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Meaning of U of L rivalry not lost on UK Hoops

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UK's starting point guard, Janee Thompson is averaging 9.3 points entering Sunday's game against Louisville. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK's starting point guard, Janee Thompson is averaging 9.3 points entering Sunday's game against Louisville. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Janee Thompson had quite an initiation into the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.

Then a freshman, Thompson had the best game of her first season at UK almost exactly a year ago. On an evening when her teammates could hardly make a shot, she scored 13 points in just 16 minutes.

Thompson saved her best for last, scoring the game's final six points in a 48-47 comeback win, the last coming on a broken-play 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left and the shot clock about to expire. It's a play she won't soon forget.

"I remember that I was dribbling a lot," Thompson said, laughing, "and I was really just trying to make something happen and the shot clock was running down and I had to make a play."

Even if she did somehow forget, her teammates would surely remind her quickly, but not so much for the shot itself. They enjoy how Thompson reacted. In her words, she "looked a mess" as she celebrated.

"I don't have it on DVD, but I've seen it a million times and my teammates like to make fun of the reaction after I hit the shot," Thompson said. "So I see it a lot."

Makayla Epps remembers it too.

"Janee hits that 3 and literally almost threw my remote through the TV," Epps said. "I was ecstatic."

Epps, now a freshman, is set to play her first game in the in-state rivalry on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. She wouldn't mind making her debut in a fashion similar to Thompson, but the game will hardly serve as an introduction to UK-U of L. Not only did Epps grow up Lebanon, Ky., she also came to Kentucky after originally verbally committing to play at Louisville.

She attended multiple UK-U of L games as a fan, including the one two years ago in Memorial when the Wildcats won 74-54.

"At the time, I was a (junior) so I was like, 'This is nuts,' " Epps said. "I was loving it. It was a heck of a game. Kentucky-Louisville, regardless of who it is or what you are, this is going to be a crazy game to you."

Adding to the crazy is the fact that Kentucky and Louisville enter the matchup as two of the nation's top teams. No. 7 UK is 7-0 with each victory coming by double digits, while No. 4/3 Louisville sports the same record and wins over LSU, Oklahoma and Florida State.

It's only December, of course, but whichever team comes out on top will have an early resume win as both bid for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. On Wednesday, UK announced that tickets to the game were sold out, meaning a capacity crowd will be there to watch.

UK fans in attendance will likely see shades of their own team in U of L, as the Cardinals play at a pace and apply pressure similar to the Wildcats. Kentucky is averaging 98.1 points and forcing 26.9 turnovers a game, while Louisville has averages of 88.4 points and 21.1 turnovers in the same two categories.

"You have to be ready to handle a double-team and sometimes triple-team," Mitchell said. "They are bringing some people at you, so you have to be prepared for that. It's unlike anything we've seen up to this point. They are clearly the best defensive team we've faced."

U of L isn't half-bad on offense either.

The Cardinals boast a balanced attack, led by Shoni Schimmel. The senior helped carry Louisville to the national championship game a season ago and headlines seven players scoring more than eight points a game with averages of 12.9 points and 4.7 assists in 2013-14. The senior guard is on the watch list for every major national award for good reason.

"Schimmel, what a terrific career she's had," Mitchell said. "She's a really, really good player. She can make deep shots and handle the basketball and is a real smart defender."

UK's effectiveness in limiting Schimmel could go a long way toward determining Sunday's outcome. Kentucky and Louisville have matched up each of her first three seasons. In the two UK wins, she totaled just 30 combined points on 11-for-33 shooting. In U of L's lone victory, Schimmel scored 26 on 9-of-18 shooting.

"We'll just have to make her earn everything, which is what we've always tried to do, is to try to make her work hard to get everything," Mitchell said. "Rarely can you shut a player like that down. You have to make her work and make them really, really play hard throughout the course of the game."

Playing hard, in Mitchell's estimation, will be the deciding factor when it comes to both guarding Schimmel and for the game in general.

"I think the intensity level of the game will be terrific and we'll have to see if we can exceed their level of intensity and exceed their level of play," Mitchell said. "We'll see if we can play a little bit harder and see if we can find a way to win."

By no means would a loss prevent Kentucky from accomplishing its goals this season, but the Cats also don't hide from how much this game means.

"It's a big game," Mitchell said. "I think any time we get together in any sport it's certainly important for our fans, so no matter what the records are I think it's an important game, very important for us at Kentucky."

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