February 2014 Archives
Tim Garrison had a good feeling heading into a Southeastern Conference home meet against No. 11 Auburn.
Even after he learned on Friday afternoon that senior Holly Cunningham would have to be removed from UK's vault and beam lineup due to an issue with her hip flexor, Garrison couldn't shake the positive vibes.
"We had a great feeling about the night. I'm not sure exactly what it was," Garrison said. "Feelings are just that. You don't know why sometimes, but you just have them."
Garrison might not be giving himself enough credit for how well he knows his team.
Making the last-minute changes of inserting Kayla Hartley into the vault lineup and Shelby Hilton on beam, the Wildcats didn't miss a beat. UK posted the fifth-highest score in school history -- also a season high -- to take down No. 11 Auburn, 196.275-194.825.
"We had (the good feelings) and the athletes were all smiles and ready to go today and they were up for it and that's the way it played out," Garrison said. "Why it happened, I'm not exactly sure other than the fact that they were training well and they competed well for the most part tonight."
From the very beginning, UK seemed poised to do big things.
Audrey Harrison led off on vault with a season-high 9.875, while Hilton (season-high-tying 9.800), Shannon Mitchell (career-high-tying 9.900), Kenzie Hedges (9.850) and Hartley (career-high 9.775) followed with solid scores of their own. As a team, UK scored a season-high 49.200 on the first apparatus.
The Cats sustained the momentum on bars with career highs from Hartley (9.900) and Kayla Sienkowski (9.875). Each good routine seemed to lead into the next.
"Oh, you feed off of it so well," Hartley said. "The person in front of you sets you up and you're just like, 'Yes, here we go. Let's get to it.' "
UK experienced its only setback of the night on beam when Amy Roemmele scored a 9.050. Hilton -- stepping in as the Cats' anchor -- had a chance to erase the score but fell and posted an 8.450.
Beam has been somewhat of a bugaboo this season, as UK has posted its lowest score on the event in five of its last six meets, but the Cats weren't about to be derailed heading into the floor exercise.
"When you struggle on beam--that's what we talked about over there is not letting the energy go down," Garrison said. "In fact, we're going to bring the energy up a notch or two and they responded exactly the way we hoped they would."
Hilton, minutes removed from her disappointing beam routine, got it started.
"We've been having trouble on beam and I think some of the performances, we had to get mad and get it done on floor to bring the team back up again so that we can trust ourselves to know that we can do it," Hilton said.
Bucking the expression, Hilton both got mad and got even by nailing her routine and scoring a career-high 9.925. The tone set, Taylor Puryear, Hedges, Harrison and Hartley followed with career-high scores of their own.
On the strength of all those record-setting performances, UK shattered the school record on floor by 0.200 with a 49.650, which also happens to be the second-highest score in the nation this season.
"To be able to finish the night like that, especially rebounding from a rough beam rotation, we'll take it," Garrison said.
UK -- in command from the first routine onward -- didn't need a floor score nearly that high to defeat the Tigers on this night. The Cats are now 5-1 against Auburn in the last five years with four straight wins in regular-season meets, but that doesn't mean Garrison doesn't appreciate the victory.
"Wins over SEC teams are hard to come by," Garrison said. "So anytime you can get a win over an SEC team you definitely don't take it for granted. And we're not. That's what we talked about to the girls after the meet is, 'Listen, we don't take these for granted because they're hard to come by.' "
Garrison also isn't taking the fact that UK had 12 individual routines that set season or career highs for granted, but that isn't his primary goal either.
"I'm happy for all of our athletes that did break records, but overall as a team I'm pleased that we're moving forward with a great score that we can carry into next Friday, our last home meet, Senior Night," Garrison said. "We're excited to have a big crowd here and finish the home season off with a bang."
Earlier this week, the fourth-year head coach said he wanted to replace four scores in UK's final four meets to bolster his team's Regional Qualifying Score. After Friday, it's one down, three to go.
UK will honor Kastine Evans and three fellow seniors on Senior Day this Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Every senior class is unique, but the group UK Hoops will honor as part of its annual Senior Day festivities is special
The four Wildcats who comprise the class -- Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth -- come from all corners.
"As basketball players they are very productive and really helped us change the program," Mitchell said. "And then all four of them have very unique stories and have contributed in my life all four in different ways but very impactful ways and I've learned a lot from these seniors and they've been very important people to me and will remain that."
There's Evans, the guard from Norwich, Conn., whom Matthew Mitchell calls a "gift from God."
"I was impressed with her and excited when we signed her but I don't that you can ever anticipate somebody being as strong as she is in just every area of her life," Mitchell said. "She's a very high-character young woman, has a sense of purpose, wants people that she's around to do well."
Mitchell is hard-pressed to think of a player who has maximized her time in Lexington more than Evans. She has contributed from day one on the court, filling every role from sixth man to power forward without a moment's hesitation. Off the floor, she's been honored for both her academics and her service in the community.
Her coach admires Evans so much he said he'd like for his two young daughters to emulate her.
"I think it's important for all of us if we want to really accomplish something we have to enter into the process with intention of doing very well and she's always been very intentional about achieving and very conscientious," Mitchell said. "My life is so much richer and better because she's been in it and is in it and will remain in it."
Pinkett will remain a part of Mitchell's life as well, in addition to occupying a special place in his heart for the way she's overcome the odds.
"If you think about the neighborhood she's from in (Washington,) D.C., two percent of the kids attempt college and less than one percent of the kids out of her neighborhood get a college degree. And so just the fact that she got here and made it and is going to walk across that stage," said an emotional Mitchell before pausing to compose himself, "on May the 10th is something else."
Walker and Stallworth -- two transfers from West Carrolton, Ohio, and Richmond Calif., respectively -- round out the class.
The two McDonald's All-Americans had well-established basketball pedigrees before their arrival on campus. Walker came to Kentucky after a semester at perennial power UConn, while Stallworth was an All-Pac 10 performer at California before deciding to leave her home on the West Coast.
Though the duo that has patrolled the paint together these last two seasons didn't have a full four years in Lexington, Walker and Stallworth are no less a part of the program and school they've represented.
"So they were here quite a bit of time and invested a lot in the program and we were fortunate that they transferred to Kentucky because at the time they came here we weren't really in the mix on kids like that, of that talent level and that ability level and so they have put up some huge numbers and some big victories for us and they've both given a lot to the program," Mitchell said.
Their paths have been very different, but the four have their share of senior-year adversity in common.
Evans has dealt with a lingering leg injury for most of 2013-14, even sitting out a game in January. Pinkett, meanwhile, has coped with an ankle injury of her own while still playing catch-up following a trying offseason.
"Bernisha had a tough end of the year last year and a tough summer," Mitchell said. "Like I've said many times, it's just much more important for me to see her graduate and finish. Basketball sort of took a back seat for a while there and I just think it was difficult for her to ever fully get back to where she once was and that's OK."
Stallworth has faced a similar journey after knee surgery in December and is only now regaining the form that made her a preseason contender for every major award. She turned in her most dominant outing of the year on Thursday night, posting 16 points, 20 rebounds, four blocks and two steals to lead UK to an overtime win at Mississippi State.
"DeNesha certainly had a chance to use the injury as an excuse and not do the work to get back," Mitchell said. "There's been some times of frustration and some times of where we really had to soul search there for a while, but she's come around and worked hard."
Walker has stayed healthy, but the ride hasn't always been smooth for her either.
"I've had to learn a lot through coaching her about patience," Mitchell said. "She's been real hard on herself and she's sort of up and down and so that's sort of been a roller coaster we've been on together. That's been difficult at times, but you never questioned her heart for others and for people."
Everything his seniors have been through makes Mitchell want to send them off properly even more.
No. 12/15 UK (21-7, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) will host Vanderbilt (18-10, 7-8 SEC) with a chance to lock down the No. 4 seed and a double by in the SEC Tournament. That prospect is enticing, but Mitchell isn't thinking about that nearly as much as the four players who will play on their home floor for the final time in the regular season.
"So it's an important game but there's nothing more important to me than really preparing well and working hard to try to get ready for Vanderbilt so we can send these seniors off with a great victory," Mitchell said. "And obviously it has other implications that would be valuable to us as well, but we're really going to try to keep our focus on preparing well against a very good team and making sure that we have a sense of purpose for our seniors on Sunday."
Willie Cauley-Stein had 16 points and 13 rebounds in UK's overtime loss to Arkansas on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As Julius Randle, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein came for interviews following an overtime loss to Arkansas, the mood was understandably somber.
They walked down the hallway from their locker room slowly, sank in their chairs and spoke in hushed tones.
A day removed from talking about his team turning a corner with a raucous celebration of a win over LSU, Randle fielded questions about whether he saw the 71-67 defeat coming.
"I never go into the game thinking we're not going to put the effort out that we should and do the little things," Randle said. "We just didn't tonight."
John Calipari, meanwhile, ran down the reasons for the defeat in his own postgame press conference.
"They beat us to loose balls. We missed 10 one foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered." Calipari said, referencing UK's 12-of-22 free-throw shooting to Arkansas' perfect 16-for-16 performance. "We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts, not executing."
After UK (21-7, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) trailed for all but 2:43 of the first 34 minutes, the Wildcats pulled into a tie at 52-all and eventually a 57-52 lead on the strength of a 14-2 run. But after grabbing that five-point lead, UK shot just 1 of 5 from the field and 1 of 4 from the line.
Arkansas (19-9, 8-7 SEC), eager for the chance to sweep the season series against UK and pick up a resume-building win, took advantage and forced overtime. In the extra period, the Cats' bid for a second straight overtime win in Rupp Arena fell short due to three turnovers and numerous misses around the rim as UK shot 26 of 76 (34.2 percent) for the game.
"We couldn't throw a rock in the ocean, but it happens like sometimes in games," said Randle, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. "The main thing is -- especially when things like that happen, you can't really get it going -- that's when you have to lock in on defense and come up with 50-50 balls. We didn't do that tonight."
UK had a 47-38 rebounding edge on Thursday night and even won the turnover battle, 20-18, but Arkansas blocked eight shots and contested countless more in the paint to flummox the Cats.
"We took two steps back today," Calipari said.
With just three games left in the regular season, now is not the time for that to happen. Concerning as that may be, it's also the reason why UK has to move on and move on quickly.
"There's no reason to soak in it, just remember the feeling," said Cauley-Stein, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds. "It's getting too close to crunch time. You can't dwell on it and then do the same thing the next game because you're thinking about the last game. Then the next thing you know, you stepped way too far behind and there's no return after that."
That's especially true because of the way UK's schedule sets up in the coming days.
The Cats will get right back to practice on Friday with a game at South Carolina awaiting them on Saturday. After less than 48 hours between games, UK will turn around and face Alabama on Senior Night on Tuesday.
Taxing, yes, but also exactly what the Cats want.
"That's the great thing about basketball, you know, is it's not like football (where) if you lose a game you have to wait a week," Poythress said. "Basketball, you know, you play the next couple of days, so we're just trying to get this out the window. We lost. We know that. There's nothing we can do."
Cauley-Stein, who according to Calipari saved UK from what could have been a "15- or 18-point" loss, agreed.
"You gotta come right back at it, gotta take the medicine tomorrow at practice and then you got a game the next day," Cauley-Stein said. "That's love to me; I wouldn't want it any other way."
In other words, the Cats don't have time to let a sour mood following the loss linger.
"We just gotta stay the course," Randle said. "Adversity's gonna hit anybody. It doesn't matter if you're a basketball player, it doesn't matter who you are. In life, adversity's going to hit you. It's definitely hit us this year, but if we're staying the course, keep being strong and don't let it waver you I think we'll be fine."
The clock is ticking on the 2014 gymnastics season.
Just three regular-season meets and the Southeastern Conference Championship remain before NCAA competition and Tim Garrison isn't hiding from that fact.
"We're looking for a big finish to the season, that way we can accomplish our goals," Garrison said. "If we don't have a big finish to the season, we won't accomplish our goals. So we're up against it. They realize it, we know it, we've told them exactly what we need to do and they've embraced it."
The goal for Kentucky is to move into the top 18 of the national rankings for NCAA seeding purposes, meaning the Wildcats need to bolster their Regional Qualifying Score (RQS). To do that, Garrison wants his team to post four scores high enough to replace scores currently counting toward UK's RQS and move up from its current ranking of No. 24.
Some coaches might keep that thinking and the projections that go with it to themselves, but not Garrison. He believes it's best for his athletes to know exactly what's being asked of them.
"I'll put the Excel file up on the big screen in our gym and say, 'Look, here's where we are,' " Garrison said. " 'Here's what we've accomplished to this point. Here's what we need to do to get to where we can achieve our goals.' "
With solid scores of 195.975 and 195.200 last weekend, UK took a step in the right direction. That's especially true for the three Wildcat seniors: Audrey Harrison, Holly Cunningham and Kayla Sienkowski.
"I think obviously we still have places that we can improve," Garrison said. "It's nice to see our seniors come out of a little bit of a slump they were in. They've gone through quite a bit of a struggle but I think the struggle has made them stronger."
Garrison put a fair amount of thought into the reasons for the seniors' slump. He's come to the conclusion that the sense of urgency felt in their final college season got to them.
"Maybe they've already checked out and they've moved on or maybe they're feeling pressure," Garrison said. "I think our athletes were feeling the pressure. I think our seniors were feeling the pressure. I think they've gotten through that."
Over those issues and enjoying a renewed sense of confidence, the seniors are leading the way as the Cats have begun to take control of their own destiny.
"It's always great when you can feel like your athletes are becoming basically autonomous," Garrison said. "They go on their own. Obviously we're driving them, we're pushing them, we're coaching them, but when they're taking those corrections that you've been giving them for many months now and then doing them on their own, it's a good feeling to know that they're feeling more confident in themselves."
UK will look to put that confidence on display. After returning from a rare two-meet road weekend, the Cats are home the next two weekends, beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Friday against No. 11 Auburn.
"Naturally, it's nice to be in comfortable surroundings back on our home floor in front of the Big Blue Nation again," Garrison said.
Back in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum, the Cats will be out to finish with a flourish.
"Toward the end of the season, I expect them to perform better because they've realized what's going on, they've dealt with it," Garrison said. "They've realized, 'What's the point in feeling the pressure? We need to go out there and just do the best we can.' "
Griffin Joiner is batting .405 with six home runs through 15 games as UK's catcher. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It would have been hard to blame Griffin Joiner if she had gotten frustrated.
