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Latest 'Pack the House' game another sign of UK Hoops' remarkable growth

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UK will take on Duke at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday in its annual UK will take on Duke at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday in its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's not official just yet, but Matthew Mitchell couldn't help but talk about the sellout UK Hoops expects against No. 2 Duke.

The last two seasons, UK has impressive crowds for its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena. Nearly 33,000 combined fans were in attendance, but Rupp wasn't completely full for either.

So when it does happen at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, the meaning won't be lost on Mitchell. That's why he'll be thinking about the three people who laid the foundation for what women's basketball has become at Kentucky: former UK President Dr. Lee Todd, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and former head coach Mickie DeMoss.

"When that happens, and we think it'll happen this Sunday, my mind will be on those three people who have meant so much to this program and who really sacrificed a whole lot and worked really hard so a day like Sunday could happen," Mitchell said. "We're real excited about that part of it."

Mitchell credits that trio for putting the muscle behind the effort to resurrect UK Hoops. Under their leadership, unprecedented support was given to the program in the form of facilities and marketing.

But as important as those investments were and continue to be, Mitchell knows Sunday would not be possible if not for the players getting it done on the floor.

"You can put up all the billboards you want to and run all the promotions you want to, you need to have something on the floor that people can connect with and want to come watch," Mitchell said. "We've been very fortunate to have players that would pay that price over the last five years and make this possible."

Never has UK had a group of players easier to connect with than this one. The No. 5/6 Cats have tied a school record with an 11-0 start to the 2013-14 season, overcoming adversity every step of the way.

"I think that we are a pretty close team," Mitchell said. "I think the girls really care about each other in a way that makes it important for everybody to succeed. And that's extremely valuable, I think, for our team."

Two players (Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Samantha Drake) have already been lost to the season to injury, while star senior DeNesha Stallworth is in the middle of a three-to-four week absence after arthroscopic knee surgery. Another -- Makayla Epps -- played an important role in UK's win over ETSU on Sunday mere hours after walking away from a serious car accident.

All the while, the Cats have been undeterred. They continue to fly up and down the floor, scoring points at a record rate (96.2 per game) and dispatching every opponent that comes calling.

In December alone, UK boasts a win over archrival Louisville, then ranked in the top five, and another over No. 9 Baylor in a quadruple-overtime thriller that captured the imagination of fans and set an all-time record for most points in a women's college basketball game. Less than a week later, UK overcame revenge-minded DePaul -- the team the Cats blew out in last year's "Pack the House" game -- on the road in a victory Mitchell considers even more impressive.

"I thought the DePaul game to me was one of the best wins we've had here ever," Mitchell said.

A victory over Duke would surely join that conversation as well.

The Blue Devils enter Sunday's matchup with a record of 11-1 and the only loss coming against top-ranked UConn. A perennial title contender, Duke is outscoring its opponents by nearly 25 points per game and shooting better than 51 percent from the field.

"Duke has an outstanding team, outstanding players," Mitchell said. "They are extremely dynamic both offensively and defensively, so we'll be tested every way imaginable."

Five players average double figures for Duke, led by Tricia Liston at 16.5 points. The senior guard is a good representative for the challenge UK will face in that the senior guard stands 6-foot-1. Of the eight Blue Devils playing 10 minutes or more per game, all but three are 6-foot or taller.

"They are big and they are bigger than we are," Mitchell said. "It will be a battle of wills there and we will have to make it an up-tempo, fast game. We can't let them impose their will on us and run their stuff and get the ball where they want to get it because they have some really outstanding players."

For the Cats to succeed in ratcheting up the pace, they will need a better effort than they showed in their last outing. UK's dynamic offense stagnated in a 24-point second half.

"It was just a total lack of aggressiveness and totally out of character for this team and it just wasn't a great effort and it just was not where we needed to do," Mitchell said. "We watched it yesterday, some examples of it. And the first half was really aggressive. The first half was real similar to what we've been doing all season and the second half just decision-making went way down, effort went down."

In practice this week, with players balancing preparation for Duke and final exams, UK has gone to work addressing that. Knowing his team and seeing the work the Cats have put in, Mitchell isn't overly concerned the problem will arise again.

"We're trying to explain to them how important their aggressiveness is, and if you're not aggressive against Duke it won't be good," Mitchell said. "We really have to push the tempo. The point guard needs to make a good decision every time down the court."

If point guards Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill can live up to that as they have most of the season, UK could be in position to add yet another signature win to a resume full of them.

Kentucky's ultimate goals can't be realized until March, but Sunday offers a chance to take another step in the right direction.

"We just have to stay more in-tuned to the process right now," Mitchell said. "The way you get a No. 1 seed is you win games. We have a great schedule. We have a great non-conference schedule and great conference schedule and if we win enough games it will happen."

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