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UK Hoops looking to do more than just survive Stallworth's absence

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DeNesha Stallworth will miss three-to-four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee on Wednesday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth will miss three-to-four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee on Wednesday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
For the third time in six weeks, UK Hoops has been bitten by the injury bug.

In October, freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was lost for the season due to a blood clot. Less than a month later, Samantha Drake went down for the year with a knee injury.

The latest Wildcat to be sidelined is DeNesha Stallworth, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body in her left knee.

"Not the kind of news you want to hear, but we are glad it was nothing serious," Matthew Mitchell said.

Stallworth -- a Naismith Trophy watch list selection -- is expected to miss three-to-four weeks. She was evaluated on Monday after experiencing persistent swelling following UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Friday night and had successful surgery on Wednesday.

"Certainly when you lose someone like DeNesha everybody has to rally and really come together and work hard and pick up the slack that's created by her absence," Mitchell said. "I think that our team is certainly capable of doing that and I think they will want to do that."

Stallworth's temporary absence leaves UK with just three healthy players listed as forwards or centers on the roster. Azia Bishop -- who is averaging 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 17.0 minutes of reserve duty -- is one of them and will slide into a starting role alongside Samarie Walker.

"You add another eight minutes to her and we are hoping to see those numbers go up with extra time on the floor," Mitchell said. "Now she will have to get that done. I think she is playing probably her best basketball since she has been at Kentucky."

With Stallworth out, Mitchell reports Bishop had two solid days of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, positioning the junior to take a step forward in her development.

"It is good for Azia because you fast forward a year from now, we are certainly going to need her to be in a featured role in the post," Mitchell said. "It is all good and very good that she can have this opportunity."

Jelleah Sidney also will see her role expand, while freshman Makayla Epps will shift full time to the 4 position after previously splitting time between the post and the perimeter. Though certainly not ideal, the athleticism of Sidney and Epps can impact the way the Cats play in a positive way.

"Jelleah is so active in the press and does such a good job in the press," Mitchell said. "I think we can play a little bit more up-tempo defensively and turn up the pressure a little bit. Then Makayla, being able to focus on one position for the next four weeks can really help her progress."

And in a pinch, Mitchell won't hesitate to go to a four-guard lineup with Stallworth out.

In that memorable win against Baylor, Mitchell went to that look for extended stretches, often with both halves of his two-headed point-guard monster playing together. Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill combined for 63 points in 65 minutes of the 133-130 victory.

"No matter who has the ball they're a real, real threat to go to the basket or get into the paint and make the defense shrink and guard the paint and then whoever's out there and has the ball kicked to them can make 3s," Mitchell said. "They're a lethal combination when they are on the court together."

That lethal combination has gotten plenty of attention following the Baylor win, UK's second in a row over a top-10 opponent, as has Mitchell's program as a whole.

"It's been so nice around town because the game against Baylor was so exciting and people around town are complimenting us, but we're almost a week removed from it and people are still talking about it," Mitchell said. "As a player and as a coach you have to move forward and understand what's real. It's real that we won that game, but it's over and done with."

With the Baylor victory in in the rearview window, the Cats are shifting their thoughts to a tough road test at DePaul on Thursday (7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1). The Blue Demons (4-2) are averaging more than 85 points a game and have reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments under head coach Doug Bruno.

"It's a high-octane offense and they can really spread the floor," Mitchell said. "They can get five players out on the perimeter and put stress on your defense, especially a defense like ours that likes to put pressure on a team and tries to get out in passing lanes."

DePaul is the latest in a string of challenging December opponents for Kentucky, but the first UK will have to face without Stallworth. Losing the senior forward is a blow, but not one the Cats can't absorb.

"It's like I told our team, I think we're as well-equipped to handle it as anybody because we've had some kids who have sacrificed to come here that maybe don't play as many minutes that they might at other places, but they are very good very players," Mitchell said. "We have 10 really good players available for us tomorrow night at DePaul."

And due to the relatively short-term nature of Stallworth's injury, her absence could end up benefitting Kentucky down the road.

"I think any time you have to focus and do a better job and sort of raise your level of play, I think it gives you an opportunity to be better and stronger when she comes back," Mitchell said. "I do think you have to believe that if you are going to remain positive and move forward positively."

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