With the junior catcher riding a three-game home-run streak and in the midst of a scalding start to 2014, Texas wised up and walked her four times in as many plate appearances. Only one was intentional, but it was clear the Longhorns wanted no part of Joiner as Kentucky clinched the Texas Classic.
At the FAU Invitational a week later, the trend of opponents paying special attention to Joiner continued.
"This weekend she didn't get a lot to hit," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Because of that I think she got a little out of her zone a little bit. Teams are definitely targeting her. They're aware of her power numbers. They're aware she's a difference-maker."
Facing that careful pitching, Joiner had just two hits in 15 at-bats. A testament to how good she was in her first 10 games, Joiner is still batting .405 with six home runs, 14 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .905.
"That's elite status," Lawson said.
But here's the thing about Joiner: She doesn't have to hit a lick to make a significant impact for No. 8 Kentucky.
"It's good that I'm a catcher because let's say they pitch me really tough and I don't have success," Joiner said. "It's good that I'm able to always know that I have a role on the team, that I can always make an impact being behind the plate. I can't take what happens hitting to the field with me and I always have to focus on the next task that's at hand."
Because of the position she plays, the next task is always an important one.
"I tell everybody that probably the toughest job in Division I softball is Griffin's job, to be the catcher at the University of Kentucky," Lawson said. "We're very demanding on our catcher."
Joiner has caught every inning during UK's 13-2 start to 2014, showing more of the durability and reliability that defined her first two seasons. Save for two games at designated hitter early in her freshman season, Joiner has started every game of her career at catcher and 130 in a row.
"She's an incredibly smart person," Lawson said. "She's a great ballplayer. She's very focused on the task at hand so she does a great job of separating offense from defense. I think that's actually a great way of looking at it. While she's not getting what she wants offensively, she's a huge contributor."
Over Joiner's three seasons, Lawson -- known nationally as a pitching guru -- has come to rely on her catcher more and more.
"Behind the plate she's done an exceptional job," Lawson said. "People don't really steal on her often and she does a great job handling the pitchers."
Joiner is facing a unique challenge this season given the composition of the Wildcat pitching staff.
She is in her second season with Kelsey Nunley, a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference performer last year who rewrote UK's record books. Joiner also works extensively with Lauren Cumbess, a senior who has seen it all.
"The second year having Kelsey has been a lot better," Joiner said. "We're a lot smoother with the way we're doing everything this year as far as signs and her pace on the mound. We're used to each other and they obviously Lauren and I are used to each other."
Joiner is still building that familiarity with Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith, the two freshmen who round out the UK staff. So far, she likes what she's seen.
"Meagan's really competitive. I really like that because I'm competitive too," Joiner said. "Shannon, she's a go-getter whenever she's on the rubber and she's fun to catch."
To this point, the group has combined for a 2.06 earned-run average and 93 strikeouts in 105.0 innings.
"All the pitchers are a lot different," Joiner said. "In the offseason, having all the bullpens with them, it's a lot of fun. You never know which pitcher you're going to get. They all have a different variety of pitches."
That diversity has played a role in UK's success on the mound, but Joiner is the glue that holds it all together.
"Without her, we wouldn't be where we are defensively," Lawson said. "Our pitchers have done a great job and I've never seen a great pitcher who didn't have a great catcher."
As UK prepares to host a three-day tournament beginning with its home opener on Friday at 3 p.m. ET against Butler, Joiner will be trying to help her pitchers remain as close to unhittable while hoping to see some hittable pitches herself. But even if she doesn't, Joiner plans to stay within herself.
"It's a good feeling knowing that everybody on the team's a good hitter," Joiner said. "If I don't get the job done, somebody behind me is going to. I can always count on that."
UK will travel to Mississippi State for a matchup at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Last week was an interesting one for UK Hoops.
It began with a historic win at Tennessee, the program's first since 1985. Next was a lopsided home defeat at the hands of Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina. To finish it up, UK took down No. 16/13 Texas A&M on the road.
The up-and-down eight-day stretch begged a question.
"Can we get some consistency going?" UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Because that's really important. We've been winning one, losing one, winning one and losing one. That's certainly not what we want to do tomorrow night."
With two games left in the regular season - starting in Starkville, Miss., at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday -- the Wildcats are looking to put together a winning streak. Wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt would assure UK (20-7, 8-6 SEC) of a double bye in the SEC Tournament -- certainly motivation enough -- but that's not why the games are so important in Mitchell's mind.
"I think still what we're trying to focus on is this team really rounding into form and being its best," Mitchell said. "We're getting close to a part of the season, if you win one then lose one, your season is over, so we're trying to build some consistency here at the end of the season."
In search of that consistency, Mitchell is asking for steadiness from individual players.
First on the list is Makayla Epps, who has emerged late in the season as an option at point guard.
In the loss to South Carolina, Epps was one of UK's lone bright spots, posting a career-high 16 points. She followed that up with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers against Texas A&M.
"She did a really good job on Sunday, so now what you're looking for is some consistency and you need to bounce back with another good game," Mitchell said. "It's going to be another big challenge just like it was in College Station. We'll just see if she can build on the performance."
Looking to do the same will be Jelleah Sidney, who had seven points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as part of an unconventional crunch-time lineup against the Aggies that also featured freshmen Epps and Linnae Harper.
"You know Jelleah can make plays, you know she can do some things of great value we just need her to do those things consistently well," Mitchell said. "What I always love about her is her energy and her effort. She sure gave us that on Sunday and she'll have to tomorrow night. This will be a tough, tough game for us."
Mississippi State (18-10, 5-9 SEC) has Mitchell's undivided attention, clearly. The Bulldogs are 13-3 on their home floor and have been competitive throughout SEC play. Of their nine losses in conference, all but one has come by 10 points or fewer and two in overtime.
"Mississippi State has been really good at home this year," Mitchell said. "They are a very aggressive defensive team, really hard-nosed and tough competitors, make it difficult on you to score and one of the real premier frontcourts in the league."
Julius Randle and the Wildcats will host Arkansas in a rematch of an overtime loss on Thursday night. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Since he arrived in Lexington over the summer, Julius Randle has gotten used to his surroundings.
He knows the short walk from his dorm to the Joe Craft Center quite well. The same goes for the path from the training room to the men's practice gym.
This week, something new stopped Randle caught him by surprise after John Calipari had a photograph from the wild celebration following UK's win over LSU plastered on the wall under the word "FAMILY."
"He didn't tell us anything," Randle said. "It's just right there, a big picture."
The photo shows Randle on his back, smiling from ear to ear. His teammates are mobbing him after he hit a game winner in the final five seconds to take down the Tigers for their sixth win in seven games.
The image joins countless other memorable ones from the Coach Cal era, ones Randle first noticed on recruiting visits as a high schooler. Now, he's immortalized alongside his Wildcat predecessors.
"You see all the guys that have come through, to see them on the wall and you've got a picture of all us on the wall, it's a pretty cool thing," said Randle, the reigning Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.
Most of the time, new decorations are saved for the offseason. This, Calipari believed, was a time to make an exception. It wasn't because of the significance of the shot either.
It was that moment of celebration that Calipari wants his players to remember.
"I think that's part of what, as coaches, it's what we want them to understand: That's what it feels like," assistant Orlando Antigua said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."
Shouldering the burden of expectations, there have surely been times when the Cats have lost sight of that fact, moments when basketball felt more like a responsibility than a game. But after months of work it's all beginning to pay off, paving the way for moments of elation like the one that punctuated the LSU victory.
"We see we're getting better as a team and once you see the results things start to become more fun," Randle said. "You may not see the results for a while but you gotta stick with, stick with it, stick with it and just keep fighting, keep getting better. We see that we're getting better."
The hope, now, is that improvement fuels more improvement and joy fuels more joy.
"They're competing and enjoying the fact that they're competing together, working together and seeing results," Antigua said. "To see that pure joy for one another, it's what the coaching staff has been working to try to get them to."
More than a month ago, UK showed signs of progress in a loss at Arkansas. In spite of dealing with numerous bad breaks, a hostile road crowd and an energized Razorback team, the Cats battled to the final possession.
"It was a tough environment to play, but I do remember that being kind of a little bit of a breakout game for us," Randle said. "It was learning how to fight, not stopping, just playing hard."
Of course, carelessness with the ball and a Michael Qualls put-back dunk in the final second would undo the effort in an 87-85 overtime loss.
"I think we had 17 turnovers that game, but we competed, played hard," Antigua said. "Arkansas comes out and plays really hard. Coach (Mike) Anderson does a great job of getting those guys to play the way they want to play, speeding up the game. I think we handled it pretty good."
No. 17/15 UK (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) will look to handle it even better on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET as the Cats host their second game in a row with payback on their minds.
"We've watched film of how we played at the end and the difference between then and now, it's a tremendous difference," Randle said. "We play harder. We play more as a team. We care about each other more. It's little things we do on defense. We've made adjustments since that game. We've gotten better each game."
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC) can say the same. The Razorbacks have won five of six to play their way into the NCAA Tournament conversation, including two of three on the road.
"They're better," Antigua said. "They're right in the middle of the pack with the rest of the teams in the conference and we know they're going to go out and compete and play hard, and we're excited about the challenge."
Alex Poythress is averaging 6.6 points and 5.1 rebounds as UK's sixth man. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Today we hear from Alex Poythress, who writes about the celebration of UK's win over LSU, getting ready for tournament play and his classes.By Alex Poythress (follow on Twitter)
What's up, Big Blue Nation? How y'all doing?
As you all know, we are coming off the win over LSU, which was a hard-fought game. I kind of think we needed that game just to show we can win close games down the stretch. It shows what we're made of. It shows that we're capable of winning close games and that we can come together when we need to. We played great defense in the final closing minutes of the second half and we played great in overtime. They hit big shots, we hit big shots, but we came up with defensive plays to put us in a position to win.
Julius' rebound to end the game was great. It was really exciting to see the whole team come together like that. We were so hyped for him that we all just ran the court and just jumped on him. I know you all saw what happened already, but Andrew and Aaron led the charge. Dakari and I were jumping up and down on the court until we saw what was going on and then we just sprinted towards them and jumped on them too. The picture of the celebration was hanging up in the practice gym when we got to practice today so that was pretty cool to see.
As much as we needed to win a close game, I think we needed the boost of a celebration like that more than anything because everybody needs that one moment in the season where you come together. I'm glad we got to show the fans and everybody to see how much of a family we are and how much we care about each other.
It gets old hearing how we are a bunch of individuals and not a team because, personally, we think we're a great team. We think we're coming together and playing well. We think we're really close as brothers because we hang out all the time. We're just always hanging with each other in the lodge, in practice, walking to class with each other, seeing movies together, playing pool, playing video games, anything. We're just always with each other.
For me, this season's been a lot different just because of where we are a team right now. I can remember feeling like every game was the last game of the season for us at this point last year. We haven't been in that situation so far - which is nice - but sooner or later we're going to have to start playing like that because once you get into the tournament time every game's one and done. You're going to have to play your hardest each and every game, but I feel like this season's prepared us for that. I feel like we're ready to take on the challenge. I feel like we're just trying to better ourselves and just trying to reach our peak.
Individually, I just feel way more comfortable than I did a year ago. I feel like the game is coming to me easier because I'm making better plays and better decisions out there. I just feel like I'm a better all-around player. I feel like I'm more comfortable because I'm getting in the gym more and I'm in better shape. I feel like all those factors have helped me a lot.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't excited for the NCAA Tournament since we missed out on it last year. For me and Willie, this will be our first experience so we'll be just like all of our freshmen. I remember watching it when I was in school when I was a kid and dreaming about playing in it. It's funny, in school, the teachers, instead of teaching, they would put March Madness on the TV so it was kind of like March was the easy month. That won't be the case this time around.
I'm also looking forward to the SEC Tournament just because of what happened last year and because it will prepare us for the NCAA Tournament. That could be a great learning experience for the tournament style of play.
It's going to be tough trying to balance our postseason with all the schoolwork I've got. School has been a lot harder this semester now that I'm actually into my major now, which deals with accounting, business and marketing. I've always been good with numbers - they just come natural to me - but the classes are pretty hard. They're challenging, but I'll be alright.
I don't get to play as many video games as some of the other guys because of my class load, but when I do play, I'm not the worst. I just don't play it a lot to know all the controls and all the glitches and stuff in the game like some of the other guys do like Dom. He's probably the best and would win if we had a team tournament. Me and Archie used to play all the time but Archie would cheat because Archie would always choose Kobe and Kobe would go for like 80.
As you all probably know, I've got a twin sister that goes to school here too. She's been really supportive throughout the whole season. We see each other all the time. I'll go eat lunch with her a lot at the student center and go to her house and play cards. We do all type of things. We're just really close. She likes to give me advice about what I'm doing on the court sometimes but it's cool because she knows what she's talking about. She actually played in high school so she's no dummy when it comes to basketball. She's always motivating me in a positive way so it's always helpful.
Coming down the stretch, I like how we play a couple of teams that have beaten us because we feel like we owe them a game. We're not out for revenge or anything like that, but at the same we want to even out the series, so that kind of gives us a little more motivation, a little more fire in our belly to just going for those games and to just come out strong.
Alright, BBN, I'm about to head to the cold tub. I'll see y'all later.
UK used Kyle Barrett's first-career home run, a 3-for-4 day from Austin Cousino and seven young arms to get a win in its home opener against Wright State, 7-1. Highlights and postgame interviews below.
Head coach Gary Henderson
Center fielder Austin Cousino
Right fielder Kyle Barrett
- Kentucky continued its season-long, seven-game road swing with a three-game sweep at the Old Dominion Tournament in Norfolk, Va., getting a historic output from junior preseason All-America two-way standout A.J. Reed. UK posted a 16-2 win over St. Joseph's on Friday, a comeback 7-5 win at ODU on Saturday and a 13-0 win over St. John's on Sunday to conclude the weekend.
- Reed belted five home runs and had 11 RBI on the weekend, becoming the first player in school history with five homers in a three-game span. He hit two homers in an inning on Friday - while also working seven, one-run innings on the mound for the win - becoming the first UK player since Jason Kipnis in 2007 to hit two homers in an inning. Reed then gave UK the lead with a two-out, two-RBI single in the third inning at ODU Saturday, before later tying the game in the seventh inning with a solo homer and then pelting a double off the wall in the ninth inning. Sunday, Reed had his second two-homer game of the weekend with a pair of solo jacks in a win over St. John's.
