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Cats stepping up after Drake's season-ending injury

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Azia Bishop had 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in UK's win over Central Michigan on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Azia Bishop had 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in UK's win over Central Michigan on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Earlier this week, Matthew Mitchell announced that senior Samantha Drake will miss the season after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in Kentucky's win over Central Michigan on Sunday.

Drake -- who will apply for a medical redshirt -- is now in the beginning stages an arduous recovery process that is expected to last seven to eight months.

Mitchell hopes Drake can return in time for the 2014-15 season. If her early approach to the injury is any indication, there's a good chance she will.

"I have been really proud of Samantha, she has responded with a very positive attitude and that is what she needs," Mitchell said. "The only thing we can do now is prepare every day to get herself into a position to get back on that court. It won't be this season, but she can get back on the court next season."

Drake is now the second Wildcat lost for the year, joining freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers. Goodin-Rogers was diagnosed with a blood clot before the season and recently returned to limited non-contact workouts, but is still being treated with blood-thinning medication.

"You never know why these things happen, but you have to learn the lesson that is there and you only do that by positive attitude and moving forward in a positive way," Mitchell said. "Both of those kids are doing that and I am proud of the team because they are rallying around them and helping them a lot. It is a good atmosphere from that standpoint."

Drake and Goodin-Rogers are around the team as much as possible while they sit out, but the fact remains that UK has games to play without them, starting on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum against Lipscomb.

The Wildcats began the season counting depth in the post as a strength, but are now down to starters DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker and reserves Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney. Stallworth and Walker have played up to expectations thus far, while Bishop has put together arguably her most extended stretch of solid play of her career, making the blow to UK's depth easier to absorb.

"We are fortunate that Azia is playing well, but we had six post players that can play and had talent and could really go," Mitchell said. "Now, we have four that can play and that is a good situation to be in as well."

Playing 15 minutes a game, Bishop has been one of UK's most productive players on a per-minute basis. She is averaging 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds and has tallied 20 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks over her last two games.

The 6-foot-3 Bishop has had more than her share of moments during which her talent has been on full display, but never before has she been so well-positioned to turn potential into consistent production.

"This has been some sustained progress and that is where we need to be and where we have to stay with Azia," Mitchell said. "We have to keep her progressing. She seems to be in a great spot mentally and emotionally and those are key to you being able to go out and really turn loose and let your physical gifts shine."

Even if Bishop does become the player Mitchell knows she can be on a nightly basis, he knows there will come a time when foul trouble or other circumstances will force him to turn to a backup plan. Fortunately for the Cats, Mitchell has plenty of experience coaching a smaller lineup. UK began its run of success under Mitchell primarily playing four-guard lineups and he won't be afraid to turn to them again this year.

He already has a couple players in mind he believes can play out of position in a pinch.

"We've had a lot of success in the past here with some four-guard lineups and so I think Makayla (Epps) and Kastine (Evans) need to get comfortable with knowing the post position," Mitchell said.

Epps and Evans may be just 5-foot-10 and 5-8, respectively, but they each have a skillset that will allow them to succeed in a more post-oriented role.

"Makayla's strength can help her on defense," Mitchell said. "Get lower and be stronger and maybe keep a taller player away from the basket. She's very athletic, can jump and is very strong on the boards. Kastine's very, very sharp and knows all the plays and plays really hard."

A senior, Evans has proven her willingness to so whatever is asked of her time and time again, from starting to coming off the bench to playing the perimeter to playing the post. Mitchell has been around long enough to understand how precious that kind of team-first mentality is. That's why he was so thankful to see the same thing in Epps even though she's a highly touted freshman when he approached her on Wednesday about stepping into the post.

"Makayla was just very excited about whatever she can do to help the team, whether it's point guard or playing in the post and two or the three. That's a very rare talent, a very rare player, but it's more rare to have a kid with an attitude like she has, that I'll just do whatever you want me to do."

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