their sights on the tournament title. There, Kentucky came one win short of reaching that mark yet again.

Now UK, a team who has reached the Elite Eight twice in the last three years, is looking to take that next step and reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four. That achievement would likely trump any SEC aspirations the Wildcats had going into the season.

"I think we tried to refocus and get our minds right to know that we have another opportunity, our last opportunity to try to win another championship," said junior forward DeNesha Stallworth. "I think all our minds are straight, just taking 40 minutes at a time and one game at a time."

While some teams may struggle to regain rhythm during a two-week layoff, the time off has served as an important developmental period for Mitchell's squad. After some much needed time recharging the batteries, the Kentucky players came back to practice rejuvenated and ready to work towards their next goal.

"What's been so great about this time is that we had a really good team heading into the SEC Tournament and then we had some time to get better," said Mitchell. "So from our practices we have certainly seen more aggressive play in the post and playing physically with poise. That's been a really good result from the practice time."

Mitchell's been quick to make sure that he doesn't dismiss Navy as a formidable opponent for UK's first-round game. However, a two seed has never fallen to a 15 in the history of the Women's NCAA Tournament. But whether it's Navy or Baylor, Kentucky is focused on itself and playing its own game rather than the opponent.

The Midshipmen (21-11) were the winners of the 2013 Patriot League Tournament and earned the automatic bid to this year's Big Dance. That achievement in its own right is something that Kentucky was unable to accomplish on its way to its school-record fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid.

For Kentucky to reach that ultimate goal of a Final Four appearance, it all starts with taking care of business in the first round beginning Sunday at 12:05 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, N.Y.

"They spread the floor and they have the capability to make threes at all four positions," said Mitchell. "But for us, we need to focus on what we do well. We need this to be a fast-paced game and try and speed Navy the best we can. It's a big challenge for us and we really need to do everything we can to be as close to our identity to defeat Navy tomorrow."

Though the focus is ultimately on Navy, Mitchell is perfectly fine with his players looking somewhat ahead to goals further down the road. After all, the only way Kentucky can win a national championship is by winning a regional championship.

"We're very focused on our region and trying to advance through it and win four games," Mitchell said. "I am really happy to hear them say that. That's what we want to do. We want to beat Navy tomorrow. We have to beat Navy tomorrow to get to the Final Four. I think that is exactly where our minds need to be.

"I told them last night they have a great chance to beat Navy tomorrow and when we do that, we'll have a good chance on Tuesday night against whoever that may be. We just need to keep trying to understand where we're headed right now, and I have no problem with their goal being the Final Four."

A Final Four appearance could be the crowning achievement that Mathies has been searching for in her senior campaign. Mathies made it clear that her aspirations and expectations were to win an SEC Tournament title this season. As the career of the most decorated Wildcats in program history, Mathies is looking to see just how long she can extend her run with plenty of basketball left to be played.

"This will be the last time I'm playing for Kentucky," said Mathies, "But it's still a long season. If you go all the way, you're playing for another three weeks. I'm just focused on winning one game at a time and you know we already have our goal. I think if we just stick to that, we should be playing for a long time. When it's done, it's done. I can't think about that right now."

One thing is for sure: Kentucky is happy to finally get out of SEC play.

After finishing the regular season with five out of its last seven games on the road and three straight days of play in the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats should be well tested for their opponent Sunday afternoon. If the Wildcats continue to bring that rediscovered energy and enthusiasm that they've brought to the practice setting over the last two weeks, expect to see Kentucky in the Bridgeport Regional as UK looks to execute its way to its final goal.

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