- Kentucky (5-2) - ranked No. 25 by Perfect Game and No. 30 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers last week, will return to action with its home opener on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET vs. Wright State at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
- Kentucky captured wins over Ole Miss and LSU for a 2-0 week. Kentucky's win over Ole Miss on Tuesday gave the program its 58th 20-win season. John Calipari has now also coached 20 consecutive 20-win teams during his tenure as a collegiate head coach. That's the longest active streak in the country of any head coach and is the second most in the history of college basketball. Only Dean Smith with 27 20-win seasons ranks higher than Calipari.
- The Wildcats were led by Julius Randle who averaged 16.5 points and 14.0 rebounds per game in the two victories. Randle first notched a 25 point, 13-rebound game in a win over Ole Miss. He scored six of UK's final 11 points to help preserve the win while going 13-of-14 at the charity stripe in the game. The 13 made free throws is the most in a single game by any UK player in the Calipari era. Randle then followed that performance with late game heroics by sinking a put-back with 3.9 seconds remaining in overtime to lift UK past LSU at home. Randle had eight points and a game-high 15 rebounds in the win.
- Aaron Harrison had 21 points for the Wildcats, and James Young tallied 20. Freshman Andrew Harrison hit two free throws late in regulation to force overtime.
- Kentucky went 1-1 on the week vs. the SEC's top two teams, falling to No. 4/6 South Carolina at home, 81-58 and defeating No. 16/13 Texas A& M on the road, 83-74.
- Against the Gamecocks, freshman Makayla Epps had a breakout game as she netted a team- and career-high 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in just 17 minutes of action.
- UK bounced back with a hard-fought win on Sunday vs. Texas A&M, its second straight in College Station, Texas. The win gave UK its school-record fifth consecutive 20-win season. Four Wildcats scored in double digits, led by junior point guard Jennifer O'Neill's 17 points off the bench.
- Freshman Linnae Harper was just two shy of her career high with 16 points, while Epps posted her second straight double-digit game with 11 points, all of which came from the free-throw line. Senior forward DeNesha Stallworth recorded her fifth double-double of the season with 11 points and 12 rebounds and senior forward Samarie Walker led all rebounders with a season-high tying 14 caroms.
- In the win, UK outrebounded the Aggies 47-32 and outscored A&M in bench points, 53-10.
- The UK men's golf team wrapped up its first tournament of the spring season Tuesday with a second place finish at the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate. As a team, UK finished even par, 864. The Wildcats have placed in the top five in all five tournaments this season.
- Senior Stephen Powers led the way with his season-best 54-hole score of three-under par, 213, to finish tied for third. He recorded back-to-back rounds of 69 to finish the tournament.
- Junior David Snyder tied for 14th with a two-over par, 218.
- In a rare two-meet weekend, the No. 24 Kentucky gymnastics team posted a season-best 195.975 score Friday at No. 13 Arkansas and a 195.200 Sunday at No. 8 Nebraska. UK placed second among four teams at Nebraska after a loss to Arkansas, the first time the Wildcats competed twice in one weekend since 2011.
- Friday at Arkansas, UK notched a season-best 49.150 on vault and a 48.900 on beam, while junior Shannon Mitchell led the Wildcats with a career-high 9.900 on both vault and beam, both team highs. Sophomore Amy Roemmele led UK on bars with a 9.825, while senior Audrey Harrison and redshirt junior Kayla Hartley each tallied a 9.850 on floor to lead the squad.
- Two days later in Lincoln, Neb., UK's 195.200 was its third-highest score of the season in a loss to Nebraska and a win over Bridgeport and Wisconsin-Stout. Senior Holly Cunningham recorded a team-best and career-high-tying 9.900 on vault, while sophomore Amy Roemmele led the way on bars with a career-best 9.900 on bars. Mitchell's 9.850 on beam was a team high, while Hartley paced the way with a 9.850 on floor.
- The Kentucky rifle team shot a 4680 over the weekend at the NCAA Qualifiers. Sophomore Connor Davis led the Wildcats in smallbore at the Qualifiers, shooting a 585.
- Senior Emily Holsopple's 592 in air rifle marked a team best for the Wildcats, while Connor Davis followed with a 591 and senior Aaron Holsopple shot a 591.
- The Wildcats will find out their postseason fate Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET during the selection show on NCAA.com.
- The Kentucky softball team's undefeated stretch to start the season came to a close over the weekend in the FAU Invitational with the squad going 3-2 in the tournament with wins over Penn State (twice) and FAU. UK's losses came to 2013 MAC East Champion Kent State and No. 5/7 Michigan, who made it to the 2013 Women's College World Series.
- Senior Lauren Cumbess paced Kentucky in the circle and offensively during the event, going 2-0 in the circle with a 0.64 ERA, striking out 14 in 14 innings pitched. The native of Normal, Ill., also found her rhythm at the plate, hitting. 462 (6-for-13) on the weekend with three doubles and five RBI. Senior outfielder Emily Gaines went 3-for-6 over the weekend with an RBI, while sophomore Sylver Samuel, Nikki Sagermann and Christian Stokes all hit .400 with Sagermann hitting her first homer of the season with 5 RBI.
- Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley went 1-1 in the circle at the event with a 2.00 ERA. Nunley threw 18 innings for Kentucky, striking out 13 and allowing four runs in three games pitched. Freshman Shannon Smith threw two innings in UK's game vs. Kent State with three hits allowed and one earned run scored.
Swimming and diving
- The UK swimming and diving team won two medals and broke nine school records last week at the SEC Championships in Athens, Ga., Feb. 18-22. The UK men finished eighth with 522 points overall, while the women placed 10th with 426 points.
- Junior Christina Bechtel claimed UK's first swimming medal since 2012 with a runner-up finish in the women's 100 yard butterfly Thursday. The first SEC medal of her career, Bechtel finished in 51.69 for UK's first runner-up finish at the SEC Championships since 2010.
- Senior Greg Ferrucci went out with a bang in his final SEC Championship appearance with a bronze medal-winning performance on platform Friday. It marked the sixth SEC medal of his career after he scored a 409.90 in an exciting, tightly-contested platform final.
- In total, nine school record times were broken by UK, five individual records and four relay records. Junior George Greenhalgh broke the record in the 100 and 200 breaststroke along with helping to break the 200 and 400 medley relay records. Freshman Danielle Galyer helped topple three school marks, the 200 backstroke individually and as part of the 800 freestyle relay and the 400 medley relay. Freshman Kendal Casey also broke an individual school record in the 200 freestyle.
- The No. 17 University of Kentucky men's tennis team wrapped up the non-conference season with a 7-4 record overall after a 5-2 loss to No. 5 Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., on Friday afternoon, completing the single-match week for the Wildcats.
- Senior Tom Jomby recorded the biggest win of his career on Friday night, knocking off No. 2 Guillermo Alcorta of Oklahoma, 6-3, 4-6, 1-0 on court one. The win for Jomby marked the highest-ranked opponent that he has defeated in his career. Jomby's three-set win also captured the Nantes, France, native's second-career win over a top-five ranked player in his time in Lexington.
- The No. 39 University of Kentucky women's tennis team (10-2) finished non-conference play with a 4-0 win over Kansas.
- Kentucky and Kansas each took a match in doubles play, so the point came down to a tiebreak at the No. 2 position. Junior Kelsey Dieters and freshman Aldila Sutjiadi clinched the point for Kentucky with a 8-7(4) win over Kansas' Maria Jose Cardona and Maria Belen Luduena.
- Kentucky swept the singles competition with wins from sophomore Nadia Ravita, Sutjiadi and Dieters. Ravita was the first Wildcat to win her singles match at the No. 1 position. She defeated Cardona, 6-2, 6-1. Sutjiadi followed with a 6-2, 6-1 win against Dylan Windom at No. 2 singles and Dieters claimed the match behind her 6-2, 6-1 win at the No. 3 slot.
Track and field
- The UK track and field teams will head to the SEC Championships at Texas A&M this weekend. The Wildcats enter the championships with multiple SEC-leaders in their respective events.
- Dezerea Bryant leads the conference and nation in the 60m (7.16), while Kendra Harrison is the SEC and NCAA-leader in the 60m hurdles (7.96). Both are the school record holders in their signature event. Allison Peare ranks second in the SEC in the mile, and fourth at 800m.
- On the men's side, Matt Hillenbrand's school-record mile time of 3:57.0 leads the nation, and he is the defending SEC Champion in the event. Brad Szypka also has the top shot put mark in the conference.
Tuesday, Feb. 25
Baseball vs. Wright State - 4 p.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 26
Baseball vs. Dayton - 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 27
Men's Basketball vs. Arkansas - 7 p.m.
Women's Basketball at Mississippi State - 8 p.m.
Track & Field at SEC Indoor Championships - 2 p.m. (College Station, Texas)
Friday, Feb. 28
Women's Tennis vs. LSU - 11 a.m.
Track & Field at SEC Indoor Championships - 2 p.m. (College Station, Texas)
Softball vs. Eastern Kentucky - 3 p.m.
Men's Tennis at LSU - 4 p.m.
Baseball vs. Eastern Michigan - 4 p.m.
Softball vs. Butler - 5 p.m.
Gymnastics vs. Auburn - 7 p.m.
Saturday, March 1
Softball vs. Pittsburgh - 1 p.m.
Baseball vs. Eastern Michigan - 2 p.m.
Track & Field at SEC Indoor Championships - 2 p.m. (College Station, Texas)
Softball vs. TBA - 3 p.m./5 p.m.
Men's Basketball at South Carolina - 6 p.m.
Swimming and Diving at Last Chance Qualifier - All Day (Athens, Ga.)
Rifle at GARC Championships - All Day (Oxford, Miss.)
Sunday, March 2
Women's Tennis vs. Arkansas - 11 a.m.
Softball vs. TBA - 11 a.m./1 p.m.
Baseball vs. Eastern Michigan - 1 p.m.
Men's Tennis at Arkansas - 2 p.m.
Women's Basketball vs. Vanderbilt - 4 p.m.
Women's Tennis vs. Northern Kentucky - 5 p.m.
Men's Golf at Querencia Cabo Collegiate - All Day (San Jose del Cabo, Mexico)
Rifle at GARC Championships - All Day (Oxford, Miss.)
A.J. Reed had five home runs and 11 RBI in three UK wins over the weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed has apparently mastered the art of the understatement.
On the heels of three games that made him the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week and one of four Louisville Slugger National Players of the Week, the junior first baseman/pitcher offered the following self-assessment.
"All I'm trying to do is just go up there and put a good swing on a strike," Reed said. "Luckily for us and for myself, I did that a couple times."
Unless he was talking about the fifth inning on Friday alone, Reed was selling himself a bit short.
In wins over St. Joseph's, Old Dominion and St. John's, Reed became the first player in the modern history of UK baseball to club five home runs in a three-game span. He added two more hits in his 13 at-bats -- including a double -- and posted 11 runs batted in and a staggering slugging percentage of 1.769.
"It's a lot of fun," Reed said. "This past weekend was a lot of fun and it's good to get some wins."
Reed got his weekend rolling on Friday. Five innings into a seven-inning, one-run pitching effort, he stepped to the plate after Max Kuhn worked a walk and promptly delivered a two-run homer. Reed the returned to the dugout, expecting to head back to the mound in relatively short order.
Instead, six of the next eight Wildcats reached base to load the bases for Reed. Naturally, the thought of doing something he can't ever remember doing came up.
"I was trying to not to think about (hitting a home run) again, but obviously that thought comes to mind," Reed said. "Just trying to hit a ball hard and put a good swing on it."
He succeeded on both counts and a grand slam was the result. Two home runs and six RBI would have been a decent total for UK's cleanup hitter through the Wildcats 5-2 start, but it's merely Reed's best inning among two weekends full of them.
Reed is batting .433 with six home runs and 17 RBI on the season -- not to mention his 2-0 record and 1.50 earned-run average on the mound. The Terre Haute, Ind., native was good a season ago, but is at another level so far in 2014.
"I think most of the time when you find guys that are really seeing it well, it's usually a little bit later in the year," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Typically not something you see the first three, four weekends. But he had a really good weekend, saw it well, a lot of good swings and not just on the home runs."
Some of that has to do with being in the middle of a balanced lineup.
"Last year my approach was a lot of pull, just trying to hit home runs to score," Reed said. "This year we have a lot different team. Guys are going to get on base and we got a lot of guys who can drive the ball in the gaps and hit doubles."
With Reed leading the way both statistically and in terms of taking a simple approach, UK is hitting .312 as a team and averaging 9.9 runs per game. The Cats have been even better with two outs, hitting .366 and tallying 32 of their 59 RBI.
"The thing you think about the most is the commitment the kids have to the process and the approach," Henderson said. "The right approach at the plate, staying with the one pitch at a time, that kind of a mantra to really stay with it when it's going well, when it's not going well, to stick with a plan. If they do that over time, they're going to be successful."
For Reed, that commitment began in mid-September.
After recovering from minor offseason surgery, the big lefthander went to work to become a little smaller. Recognizing the need to improve his conditioning and physique to best cope with a demanding dual role, Reed dropped 20 pounds and is now in the best shape of his life.
"I just have a lot more energy and I'm keeping that energy throughout the game and I'm not wearing down or anything," Reed said. "So it's good to be able to stay up. And obviously I'm a little quicker too so that helps out."
Physically speaking, Reed's slimmer, more athletic frame is paying dividends. The difference might be just as important psychologically.
"The bat speed's better," Henderson said. "The foot speed's quicker, faster. All that's good, and then the satisfaction of knowing that you've worked really hard to get to a certain spot where you're going to perform at a higher level. You're happy with yourself, you're more confident."
Confidence is a word that came up often when talking to the Cats in the preseason. With the way they have hit the ball through two weekends, that confidence has only grown.
"It's good to see early on that we're hitting the ball well," Reed said. "We've got a lot of confidence going and we're just going to hopefully continue to do it. We know once conference starts it's going to be a little tougher, but we just gotta stick to our approach: see the ball deep and let it travel and I think we'll be just fine."
The Cats will look to sustain that approach as they begin their home schedule with a Tuesday matchup with Wright State at 4 p.m. ET. UK plays nine of its next 10 games at Cliff Hagan Stadium, offering a chance to build the kind of momentum that sparked a record-setting 2012 campaign.
"You'd really like to get it started," Henderson said. "We won't get to that same spot that we did a couple years ago (starting the season 22-0) because we've stubbed our toe a couple times, but to be able to get home and play several games over a course of two-and-a-half weeks at your own place is something that we're looking forward to and hopefully we'll get on a good run."
With two weeks left in the regular season, there was plenty of ground to cover on Monday's Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference. John Calipari joined and spent time talking about UK's matchups with Arkansas and South Carolina this week, his team's progress and Alex Poythess's work to break out of a recent slump.
Here's a complete transcript, as well as relevant quotes from two other SEC coaches.
On UK's upcoming matchups this week ...
"I hope we're not playing Georgia. They're playing so well right now. I know we're playing Arkansas. For some reason I don't think it's Georgia, but it may be. (Moderator who said Georgia earlier: "It's at South Carolina, sorry.") "OK. Are we hosting them or are we on the road?" (Moderator: "On the road.") "Let's see if we can flip that around and host them. I will tell you that Arkansas is one of those teams, they beat us already. They play extremely hard, got good players, they shoot the ball. And Arkansas, Frank and I have talked, he's getting those guys to compete and do things that is beyond the group, which is what coaching is about. So two hard games for us."
On how he would compare Arkansas and his team from the last time they played ...
"I would guess that both teams have gotten better. I've watched a couple tapes of them. A lot of the scrambling and stuff they're doing, they're even taking it to another level. I think they've got their breakdown guys, really have the ability to get to the basket. In our case, I hope we're better. I think we're better. Our numbers--today was funny, BPI has us four and said we're the fourth No. 1 seed. Now I'm not sure we're quite there but you've got other teams that have the same record as us in other places being that high, so I'm not sure we're to that point, but we are getting better."
On what he thought of Michael Qualls' game-winning play in the first meeting and if they will be more aware of him now ...
"What he does athletically is he can stand out, he can do things, and make plays that are broken down and he still goes in and makes a play. The rebound he got was off a missed shot and he just attacked the basket and won the game. We obviously know how good he is, but knowing how good he is and trying to slow a guy down are two different things."
On Qualls expanding his game ...
"Yeah, and again, let's hope he goes back to 2 for 20 (from 3) in our game, but he has the confidence to be able do that. Really tells a lot about the young man."
On how Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are playing ...
"Well, (Poythress) hasn't played as well he has been playing. We, again, you'd like to say it about Willie and I'd say it about Alex: If we're going to be that special team -- I mean, I think the RPI has us top 10, the BPI has us fourth -- if we're going to be that kind of team -- strength of schedule is fourth -- if we're going to be that kind of team, he's (Poythress) gotta perform. He's gotta give us double-digit scoring and at least six, seven rebounds. But he's capable of doing that. He is--last couple games, he's been in a little bit of a funk but it happens. These kids aren't machines. Willie went through it. Andrew (Harrison) went through it. Aaron (Harrison) went through it. James (Young) went through it. They all go through it. They're not machines. They're not computers. This isn't a computer game. So hopefully he cracks out of it. He was in the gym last night on an off day. Today is a lift and a film day with some individuals and he'll be in there again on his own with the coaches. But yesterday, like I said, he came in the gym on his own and said, 'Let's get some work.' "
On how encouraging it is that Poythress did that for him ...
"Did what for me? (Came in and got some work on his own.) Well, he didn't do it for me; he's doing it for himself. It's good when I walk in my office on a Sunday and I'm driving to the office and lights are on in the building and I look out my window and he's out there in a full-blown sweat. Dominique (Hawkins), I was there earlier in the day after church I came in and Dominique was in. I came back later and Alex was in there. It's great to see, and they're in there by themselves. This cannot be coach-driven, if we're going to be special. It cannot be. It's gotta be player-driven. And it means you gotta be responsible for you gotta be into your team and add energy, add to your team, add to your teammates. I like what Andrew did last game. Couldn't make a shot. Could not make a shot. Made two big free throws, made a driving layup, but he got six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. What do you do when you can't make a shot? That's when you start talking about team play. That's when you start talking about player-driven. But we're still not quite there."
On the challenges of facing LSU ...
"Well, you, first of all, have a very, very talented team. And as a coach, you gotta make a choice: What are we going to do with Johnny O'Bryant? Well, we decided down there, 'Let's see how he is one on one,' and he showed us. He got like 40 (points) and 20 (rebounds) and fade-away jumpers, step-backs, dunks. It was a really great coaching move and decision. Here, we said, 'I don't care who's near him. Run at him and trap him. Make him pass.' The problem is, you got (Anthony) Hickey who got 30 and you (Andre) Stringer who can get 30, you got (Jarell) Martin who can get 30 and their leading scorer was Jordan Mickey for the last five games. So you're talking about a team that can beat you in different ways and you gotta make a choice on O'Bryant first. What are you going to do? You know, they're a team that made 3s against us and that's why we were--we were 1 for 9 from the 3. We were lucky to get out alive."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On his observations about Kentucky ...
"I think they're real good, and I don't think Cal gets the credit he deserves for the job he does. To rely on so many freshmen, to not have those foundation guys--I guess (Alex) Poythress and I can't remember the young man's name, (Jarrod) Polson, that they've been with them for at least a year, they provide that consistency that he's looking for. But every year, I don't care if Cal is coaching seniors or freshmen, you don't want to play them at the end of the year because his teams play their best basketball at the end of the year, and that's obvious with this team that that's happening."
LSU head coach Johnny Jones
On what has impressed him about Julius Randle ...
"Well, the thing that impressed me the most is he really doesn't force anything. We've tried to make sure that we've tried to defend him the right way and he's one of those guys that don't mind passing. He's a very unselfish basketball player and even with that he doesn't get frustrated as a freshman. He continues to play, as much to being able to make that last play in the game on Saturday. That's what impresses me the most with him because of his size and strength and awareness out there on the floor. Just a very heady basketball player."
Overall Record: 5-2
Record Last Week: 3-0
Friday, Feb. 21 - won vs. St. Joseph's, 16-2 (Norfolk, Va.)
Saturday, Feb. 22 - won at Old Dominion, 7-5
Sunday, Feb. 23 - won vs. St. John's, 13-0 (Norfolk, Va.)
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern)
Tuesday, Feb. 25 - vs. Wright State - 4 p.m. (HOME OPENER)
Wednesday, Feb. 26 - vs. Dayton - 6:30 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 28 - vs. Eastern Michigan - 4 p.m.
Saturday, March 1 - vs. Eastern Michigan - 2 p.m.
Sunday, March 2 - vs. Eastern Michigan - 1 p.m.
Player/Pitcher of the Week nominee
6-4 - Jr. - LHP/1B - Terre Haute, Ind. (Terre Haute South)
Week Stats: .538 (7-for-13), 6 R, 2B, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 1.769 SLG%, .600 OB%; 1-0, 1.29 ERA, 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 4 SO
Notes: Junior A.J. Reed has a historic three-game weekend at the Old Dominion Tournament, belting five home runs and driving in 11 RBI ... Reed - who also won Friday's game on the mound with seven, one-run innings - became the first player in UK history to hit five home runs in a three-game span ... A native of Terre Haute, Ind., Reed hit two homers - including a grand slam - on Friday, becoming the first player to hit two homers in a single inning since Jason Kipnis in 2007 ... Reed finished Friday with a career-high six RBI, while working seven innings on the bump, allowing six hits and no walks, striking out four ... In a Saturday comeback win at Old Dominion, Reed erased a one-run deficit with a full-count, two-run, two-out single in the third inning, before belting a game-tying home run in the seventh inning, later smacking a double off the wall in the ninth ... Sunday in a win vs. St. John's, Reed hit a pair of solo homers to make UK history, becoming the first player with five homers in a three-game stretch ... In seven games to open 2014, Reed has hit .433 (13-for-30) with 10 runs, three doubles, six homers and 17 RBI ... On the mound, Reed has a win over No. 1 Virginia in a 2-0 record, with a 1.50 ERA and a .205 opponent average in 12 innings ... A first-team preseason All-America selection by Baseball America, Reed has hit .300 (133-for-444) in his three-year career, with 20 doubles, two triples, 23 homers and 112 RBI, while owning a 9-11 record with a 3.28 ERA on the mound in 148 innings in his career.
Kentucky continued its season-long, seven-game road swing with a three-game sweep at the Old Dominion Tournament in Norfolk, Va., getting a historic output from junior preseason All-America two-way standout A.J. Reed. UK posted a 16-2 win over St. Joseph's on Friday, a comeback 7-5 win at ODU on Saturday and a 13-0 win over St. John's on Sunday to conclude the weekend.
Kentucky (5-2) - ranked No. 25 by Perfect Game and No. 30 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers last week, will return to action with its home opener on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET vs. Wright State at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then host Dayton at 6:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, before welcoming Eastern Michigan for UK's first home weekend series.
Reed belted five home runs and has 11 RBI on the weekend, becoming the first player in school history with five homers in a three-game span. He hit two homers in an inning on Friday - while also working seven, one-run innings on the mound for the win - becoming the first UK player since Jason Kipnis in 2007 to hit two homers in an inning. Reed then gave UK the lead with a two-out, two-RBI single in the third inning at ODU Saturday, before later tying the game in the seventh inning with a solo homer and then pelting a double off the wall in the ninth inning. Sunday, Reed had his second two-homer game of the weekend with a pair of solo jacks in a win over St. John's.
A member of the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Watch List, Reed has hit .433 (13-for-30) in seven 2014 games, with 10 runs, three doubles, six homers and 17 RBI, also owning a 2-0 record and a 1.50 ERA on the mound as UK's Friday starter for the second consecutive season.
Fellow preseason All-American Austin Cousino has hit .400 (12-for-30) with three doubles, one homer, four RBI and three steals to open the year. Outfielder Ka'ai Tom has batted .389 (7-for-18), catcher Micheal Thomas has hit .350 (7-for-20), with a .500 on-base percentage, with outfielder Kyle Barrett sporting a .323 (10-for-31) average. Senior shortstop Matt Reida - who hit .600 over the weekend - has hit .296 (8-for-27) with seven RBI.
On the mound, junior Chandler Shepherd (1-0, 5.73 ERA) and sophomore Kyle Cody (1-0, 1.93 ERA) have joined Reed in the rotation. Sophomore southpaw Ryne Combs (1-0, 2.45 ERA) has worked in two games and 7.1 innings in relief, allowing just a pair of singles. Junior Spencer Jack has appeared in a team-high three games, working five shutout innings, scattering three singles and striking out five.
UK and LSU split two hard-fought meetings this season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Having played LSU twice in the last month, John Calipari doesn't have any doubt about what kind of team the Tigers are.
He sees the athleticism. He sees the NBA-level talent. He knows about the Tigers' overall record, but the eye test tells him something different.
The same goes for much of the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
"LSU is a really good team," Calipari said after UK's last-second win over the Tigers on Saturday. "It's like I've said about Tennessee and LSU and other teams in our league -- Missouri: It amazes me when people beat each other in other leagues it shows how strong their league is. When we beat each other in our league, then the league is not very good. What?"
With two weeks left in the regular season, only Florida and Kentucky are solidly on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble among SEC schools according to most experts, only fueling the national perception that the league is a notch below its power conference brethren.
According to both the RPI and kenpom.com, the SEC is sixth among the seven so-called power conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big East, ACC and American Athletic Conference), leading only the American. There's no clouding those facts, but a deeper look at the numbers shows there may be merit to Calipari's words.
SEC in the top 100
Let's start with a look at the RPI, where nine of the SEC's 14 teams are ranked in the top 100 -- led by No. 3 Florida and No. 10 UK. Only one conference has more:
1. Pac 12 - 10
2. SEC - 9
2. ACC - 9
2. Big Ten - 9
5. Big 12 - 8
6. Big East - 7
7. American - 5
The numbers are similar in kenpom.com's top 100
1. ACC - 11
2. Big Ten - 10
3. SEC - 9
3. Big 12 - 9
3. Pac 12 - 9
6. Big East - 8
7. American - 5
The same goes for ESPN's Basketball Power Index
1. ACC - 11Conference vs. conference
1. Big Ten - 11
3. SEC - 10
4. Pac 12 - 9
4. Big 12 - 9
6. Big East - 8
7. American - 5
In nonconference play, SEC schools took down a total of six ranked opponents, including Kentucky's win over rival Louisville. What that total doesn't include is perhaps the SEC's most impressive win. On Dec. 30, Tennessee dominated Virginia, 87-52. Since then, the Cavaliers have lost just once in 15 games en route to a No. 13 ranking in the Coaches Poll and first place in the ACC.
On the strength of that victory, the SEC sports a 9-5 record against ACC teams. Here's how the league has fared against every power conference.
Big East: 3-4
Big 12: 4-9
Pac 12: 1-4
A total record of 25-32 (.439 winning percentage) isn't exactly what SEC teams would hope for, but it also doesn't reveal a league completely outclassed by its competitors.Tough road, close games
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a hundred times: UK always gets its opponents best shot when the Wildcats hit the road in SEC play. Even though other league schools might not have to cope with white outs and t-shirt nights as often as UK does, away games in the SEC are never easy.
The records prove it.
In conference play alone, home teams have a record of 69-29 (.704 winning percentage), best of any league in Division I. Including nonconference games, SEC home teams boast a winning percentage of .797, which trails only the Pac 12 (.814) among power conferences.
Offering further proof of the competitiveness of the SEC, 23.5 percent of conference games have been decided by three points or less or in overtime, according to kenpom.com. That also leads all power conferences.
Could the SEC be having a better season? Yes.
Have some teams underachieved? Probably.
Should the SEC be dismissed as a mere also ran? Definitely not.
After all, there's a reason SEC teams have won six of the last 20 national championships and three of the last eight.National championships since 1994 (based on current conference alignment)
1. SEC - 6
1. ACC - 6
3. American - 4
4. Pac 12 - 2
5. B1G - 1
6. Big 12 - 1
7. Big East - 0
Each year, UK students are given the opportunity to work closely with ESPN during an actual broadcast to expose them to the industry. Here's a recap of this year's ESPNU Campus Connection Broadcast.
Julius Randle's game winner in the final seconds gave UK a 77-76 win over LSU on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The script seemed perfectly written for LSU.
Riding a point guard making a return to his home state and a roster laden with NBA talent, the Tigers seemed poised to pull the upset in Rupp Arena.
But even though Anthony Hickey just kept hitting big shots and the Tigers couldn't miss in overtime -- shooting 5 of 6 from the field -- Kentucky found a way.
"We lost an overtime game before (at Arkansas)," Andrew Harrison said. "We all told each other during overtime, 'We're not losing this one.' So we just kept coming. They hit some big shots in overtime. Big shots. We just kept coming and kept fighting and kept swinging."
After Hickey hit a 3-pointer with 1:53 left in regulation, UK trailed for most of the next 6:50 and led for just 11 seconds after James Young drilled a pair of clutch free throws late it overtime. At various points, the situation seemed dire, especially when the Wildcats lost Hickey (20 points, eight assists and five rebounds) on an in-bounds play to fall behind 74-71 with less than two minutes on the clock.
Asked postgame whether he was concerned in that moment, Harrison didn't play it cool.
"Worried?" Harrison said. "Yeah, definitely. But Coach was saying, 'We're not losing.' Somebody says something like that, (you) have to believe it."
Harrison didn't play it cool when the buzzer sounded on a heart-stopping 77-76 Kentucky victory either.
After Andre Stringer hit a jumper to put LSU up one with 12 seconds left, UK countered quickly. Even though John Calipari had timeouts in his pocket, he let the young Cats play on.
"I wasn't going to stop that clock and give them a chance to interject coaches," Calipari said. "I just said, 'Let us play. Our kids are ready for this.' "
He was right.
James Young -- who scored six of his 20 points in overtime - drove, as he and Aaron Harrison (21 points) had done nonstop down the stretch. On the way up and facing contact, Young lost the ball. In the right place at the right time, Julius Randle grabbed the ball.
"That's the basketball gods," Randle said. "I mean, James was being aggressive like he was the whole game. He did a great job of getting into the paint, and if he put in on the rim or just put it up I was going to get it. They've been trying to box me out the whole game, killing me, but luckily that one just fell right into my hands."
Randle had 15 rebounds when the loose ball came to him, but his coach believed he should have had more. With that in mind, Coach Cal gave a directive to his star freshman in the closing minutes.
"Just get an offensive rebound to win the game," Calipari said. "Quit getting blocked out, quit getting in a mud wrestling match with somebody."
Calipari's words proved prophetic, though Randle wasn't officially credited with an offensive rebound on the game-winning play.
He gathered himself in the paint, rose through traffic and put the ball in his with his left hand. Randle had made just two baskets at that point, but his seventh and eighth points gave UK (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) a payback win over LSU (16-10, 7-7 SEC).
"I don't know what happened," Randle said. "The basketball gods, that's all I can say. James was being aggressive. I don't know if he missed it or he got blocked or whatever, but it fell into my hands."
It was a blur for Randle after the shot too.
With Hickey on the bench with five fouls, UK retreated on defense and Young came up with a game-clinching steal. As soon as the clock hit zero, Andrew Harrison did his best imitation of a defensive end pursuing a quarterback and tackled a jubilant Randle.
"It was pretty tough, but I took him down," said Andrew Harrison.
Andrew Harrison had to go above the shoulders to do it, which likely would have drawn a personal foul on the football field, but it was all in good fun.
"He apologized for it afterwards," Randle said. "But what can I say? I have great teammates."
Building that kind of camaraderie has been a theme all season, but especially over the last week.
"When we lost to Florida, we knew we could have won and made some mistakes at the end. So we started talking about thinking differently and having more confidence in us and chemistry," Andrew Harrison said.
UK's point guard called on that confidence in a crucial moment at the end of regulation. Andrew Harrison scored just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting, but stepped to the line with 10 seconds to go and his team down two points.
"I think (making) free throws is about confidence," Andrew Harrison said. "Knowing that you're going to make it is really the biggest thing."
He delivered and UK would go on to use Randle's heroics to win a game decided by five points or fewer for just the second time all season.
"We (are) still just going to keep working hard, just keep fighting, doing little things," Aaron Harrison said. "I think that's why we won. We scratched and clawed to get the win. So I think we're going to build off of this game and keep getting better."
Eyeing that improvement, Calipari knows what his team's next objective is. He confirmed UK is "getting closer" to where it needs to be, particularly with the way the Cats refused to wilt when they had every opportunity.
However, it took some prodding to get there.
Calipari recalled when UK had to foul at the end of regulation to extend the play. He noticed his players putting their heads down and had to encourage them. When the Cats do arrive, that won't be necessary.
"It proves we're still coach driven instead of player driven," Calipari said. "We've got to get to where I'm doing less and they're doing more."
Julius Randle and the Kentucky Wildcats will look to avenge a Jan. 28 loss at LSU on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In his first years as a head coach at UMass, John Calipari had a not-so-sophisticated approach to teaching zone.
His team needed to at least be able to show the defense in practice for the purposes of preparation, but Coach Cal never actually intended to use it in games. For that reason, zone installation was a quick process.
"I told them stand around and put your arms up," Calipari said, recalling his approach. "And if someone goes by you, kind of switch."
Two decades later, Calipari has softened a bit on his anti-zone stance.
Fielding the tallest team in the country, according to kenpom.com, Calipari has turned to a 2-3 zone in spots as a way to capitalize on his personnel.
"It's really good," James Young said. "It's active. We have our hands up. Coach tells us to communicate a lot so I think it's more effective than our man, really."
Calipari doesn't quite agree with that, but he does admit it has value as a change of pace. That's why he has committed himself to becoming a better teacher of zone, soliciting the help of Rob Murphy, whose Eastern Michigan team has visited Rupp Arena each of the last two seasons.
"Well, Rob at Eastern Michigan was the one who came in and really, you know, gave me the breakdowns and the drill work because you can't just do - you've got to break it down, you've got to do it, you've gotta give them an idea what they have to do and then I would call him," Calipari said.
Murphy was a longtime assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, the coach perhaps best known for zone. In fact, UK's zone has caught Boeheim's attention.
"Jim Boeheim and I talked and I said, 'You know I played your zone?' " Calipari said. "He said, 'I watch it.' He said, 'You should play more zone.' And he says, 'Every time your team gives up a 3, you go back man-to-man.' And he said, 'But if the other team makes three 3s in your man, you don't go zone.' "
Much of that can be chalked up to ribbing between two friendly coaches, but the zone has been effective in spurts since Calipari began going to it more frequently.
"In the beginning, it was kind of shaky, a little kind of gaps and stuff," Young said. "But as we practice it more, there's not as many gaps and we're communicating in it more."
The first game -- a win at Missouri -- in which No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) used zone extensively came immediately after a road loss to the Wildcats' next opponent, LSU (16-9, 7-6 SEC). UK was blistered for a season-high-tying 87 points in the Jan. 28 defeat.
"Just the intensity and the fight just wasn't there," Julius Randle said. "It was embarrassing, but that's why we get another chance to play."
The Cats trailed by double digits for most of that icy night in Baton Rouge, La., as Johnny O'Bryant posted 29 points and nine rebounds. UK rallied in the final minutes with a flurry of 3-pointers, but don't let the 87-82 final convince you LSU was anything other than dominant.
"Johnny O'Bryant was really good, but he wasn't the only guy that outplayed us," Calipari said. "They outrebounded us. They outcoached us. They outran us. They got is in transition defense. They got us every which way to lose."
Randle and Young both conceded they are thinking about payback ahead of Saturday's 4 p.m. ET tip in Rupp Arena, but neither was about to offer anything in the way of bulletin-board material.
"I don't like to do too much talking," said Randle, who was held to six points on 3-of-11 shooting in the first LSU matchup. "We'll see what happens once we get on the court."
There will be similar intrigue regarding how often Calipari turns to the zone, which has evolved beyond a standard 2-3 in the last week. UK most often deploys the zone out of dead balls and it begins with a sort of 1-1-3 look when opponents cross mid-court.
"It's more like a tandem, like one guy up top and a guy under him," Young said. "When they get it toward the corner or anything, then we go back to our normal 2-3 zone. It's just to throw the offense off."
Calipari debuted the tweaked zone in a loss to Florida last Saturday in which UK defended as well as it has all season for the first 29 minutes. The Cats used it again in a Tuesday win at Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 38.7-percent shooting.
Jarrod Polson drew praise from Calipari for his activity in the zone, but the real standout is Aaron Harrison.
"I'll tell you who is the best zone player I've seen is Aaron," Calipari said. "He's like; I'm calling him 'The Cat' now. The team is laughing their butt - I show them on the tape, man, he's like a cat."
Coach Cal fielded multiple questions about the zone on Friday at his regular pregame media availability, questions surely fueled in part by a rapidly growing group of zone advocates among the fan base. Calipari, however, doesn't want it to be forgotten the zone has been far from flawless.
"It's funny, people that want us to play zone it's kind of like coaching a kid and being positive 80 percent of the time and he only remembers that you get on him," Calipari said. "So the zone people out there see every stop and don't realize that Mississippi was getting back in the game because they made four straight baskets in a row (vs. the zone)."
It's in those moments that Calipari remembers why he's so staunchly relied on man-to-man defense throughout his career. Fittingly, it was a former player of his at UMass who reminded him of the same thing.
"(Auburn head coach) Tony Barbee said this to me: 'You're good in zone, Coach, but when you switch everything (in man-to-man), it's a one-on-one game. There is nothing else we can do,' " Calipari said. "When you play zone, you know they're always going to be able to get off a 3 at any point, now if they're making them, you lose."
That doesn't mean Calipari discounts the value of zone altogether. In fact, it's been a boost to a Kentucky team beginning to find its stride.
"But it's a good changeup," Calipari said, "it's a good defense for us, it's been good and we've worked on it every day which, you know, it's not something I've done in the past but we're working at it and trying to give these guys the best opportunity they can to win."
Makayla Epps had a career-high 16 points in UK's loss to South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
As South Carolina built a big lead, Makayla Epps allowed herself a peek when she checked in for the first time in the second half.
It wasn't pretty, but Epps could only think of one way to react.
"I looked up at the scoreboard once and I was like, 'We're down 20 and it can't get (any) worse so just go,' Epps said. " 'Fight to the finish.' "
When Epps came in with 15:09 left, UK trailed 53-32. Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina had been dominant, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a comfortable margin with a 15-4 run. With no reason for the self-doubt natural for a freshman, Epps threw caution to the win and went on the attack.
Within a minute, she hit a jumper. Later, she scored six straight points as UK showed signs of life and cut the South Carolina lead to 11 with 9:31 left. The Gamecocks, however, were too much on this night.
"We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's extremely talented, plays real hard," Matthew Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight."
Riding an astounding 44-19 rebounding edge, the No. 4/6 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) took down No. 15/15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC), 81-58. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds and South Carolina shot 52.6 percent for the game and 60 percent in the second half to erase any thoughts of a comeback.
Epps, however, wouldn't stop.
"Coach Mitchell, four minutes to go at the last media timeout, he was like, 'Just finish the game. Keep playing hard, keep playing hard,' " Epps said. "And that's what I was trying to do.' "
Epps finished with a career-high 16 points, 14 of which came after halftime. She played point guard for much of her 15 second-half minutes, coping more effectively with South Carolina's physical defense than any of her teammates.
On a night that saw UK's two-game win streak end and a bid at a second straight win over a top-10 team come up short, that was at least one reason to be encouraged.
"She was able to use her size and strength to make some plays in transition that were available to us and I thought played with some good tempo offensively," Mitchell said. "She's a talented player and she'll just keep getting better, but she had a really good night."
Now, Epps and the Wildcats go back to work.
"You have to let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that'll actually impact the game," Mitchell said. "So the score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in tomorrow down and defeated and discouraged."
Sunday's game won't be an easy one, as UK travels to Texas A&M to face the only team that's taken down South Carolina in SEC play. The good news is the Cats have some experience responding to losses.
"We've been here before," Epps said. "It's not like it's our first loss or (anything) like that. So we've been in this position before and we know what we're capable of. All the players, all the coaches, we know what we're capable of. So, like I said, we got Sunday to look forward to. We got Texas A&M and nobody says we can't go out there and beat them. So we're looking for a bounce back."
DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points in UK's 68-59 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 9. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Armed with the experience of facing South Carolina a little more than a month ago, Matthew Mitchell could alter his game plan to reverse a 68-59 result in Columbia, S.C.
Similarly, Dawn Staley could change the approach of her Gamecock team to catch Kentucky off guard in a rematch in Memorial Coliseum.
The two coaches could, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
"They won't see a whole lot different from us and I doubt we see a whole lot different from them," Mitchell said. "We just need to play better than we did over there."
If the last week is any indication, it seems reasonable to expect No. 15/15 UK (19-6, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) will do just that on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are fresh off their first 2-0 week in SEC play, a week that included an upset of Tennessee on Sunday. The win over the Lady Volunteers -- UK's first in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985 -- proved that Mitchell had good reason for keeping the faith that his team is capable of making noise the rest of the season.
He spent last week reminding the Cats of what they accomplished in starting nonconference play 11-0, showing tape of UK's memorable victories over top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. With another such win now in the much more recent past, that confidence Mitchell worked to build goes to another level.
"It's just like a boost," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We knew we could do it and we've shown people that we can do it and now we just gotta go out there and do it."
No. 4 South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) won't make that easy.
The Gamecocks have reeled off seven straight wins in SEC play behind a dominant defense that allows just 53.9 points per game. South Carolina's only loss in conference came on the road against top-25 Texas A&M by just two points, and in overtime to boot.
"We have great battles and they certainly have brought out the best in us over the years and I think it's developed into a good rivalry," Mitchell said.
UK and South Carolina have split their last six matchups with each one decided by single digits. That means Thursday will be a challenge, but one the Cats think they need.
"I think it's really good that we face somebody as good as South Carolina at a time like this to really see where we are," Goss said.
The first time around, UK wasn't ready to cope with South Carolina's physical defense for 40 minutes. In that game, the Cats charged out to an early lead before going ice cold from the field. They shot a then-season-low 31.5 percent, putting them in a 22-point hole that a late rally could not overcome.
"I think it was because of us, because of our shot selection," Goss said. "But we're a whole different team from when we played them a little (more) than a month ago, so I'm really excited."
With DeNesha Stallworth back at full strength, UK looks different from a personnel perspective though their approach remains the same. The loss at South Carolina was the senior forward's second game back following a knee injury that sidelined her for a month. With 11 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, she played well given the circumstances at South Carolina, but Stallworth is at another level now.
"She's a completely different player now, playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of toughness," Goss said.
Over her last three games, Stallworth is averaging 16.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Stallworth's emergence has corresponded with that of point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the reigning SEC Player of the Week. After the junior scored just 12 points in 32 combined minutes against Georgia and LSU, O'Neill has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive outings.
"It's real simple with Jennifer, we want her to attack off the ball screens and look to score there and we want her down and ready when she doesn't have the ball, prepared to shoot," Mitchell said.
O'Neill didn't hesitate to shoot the first time around against South Carolina, but the shots certainly didn't fall. She was just 1 for 13 on Jan. 9, scoring five points. With the way O'Neill has played of late, Goss isn't doesn't see a repeat performance coming.
"I'm not expecting 30 points, 40 points, but, you know, for her she's playing with a lot confidence and she has every right to," Goss said. "She should feel like every shot's going in because I know every time she shoots it I know that it's going in."
It's no coincidence that Stallworth and O'Neill have played their best basketball since early in the season as the Cats have done the same. It's also no coincidence that the reasons are the same.
"I think just our mindset has changed," Goss said. "We're just more aggressive, we're confident, we're believing in ourselves, we're playing as a team and I think that's really key."
Aggressiveness and confidence will be even more important considering South Carolina's strength inside. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots in the first matchup and rank third nationally with 7.1 blocks per game.
"I don't think we did a good job playing through that last time," Goss said. "But shot-blocking's part of the game and we just gotta go out there, you know, get your shot blocked, we'll go get another board or go get a defensive stop or make the stop or something like that."
UK coped well with Tennessee's length on Sunday and will look to do the same against Elem Ibiam and Co. If they do, the Cats could be celebrating their second top-10 win in five days.
"That'd be pretty sweet," Goss said.
Julius Randle had 25 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 84-70 win at Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OXFORD, Miss. -- Seemingly, there was reason to worry.
Ole Miss had made a furious run to cut a UK lead that was once as large as 22 points, making it 76-70 with less than two minutes to go on a banked Anthony Perez 3-pointer.
The Wildcats, at that point, hadn't made a field goal in nearly eight minutes. With the shot clock running down, one of UK's assistants shouted for John Calipari to use a timeout and set up a play. For a moment, Coach Cal was going to follow the advice.
Until he saw the ball go to Julius Randle and his concern melted away.
"It was six seconds (left on the shot clock) and I looked up and he caught the ball and my mind quickly said, 'He's either getting fouled or he'll make this,' " Calipari said. "And that's how much confidence I have (in him)."
Randle delivered on his coach's confidence. He drilled a shot in the paint to trigger a game-ending 8-0 run as No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) closed out an 84-70 victory at Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 SEC).
It wasn't a designed play that resulted in the game-changing basket, rather an example of Randle trying to put what UK has been working on in practice into action.
"It's just what Coach has been talking about the past couple of days: chemistry," Randle said. "I just wanted to get to the available spot and we just had to make basketball plays. Just get to the open spot and see if I can get in and try to make a play for my team or myself."
Randle did plenty of that on Tuesday night. He had his 14th double-double by halftime en route to a final line of 25 points and 13 rebounds -- both game highs.
With Randle setting the tone, UK was downright dominant in the first half in Tad Smith Coliseum. The Wildcats raced out to a 42-25 halftime lead, shooting 58.6 percent from the field with well-executed fast breaks and half-court sets. On defense, UK handcuffed the Rebels to the tune of 0.735 points per possession.
Fans still unable to shake the expectations that have followed the Cats all season likely wondered whether they had found a new, permanent gear. Much as they enjoyed the first half, the players know that's not realistic.
"That's probably how every team wants to play every game and it's not gonna happen," said Aaron Harrison, who had 17 points. "You always have bad games and you just don't have the energy there and stuff like that. So that's what we're working on: just having energy. I think that whole big run just came from energy and enthusiasm."
At halftime, Coach Cal warned his team to expect a counter-punch.
"I was really proud of them that first half," Calipari said. "And again, I said at halftime, 'They're going to make a run. You do know that, right? Now let's see how we respond to it and let's make our own run.' "
After a Willie Cauley-Stein layup with 9:10 left, UK took its largest lead at 62-40. From there, the Rebels pieced together a 30-14 spurt to make things interesting. Perez scored 15 of his 21 points during the run, Jarvis Summers notched seven of his team-high 22 and Marshall Henderson had a pair of 3s to ignite the home crowd.
If not for their second-best free-throw shooting effort of the season, the Cats may not have survived.
They hit 27-of-30 (90 percent) at the line for the game, including 19 in a row to close the game to account for all but two of their final 21 points. Randle hit 10 of them -- and 13-of-14 for the game -- Aaron Harrison four, Cauley-Stein three and Andrew Harrison two.
"We knew we had to make free throws because, I mean, we weren't really making a lot of buckets and they started to make their shots," Aaron Harrison said. "We just knew that in basketball you have to make free throws when other things aren't going. We just took that opportunity to just get focused at the line."
At morning shootaround before the game, UK closed the session with some work at the line. Seconds in, watching a couple free throws miss badly, Coach Cal blew his whistle. He told the Cats to focus on "self-talk" as they step to the stripe and to exchange the often self-fulfilling negative thoughts for belief that the shots will fall.
At least for one night, it worked.
"You just gotta know that you're going to go up there and knock it down," Randle said. "We all had that focus. We all knew that when we got to the free-throw line we wanted to shoot because we knew we would make it. That showed up today."
More often by the day, players' words -- and more importantly, their play -- reflect the lessons Calipari has been hammering home all season.
That's perhaps truest when it comes to the way the Cats measure success.
"We all have goals individually, but the biggest thing we know is if we play together, play for each other, play as a team, just keep building our confidence, energy, doing what Coach is asking us to do our individual goals will be taken care of," Randle said. "Winning's the most important thing for all of us."
UK's star forward had four 20-point, 10-rebound performances in his first five college outings, but the one he had against the Rebels was just his second in nearly two months. Opponents have made Randle priority No. 1 in their defensive game plans since his scorching start to 2013-14 and he has had to adjust his approach, both mental and physical.
That's why Randle hardly pays attention to the box score these days.
"I think what Coach is asking me to do is rebound, run the floor, play really hard, defend every position and just bring energy, being a great teammate," Randle said. "And the rest will take care of itself. If I score or I don't, it doesn't really matter. If I do those things, I think I can put my team in position to win."
Kentucky Wildcats TV posted this very cool video on Tuesday morning featuring highlights and audio from John Calipari.
"You can't change how we started. Not changing. You can change how you approach the end."
Overall Record: 2-2
Record Last Week: 2-2
Friday, Feb. 14 - defeated No. 1 Virginia - 8-3
Saturday, Feb. 15 - defeated UNC Wilmington - 10-4
Sunday, Feb. 16 - lost vs. VMI - 9-10
Monday, Feb. 17 - lost at USC Upstate - 6-8
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern)
Friday, Feb. 21 * vs. St. Joseph's * 12 p.m. (Norfolk, Va.)
Saturday, Feb. 22 * at Old Dominion * 4 p.m. (Norfolk, Va.)
Sunday, Feb. 23 * vs. St. John's * 11 a.m. (Norfolk, Va.)
Player of the Week nominee
5-10 - Jr. - CF - Dublin, Ohio (Dublin Coffman)
Week Stats: .444 (8-for-18), 2 2B, HR, 3 RBI, .722 SLG%, .500 OB%, 2-2 SB
Notes: Junior All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino has a strong debut to 2014, helping pace the Wildcats to a win over No. 1 Virginia and a win over two-time NCAA Tournament Champion UNC Wilmington ... Cousino hit .444 (8-for-18) with two doubles, one homer, three RBI and two steals ... Cousino slugged .722 and sported a .500 on-base percentage ... In a season-opening win over top-ranked Virginia, Cousino went 2-for-5 with a double and a steal ... In the win at UNCW, Cousino went 2-for-4 with a walk and a steal ... On Sunday vs. VMI, Cousino went 2-for-5 with his first homer of the year ... On Monday, Cousino launched his second double, going as a two-out, two-RBI knock, getting hit by a pitch and going 2-for-4 ... In his career, Cousino has reached base safely in 110 of his 121 games, batting .294 with 34 doubles, three triples, 16 homers and 71 RBI, stealing 31-of-33 bases.
The Kentucky baseball team completed its four-game opening weekend with a 2-2 record that included wins over No. 1 Virginia and UNC Wilmington, before suffering narrow losses to VMI and USC Upstate.
Kentucky (2-2) posted a historic win over No. 1 Virginia in the season opener, pounding the Hoos 8-3 to post the fourth win over a No. 1 ranked foe in the UK head coach Gary Henderson era., after just one win over a top-ranked team from 2003-08. UK got a strong start from A.J. Reed in the game, a first-team preseason All-America selection, who added two hits.
On Saturday, UK got a three-run homer from Reed in a win at UNCW, that saw UK post a seven-run inning in the fifth. Starter Chandler Shepherd worked into the sixth inning in the win, as the Wildcats posted a 10-4 result. Sunday, the Wildcats suffered a 10-9 walk-off loss vs. VMI in a 10 a.m. ET first pitch, as the Keydets erased a UK lead with a four-run bottom of the eighth. The Wildcats then rallied with two runs in the top of the ninth inning, before UK committed two errors in the bottom of the ninth that led to a two-run walk-off single with one out. Monday, UK ventured to Spartanburg, S.C., where the Spartans got a three-run inning in the bottom of the sixth inning for an 8-6 loss.
Kentucky returns to action with another road trip to the East coast, traveling to Norfolk, Va., for a three-game weekend on the campus of Old Dominion. UK will face St. Joseph's on Friday, Old Dominion on Saturday and St. John's on Sunday.
The 2013-14 swimming and diving season has been a transitional campaign at Kentucky. First-year head coach Lars Jorgensen has instituted changes across the board from training to the all-around culture within the team.
No Wildcat has transitioned better with her coaching staff than butterfly standout Christina Bechtel.
"She has been phenomenal really," Jorgensen said. "Not just in meets, but every day in practice. At the end of the week she always seems better then she was the previous week. It's kind of a mark we like to have from all of our athletes, but she's kind of exceeded that expectation."
At the start of the campaign, Jorgensen took every member of the team aside to discuss the team's goals. With Bechtel, the benchmarks were lofty. The targets were set so difficult to attain, in fact, that when the junior started reaching them during the fall season - months before the NCAA Championships when she could be expected to round into form - both the swimmer and coach were pleasantly surprised to a significant extent.
In late November, during a three-day invitational meet at Ohio State - one of the nation's best programs - Bechtel broke the school records in both the 100 and 200-yard butterfly.
Breaking school records ranked high amongst the accomplishments Jorgensen had told Bechtel she was capable of attaining before the season started. But to do so in a manner so convincingly, - she broke the 200 fly record by more than four seconds - and so early was frankly astonishing to all parties involved.
"I intended on breaking the records, but I didn't intend on doing it so early," Bechtel said. "The new coaching staff has really pushed me this year, and it has paid off. The training has been really a lot more intense this year than last year and I think that's the major difference. There are really high expectations and standards. I like that about the program because if your coaches don't hold you to high standards, then what are you supposed to hold yourself to."
Indeed Bechtel enters this week's Southeastern Conference Championships as one of the favorites in both the 100 and 200-yard butterfly events, an impressive feat given the quality of competition in the conference. The SEC regularly has half or more of the top-10 ranked teams in the country.
Her growth since Jorgensen took the helm at UK has provided a standard of excellence for her teammates. The Wildcats will hope that standard reaches full sail at the conference championship.
"She's a great competitor, a really hard worker and a leader," Jorgensen said. "She's kind of the total package in terms of what we ask for from the members of our team."
Bechtel's performances early in the year afforded UK the luxury of tapering her training toward the championship portion of the season, as her times qualified her for the NCAA Championships with plenty of time to spare.
As a result, she didn't have to spend the season chasing qualifying standards; instead she's been working toward peaking when the championship meets come. That time is now.
"She's worked hard, but the biggest thing we have done is trying to prepare her for the NCAA Championships just to try to be really competitive there. By November, we already knew she was going (to NCAAs) so the other meets were important just as stepping stones. It was nice to be able to focus on February and March from early in the season.
"We've been taking a really simple approach. It has been the old cliché of trying to win today, take it one day at a time, because if you don't do a good job in December, then the SEC Championships in February or the NCAA Championships in March become insignificant."
Much of Bechtel's success has been attributed to her new approach in training, one of the main points of emphasis Jorgensen instilled once he took over the program.
"The training has been really a lot more intense this year than last year and I think that's the major difference," Bechtel said. "When you're on the pool deck the atmosphere is more intense. You walk into practice and are expected to perform well.
"Every time you get in the water is like every time you swim a race, and that's the expectation every day. The goal is to practice as fast, or faster, than you would in a meet. That's what Lars always says; 'you're only as good as how well you train.' "
But Bechtel didn't just improve because of her attitude adjustment; she also changed how she races tactically.
At the forefront of those changes was a greater focus on kicking for longer distances, specifically under water - without taking a breath - upon entry off the blocks and during turns.
"The way my stroke has changed this year is basically I have done a lot more kicking, and a lot of faster kicking," Bechtel said. "This year Lars is always telling me to be a world-class kicker. In swimming there's been a big change as far as underwaters - where you kick most of the time underwater after the dive in and on turns - that has been a major change in the sport, especially in the butterfly and backstroke; most of your race is now under water, not really on the surface.
"We've been focusing on swimming underwater as fast as you can. We also do a lot of breath control because if you can't hold your breath then you can't kick under water. I'm faster under water than I am on the surface."
Bechtel's kick is a huge advantage for her, thus her coach hones in on that aspect of her race.
"She might be the best in the country under water," Jorgensen said. "I don't think there's anybody in the country better than her. She has helped other people on our team become better at it. I think it's something we really focus on as a program. It's important that everybody does that well. She combines that, which she has great talent for, with making other people better. That's also a reason why she's a captain."
Bechtel has taken on a leadership role this season, in large part as an extension of the head coach. The two seem to embrace a strong connection in training that serves as an example for the rest of the team.
Such a relationship is important as elite swimmers are asked by their coaches to push their bodies beyond most tangible limits of comfort.
"He's like a coach, but also one of my best friends," Bechtel said of her coach. "Whenever I'm having an issue or something I can talk to him and he will just make me laugh. I think that's a good thing because honestly, I probably spend four and a half hours a day with Lars. I think it's important to have a good relationship with your swim coach because if you are constantly annoyed by the person you have to see every day it just makes it terrible. Lars is always passionate, and he really makes you want to swim faster.
"That's really important; to have a coach that pushes you and makes you want to do better. Lars does that, he is never satisfied."
The fruit of Bechtel's labor, put in during countless training sessions over the past few months, will be on full display this week at the most competitive conference championship meet in America.
Aaron Harrison had 16 points in UK's 80-64 win over Ole Miss on Feb. 4. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If you were thinking doom and gloom would set in following UK's loss to Florida on Saturday, think again.
As painful as the defeat may have been -- and look no further than postgame interviews with the players
for proof of that -- Sunday was a new day for John Calipari and the Wildcats.
"Everybody from the players to the staff to Cal was very, very upbeat, really positive," assistant coach John Robic said. "That's the most positive I've seen Cal and our staff after a defeat in a long time, and we haven't had that many defeats so we don't have that many opportunities to be like that."
It wasn't some false motivational pretense lifting the mood in practice either.
The coaching staff broke down tape of the loss to the Gators and saw all the good work the Cats did for nearly three-quarters of the game. The issues, of course, were plain to see in crunch time, but there was plenty of reason to be positive.
"What happened down the stretch was that mental discipline that I talked about before the game," Calipari said. "But it showed me that we can beat anybody in the country. We've got to shore up how we finish games off. It showed me our goals do not need to change -- at all."
UK might have fallen to No. 18/16 in the latest major polls on Monday, but everything -- Final Four, national championship and all the rest -- thought to be in play before the season remains that way.
"We just kind of found out that we could play with anybody in the country, but we just have to shore up some things and just work hard again and see where that takes us," Jarrod Polson said.
To pursue those goals, the Cats (19-6, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) must hone in on what prevented them from closing out what would have been their biggest win of the season on Saturday.
"What we did for the guys is we watched the last 11 minutes and 12 seconds of the game, dissected that, because that was the game," Robic said. "Saw what they did. In a lot of ways, that's what we need to do. We saw what we did, and we now know the adjustments that we have to make, and the players really, really understand that now."
Heading into a trip to Ole Miss (16-9, 7-5 SEC), UK will look to demonstrate that understanding.
UK took down the Rebels two weeks ago in Rupp Arena, 80-64, on the strength of a dominant second-half rebounding performance. In the rematch, however, the Cats expect a stiff test from an Ole Miss team returning to its home floor -- where the Rebels are 5-0 in SEC play -- hungry after back-to-back losses last week.
"Road games are always tough no matter where it is," Aaron Harrison said. "Ole Miss is a great team. I'm pretty sure it will be a great environment and a great game."
UK was solid defensively against Ole Miss on Feb. 4, limiting the dangerous Marshall Henderson to 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting and holding the Rebels to just two fast-break points.
"We were effective in our game plan," Robic said. "We carried it out very, very well. There were only two breakdowns, and Marshall Henderson hit two 3s on the two breakdowns. But that's what we're getting ready to go into practice now and make sure we're sharp on that."
With the Rebels playing on their home floor this time around, UK isn't expecting to pull away in the second half in Oxford, Miss. Instead, another test of the Cats' ability to execute late is likely in order.
After the loss to Florida, UK has six losses in games decided by 10 points or fewer. Coincidentally, that number is identical to the six defeats the 2010-11 Kentucky team had this time three years ago with Brandon Knight leading the way.
Polson was a freshman on that team and recalls battling many of the same issues that have caused problems in the final minutes this season.
"I think just trying to develop that will to win is what we're working on right now and I think we're getting better at it," Polson said. "Obviously we didn't succeed on Saturday, but I think that game will teach us more than it will hurt us."
As fans will surely remember, UK reeled off 10 straight wins to close the regular season, sweep through the SEC Tournament and reach the Final Four. With three true freshmen playing featured roles for a team with a short bench, UK won eight of those games by single digits.
UK is both younger and deeper this year, but the Cats must develop that same will to win.
"The more the young guys experienced those games, the more they knew what it was going to be like," Polson said. "I think that was the biggest thing: just taking the losses and realizing how bad it hurts to lose and taking that to the next games and wanting to win so bad."
The Southeastern Conference season wears on and league coaches called in on Monday for another SEC Coaches Teleconference. John Calipari gave an update on his team entering this week, which you can find below.
Additionally, you can read what Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy had to say as the Rebels prepare to host UK on Tuesday night, as well as some thoughts from Florida's Billy Donovan on Julius Randle.
On this week's matchups against Ole Miss and LSU ...
"Well, we're playing two really--teams that have given us problems. I mean, Mississippi at home was anybody's ballgame with six minutes to go in the game. Obviously LSU had us down double digits most of the game, almost got it 20 and so they'll be two tough games for us."
On how much different of a team Ole Miss is without Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner ...
"Well, those younger guys are pretty good players now too. And they're different. They're more athletic as far as--they may be, you know, more slender. But those two, anyone would be more slender compared to those two. But I think they're athletic, I think they're long, they give them a little different dimension and those other two were veteran, big-bodied guys, hard to go against. But I'm liking Mississippi's team."
On what his team did to have success against Ole Miss ...
"You could say that, but I'm telling you, with six minutes to go it was anybody's ballgame. And then we got a couple breakouts and made a shot and all of a sudden it was 12, and then we got going a little bit. But that was late, late in the game. You're at the mercy of them making jumpers. And again, I think their point guard (Jarvis Summers) is really - I think he makes them go. They've got other players on that team that can score baskets, and then (Marshall) Henderson at any time can make five straight baskets. Can you keep your head about you if he does? And he seems to do it at home more than he does on the road."
On whether being out of the conference race changes the psychology of how he approaches his team ...
"I've never been big on conference championships or conference tournaments. Every game we play is to prepare us for March, and that's how we approach it. I think the history of my teams have done well in conference play and conference tournaments because they're not the goal. The goal is to be at our best in March. And so, the last game we played, I'll be honest with you, (for) 30 minutes that's as good as we've played all year. What happened down the stretch was that mental discipline that I talked about before the game. But it showed me that we can beat anybody in the country. We've got to shore up how we finish games off. It showed me our goals do not need to change - at all. And I told the team this: It's about chemistry, energy and a will to win for your team. There were three rebounds you would have figured our best rebounder would have got balls, and he was right there with another guy, and they got all those balls. (Dorian Finney-)Smith got one, (Casey) Prather got one down the middle, they got another one, tipped back one for a 3. There was all that will to get that ball that they had more than we had. But, again, our goals haven't changed. I'm happy with my team. What that game showed me: We're as good as anybody in the country; we can play with anybody. Now let's shore this up, let's get this chemistry together and this energy together, let's create a little more will to win down the stretch, execute. They got to the line by driving it. We took bailout 3s. Can't do that. Can't do that late in the game. But again, we're still learning."
On the up-and-down play of some of his players ...
"For us, we've got a pretty inexperienced front line, and I think really as it occurs across the league and across the country, kids that are a little more inexperienced, whether it be because they're freshmen or sophomores or because they've never really played the roles that they're currently holding, they typically play better at home. They're more comfortable at home. They play more confidently, more assertively, and I think that's been the case with our guys. We go on the road and we're not nearly as assertive as we need to be, and as a result we're not nearly as productive. We've got to take the right approach. We've done that when we've been at home and we just haven't been able to carry with us on the road. You're well aware of the number differential from a productivity standpoint home and away, and as a result we're not having as much success on the road."
On Calipari saying the game at Rupp was anyone's game with six minutes left ...
"Well, Cal's pretty diplomatic in that answer. We stayed around for a while. I believe it was a two- or three-possession game maybe until the 10-, 12-minute mark of the second half. We couldn't get a rebound, which has really been kind of a broken record for us. But we just could not get a rebound in the second half. If you remember, we had some dead-ball rebounds, but the first one that an Ole Miss Rebel got I believe was under two minutes to go in the second half. So we zoned them quite a bit and they did not make a 3-point shot in the second half, but even the ones that they missed they got every rebound. I think Willie Cauley-Stein probably played his best game in a Kentucky uniform and just dominated on both ends. They certainly got some run-outs, but they got control of the game at about the 30-minute mark and then we were just trying to hold on for dear life."
On bringing Marshall Henderson off the bench on Saturday and how it worked ...
"It worked out pretty good. He's just really been struggling with his shooting percentages in road games, non-league and SEC. Going into Georgia, he was shooting close to 30 percent from the floor and less than 25 percent in the first half. So I was just doing something to try to change the way that he approached the game, allow him to see it for a few minutes on the bench and, you know, I don't know if that directly affected his performance but he came out and made shots. I think he had 14 (points) in the first half on 6-of-8 shooting, something like that. As a result, we were leading at the half. Second half, he struggled a little bit and as a result we came up a possession short. But that was the thinking: just trying to find a winning combination."
On playing UK and Florida this week and whether he brings up Ole Miss's bubble status ...
"Well, it's out there anyway for sure. But we've lost two--we had two heartbreakers last week. Really our focus is on winning a game and Kentucky presents the next opportunity to do that on Tuesday night. We know it's going to be a difficult challenge because we've seen that firsthand a couple weeks ago in Rupp. But for us right now, we've lost two in a row and we're sitting at 16-9 through 25 (games) but those 16 seem like a faint memory simply because we haven't won one in a week. So for us the focus is on winning a game."
Florida head coach Billy Donovan
On what he said to Julius Randle after Saturday's game ...
"I just said, 'Congratulations on a great year.' I didn't get a chance to see his mom. I know she was cheering real hard for him. After the game I just said, 'Congratulations for a great game' and 'I see your mom cheering hard.' He just smiled. He's a great kid and certainly I was fortunate to get the opportunity to be around him for about two or three weeks there in the summer before he went to Kentucky, so that was an enjoyment of mine because he is such a great kid."
On what impresses him the most about Randle ...
"Besides what people can see with his talent and his skills, the way he puts it on the floor and his size. And again, John can probably comment better about this than I can because obviously I had him for a short period of time. The thing I was impressed with him is, when I had him he was the same guy every single day. He was the same guy. We went double sessions because there was a lot to get prepared for because we only had about a week of practice before we competed so we had to do double sessions. As a young kid, being in high school and maybe not going through college practices before and playing against other good players, he was always there early, he was getting shots up, he was always ready to go, he had a smile on his face, he enjoyed playing, he enjoyed working and competing and trying to get better, and I thought he was an everyday guy. Now obviously that was only for a couple weeks and a college basketball season is a lot longer. I'm sure like most guys there are going to be ups and downs. But I always appreciated his disposition in practice each day."
Matthew Mitchell celebrates with his team following UK's first win at Tennessee since 1985. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell boasts an unmatched list of accomplishments as UK head coach.
On Sunday, he added another line to his resume.
For the first time in his seven-year tenure and the first in school history since 1985, the Wildcats won at perennial Southeastern Conference power Tennessee.
"Anytime we do something we haven't done before or in a really long time is good, but I am just happy for these players," Mitchell said. "They have worked real hard over the last few weeks so they could get their minds in the spot where they could come in and win a big game like this today."
The victory touched off a jubilant locker-room celebration. Surrounded by current Wildcats as well as Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies and Carly Morrow -- three players who played central roles in building the UK program -- Mitchell climbed a chair to dance after a 75-71 victory.
But it wasn't surprise that was drove the team's reaction. You see, Mitchell knew No. 18/18 UK (19-6, 7-5 SEC) was capable of taking down No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-5, 9-3 SEC) for the first time in Thompson-Boling Arena. In fact, he spent the early part of the week reminding his team why.
"We have a good team, and we knew that. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been focusing on making sure our players know we have a good team. What they did today is something they have already done this year.
En route to an 11-0 start, UK took down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. The Cats won four true road games and ascended to the top five of both major polls in the process. To remind his players of just how good they can be, he opened up the archives and showed them tape of those early-season performances.
Watching themselves, the Cats saw what they can be when Jennifer O'Neill keeps it simple and attacks. They saw what they can be when DeNesha Stallworth shows the All-American form typical of her pre-injury self.
In a dominant win over Ole Miss on Thursday, the Cats proved they still have that ability within them. Against Tennessee, they showed they might just be on the way to showing it consistently.
"We were questioning ourselves, but we came down here and played a good game and got a victory," O'Neill said. "That is all that matters."
UK led 38-34 at the end of a back-and-forth first half, but the Lady Volunteers retook the lead, 46-42, by the first media timeout of the second. As recently as a week ago, the Cats may have been derailed in that moment. Instead, they rallied to take their largest lead at 60-52 with 9:09 left.
Tennessee, however, responded again with the kind of stretch that has made it so difficult for UK to win in Knoxville, Tenn., over the last three decades. With 3:57 to go, the Cats found themselves trailing by three.
After Kastine Evans had a layup blocked out of bounds, UK came to the sideline for the final media timeout. On the ensuing possession and with the shot clock running down, O'Neill pulled up from the right wing and banked in a long 2-point jumper. It was a bit of good fortune for the Cats and just enough to give them the confidence they needed to close out the kind of game Mitchell worked so hard to show his team it could win.
Less than a minute later, Stallworth -- who battled all game with a physical UT front line to post 17 points and nine rebounds -- came up with a steal. O'Neill then went on the run and scored in transition to stake UK to a 70-69 lead the Cats would not relinquish.
After another UK stop, O'Neill scored the final two of her game-high 24 points on a jumper. O'Neill has now scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games.
"My coaches are being positive with me," O'Neill said. "They have just been telling that I need to shoot the ball and not keep hesitating. They also told me not to overthink things. It is just a matter of coming out and playing my game, not just myself but for them too."
Kastine Evans would go on to hit three clutch free throws and come up with a game-clinching steal in the final seconds to prevent Tennessee from getting off a potential game-tying shot.
The win provides a lift to UK's position ahead of next month's SEC and NCAA tournaments, but it's much more important for what it says about the Cats as a team. As Mitchell will be quick to remind everyone, the issues with UK's confidence and mentality that led to five losses in nine games don't disappear after a history-making Sunday.
Then again, UK hasn't looked this much like a potential Final Four team since December.
"This something that you look back at after the season when you
highlight some things, but this team needed to win today because they
could," Mitchell said. "They needed to believe in themselves, and they did. That is the
significant thing in my mind."
Andrew Harrison had 20 points in UK's loss to Florida on Saturday night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
UK was in as good of a position as John Calipari could have hoped for.
After a driving layup by Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats led No. 3/4 Florida by seven with barely 11 minutes to play in an electric Rupp Arena.
But even then, he figured the veteran Gators would make a run. He figured his team would be tested in the final minutes.
He was right, because Florida didn't waste any time getting back into it. Within three minutes, the Gators had a lead. From there, they did what they've done all season.
"What they did, they've done -- I'm guessing -- 10 games this year, where, with five minutes to go, four minutes to go, three minutes to go, it's anybody's ballgame," Calipari said. "Then they just grinded better than the other team grinds it, like they did us. They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch."
Fittingly, it was a trio of seniors that carried Florida (23-2, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) to its 17th victory in a row by a final of 69-59.
When the Gators needed points, Billy Donovan put Scottie Wilbekin into pick-and-rolls. He responded by scoring 12 points over the decisive final 10:41 during which Florida outscored UK 31-14 to finish with 23 points and zero turnovers.
When the Gators wanted to go inside, they went to Patric Young. He delivered by scoring eight of his 10 points over the first four minutes of Florida's game-ending run.
When the Gators needed a hustle play, leading scorer Casey Prather (24 points, four steals) was there, most notably on an offensive rebound with 1:27 left. On the play, Prather skied over three Wildcats with his team leading by five to all but salt away victory.
"We have to make that play," said Andrew Harrison, who had a team-high 20 points on Saturday night.
It's those kinds of plays that mark fine line between winning and losing in a game such as this one.
"We lost to a good team," Calipari said. "I'm not happy. We lost to a good team. But we had our chances and we're not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that."
For the better part of 29 minutes, it looked as if UK (19-6, 9-3 SEC) was indeed ready. The No. 14/13 Cats had played their best defense of the season, holding Florida to an average of just 0.86 points on its first 44 possessions.
To follow that, UK had a series of breakdowns and miscommunications, all of which had to do with Florida's execution. Over the final 13 possessions of the game -- excluding the last one when the Gators ran out the clock -- Florida scored 31 points for an astounding average of 2.38 points per possession.
"Florida deserved to win the game," Calipari said. "When they got all those rebounds late and the execution, it's just an effort that I'm going to go get this ball. They got those three rebounds that cost us seven points. In a game like that, you can't recover with that least amount of time left."
Especially not with Florida locking down defensively.
Florida entered the game ranked as one of the best defenses in the country and backed it up. UK shot the ball reasonably well (47.6 percent), but managed only eight second-chance points on nine offensive rebounds, an area that has been UK's strength all season.
"We didn't execute well enough," Harrison said. "We just didn't make enough plays at the end."
Calipari praised Harrison for his play for most of the game. The freshman point guard overcame a 1-for-7 start from the field to shoot 6-of-12 and 8-of-8 at the line, but the senior he was matchup up with was simply better at the end.
"I thought Andrew played a terrific basketball game, but the last four minutes, Scottie just outplayed him," Calipari said.
As UK looks to move forward, it's facts like that one Calipari will be asking his players to face.
"So we've got to understand and listen and not blame each other," Calipari said. "Take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it, the guy outplayed me."
UK will host No. 3/4 Florida at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A group of 18- and 19-year-olds, the Kentucky Wildcats are still in their formative years. Most of them still developing physically, trying establish themselves with an eye on their bright futures.
At the same time, they are faced with more immediate priorities. With almost certainly just one year together as presently assembled, the Cats know they have no choice but to come together and come together fast.
There's no overstating the magnitude of that challenge.
"They're trying to grow as an individual player yet come together," John Calipari said. "Think how hard that is. Trying to establish who they are and how they have to play, yet do it for each other. This stuff is impossible."
But at Kentucky, "impossible" is not part of the vocabulary.
"I told them yesterday, 'It's not fair what I'm asking you to do,' " Calipari said. " 'Now do it. Now do it.' It's not fair. You can't ask kids to do what we ask them to do. It's not fair. But, now do it. And they're trying."
The challenge facing UK's team almost exclusively comprised of freshmen and sophomores is what they signed up for. By coming to Kentucky, the Cats decided they wanted to take center stage, to bypass the chance to develop in the shadows behind upperclassmen. They chose these bright lights.
The lights don't get any brighter than the ones under which No. 14/13 UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) will play on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. No. 3/4 Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC) comes to Lexington two games ahead in the conference race and in the midst of a 16-game winning streak. To add to the hype, ESPN will be in town to host its weekly College GameDay show the morning of the game.
"It's a great opportunity," Calipari said. "It's why you come here, to play these kind of games against highly ranked teams that come into your building favored to win with veterans, and here we are."
A familiar storyline will be trotted out again for the rivalry game: Will UK's youngsters be able to overcome the Gators with talent? Or will Florida's experience rule the day?
"This game is going to be our 19-year-olds against their 23-year-olds," Calipari said. "Now, how does that play out? I know when they're 35 and 36, and you're 30, that's a difference. The old guys have got a little problem there. But at the younger ages, they've got an advantage. And it is an advantage. Most of it is the discipline they play with."
Though it's a fact that four of Florida's regulars are seniors and all five of UK's starters over the last four games freshmen, the Cats aren't all that interested.
"We just don't want use it as an excuse," Alex Poythress said. "It's not that he tells us to drop (youth as an excuse); it's just like we don't want to make excuses for ourselves. We just want to come out and play the game.
But to call Florida a team facing a major talent deficit is doing a disservice to the Gators. Florida has inserted itself into the upper echelon of national-title contenders on the strength of a deep, skilled rotation. All-America candidate Casey Prather leads four Gators scoring in double figures at 15.3 points per game and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin closely follows at 13.0.
When Coach Cal talks about the Gators, he uses phrases familiar to UK fans. He references their ability to focus for 40 minutes and their ability to close games. The thing, however, that most catches his attention is defense.
"Their emotion is all tied into their defense," Calipari said. "That's what they do well."
Florida ranks seventh nationally and first in the SEC in defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.908 points per possession. The Gators excel in all areas, holding opponents to 39.3-percent shooting, forcing turnovers on 21.8 percent of possessions (24th nationally) and ranking 30th in the country in defensive free-throw rate.
"Florida plays real good on defense," Poythress said. "You know, they got some veteran players. They know how to play, have been there a long time, know how to help each other."
The defense starts on the ball with the tireless Wilbekin, while fellow senior and lead shot blocker Patric Young protects the rim. UK freshman Dakari Johnson -- who was recruited by Billy Donovan -- knows Young well.
"When I went up there to visit I shadowed him," Johnson said. "So he's a real good player. He competes hard for 40 minutes, so we've just got to compete with them."
In preparation, it's Coach Cal's custom to show only limited tape of opponents to his team. However, he spotlighted one play Young made in Florida's 67-58 win over Tennessee. The physical 6-foot-9, 240 pounder forgot all concerns about his own personal safety to dive for a loose ball.
"What are you willing to do to win a game?" Calipari said, explaining his reasoning for showing the play. "I know what he's willing to do to win a game. I saw it. Now you look at it."
Now, the Cats have a chance to show they can match that kind of effort.
"This game will tell us where we are, and I would imagine they're coming in not to just win," Calipari said. "They want to smash. We're going to find out."
Matthew Mitchell will lead his Kentucky team into a trip to No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell doesn't typically make a habit of looking back, but this week was an exception.
His team facing a crisis after five losses in nine games, he pulled the tape on UK Hoops school-record-tying 11-0 start. He showed the Wildcats clips of their wins over top-10 opponents Baylor and Louisville. He reminded them of their four hard-fought road victories.
"I just tried to show them that we're not sitting in some rah-rah session where I'm making things up and trying to make you look good," Mitchell said.
Since that start, optimism about UK's Final Four chances has faded outside the program. Inside the walls of the Joe Craft Center, the Cats' confidence followed a similar trajectory. Mitchell, however, has remained steadfast in his faith.
"I just wanted to tell them the reason that I believe we can move forward and be a great team and be heard from in this league and beyond, is because they have already proven to me that they can do it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's only goal was to encourage a similar belief on the part of his players.
"Whether we ever get there or not is not the point, the point is that you believe that and then prepare that way," Mitchell said. "We just need to know that we can show up every day and if we choose we can be the best team in the country. That mindset is what I was trying to get them back to."
Early returns suggest the film session may have worked.
In a dominant 108-78 win over Ole Miss on Thursday, UK looked closer to its early-season form than at any point in Southeastern Conference play. DeNesha Stallworth (19 points, 11 rebounds) rediscovered her All-American form from before a December knee injury and Jennifer O'Neill (27 points) combined with her to form a potent inside-out duo.
The performance was another shot of confidence.
"I think that most of our problems, while we had some physical problems with injuries and some of what has been going on has been physical, but to me the lion's share of it has been mental and emotional," Mitchell said. "I think that confidence is very important for this team right now."`
It will be particularly important as No. 18/18 UK (18-6, 6-5 SEC) travels to No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-2, 9-2 SEC) for a matchup at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. As good as the Lady Volunteers may be, Mitchell knows his mind needs to be on his own team more than anything else.
"My concerns are about Kentucky right now," Mitchell said. "I just want to get ready to do the things that we need to do to beat Tennessee, and that is more about Kentucky than them."
That begins with tempo.
"I think we need to get our minds ready on playing Kentucky basketball," Mitchell said. "That means a fast-paced game."
In half-court offense, UK will need to be ready for a UT defense that features a great deal of zone. On defense, UK's bigs must be prepared to battle with the likes of Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves.
"They have some really powerful interior post players that they try to get the ball in there to," Mitchell said. "It will be a great battle and a great opportunity for us to beat a quality opponent."
Senior guard Meighan Simmons spearheads the attack for Tennessee, averaging 15.2 points.
"She's real fast, really fast, explosive and an explosive scorer," Mitchell said. "She's one of the fastest players with the basketball that I've coached against. When she's on, she's one of the most explosive scorers I've ever been around."
That description doesn't sound much different from UK's O'Neill, a player with whom Mitchell describes his relationship as "complicated."
"She's a joy in my life because she has brought so much to us and so much to our program," Mitchell said. "She's a kid that's done a lot for me in a lot of different ways and hopefully I've helped her, but she's just real, real stubborn."
Her stubbornness comes from her cerebral nature. O'Neill has a tendency to overanalyze, while Mitchell wants her to keep it simple.
"You need to attack every time and when you don't have the ball you need to be ready to shoot," Mitchell said. "Every time you need to be down, whether you do or not, but you need to be ready because it's a threat. Defensively, you need to be in a stance getting after the basketball every time. It's not complicated."
O'Neill made it look pretty simple against Ole Miss on Thursday. If she can repeat that performance on Sunday, Mitchell might not need to go into the archives to find tape of a big win any longer.
Rachel Lawson and the UK softball team look to build on a 5-0 start to the season at this weekend's Texas Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team is coming off a record-setting opening weekend. UK is off to a perfect 5-0 start for the first time in program history, including an upset win over then-No. 2 Oklahoma, a year after a school-record 41-win campaign in 2013.
As UK prepares for its second weekend of competition -- the Texas Classic in Austin, Texas, Feb. 14-16 -- one would assume the Wildcats and head coach Rachel Lawson are feeling pretty good about things. After all, the perfect start to the 2014 season vaulted the Wildcats to seventh in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 and No. 9 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25, both the highest in team history. UK advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals last season for the second time ever.
Having moved past last year's success before fall training began, Kentucky is far from satisfied.
"Yeah, our team has a lot of high expectations," Lawson said. "They want to go to the World Series. We have been in Supers two out of the last three years and been in postseason five years in a row so for our program the next step is the World Series."
They are really happy that they were able to get some good games under their belt and to win. I think that is a really exciting thing for them."
Big expectations are the norm in the Southeastern Conference. The league is arguably the toughest in the country, with back-to-back College World Series title game appearances, including Alabama claiming the SEC's first softball national championship in 2012.
The Wildcats won't get too excited over a 5-0 weekend, knowing there is plenty left to play for and a multitude of big games ahead. Twenty-two games await UK the rest of the season against teams currently ranked or receiving votes in either poll.
"As much as they had a really good weekend, they are very focused on the end goal," Lawson said. "Being in the SEC, we are going to have so many big games ahead of us. They are taking it in stride."
"I think our offseason helped us offensively," junior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "We came out strong this weekend with that and I think this weekend we played good teams like Oklahoma and it gave us confidence. It was good to play teams like that because that's the type of teams we play in the SEC. It's nice to win the early season tests and have an extra-inning game to get prepared for SEC play."
Joiner had 10 hits with a .667 batting average in the opening weekend and was named the season's first SEC Player of the Week on Feb. 10. She slugged three home runs and had nine RBIs to pace the Wildcat offense.
Hearing Lawson and the players talk about what's ahead, and the goals for the team, there is no secret that the Women's College World Series is the target. School records, national accolades and NCAA Super Regionals aren't enough. The Wildcats want to make it to Oklahoma City and play as one of the final eight teams.
There are several important factors for UK to be successful and make it to the College World Series this year. Of course, offense, defense and pitching are important, but Kentucky's depth will be just as crucial.
In the Wildcats' opening weekend, it was a balanced attack that provided their run production.
"Actually, I was incredibly impressed by that," Lawson said of her team's depth in the first five games. "If you really went into the play-by-play of all the games, for example, when we played Oklahoma and beat them they got their runs from 1-2-3 in the order and we got our runs from 7-8-9 in our order, which is pretty cool. The top of our order did produce, but just to be so strong top to bottom is a lot of the reasons we won pretty convincingly this weekend. At no point were we out of it this weekend, it didn't matter who was up. We had a lot of key contributions from a ton of people and that is a good thing. In order for us to go where we want to go you have to be strong."
Going forward that depth will have to continue to be a strength. The Wildcats open the Texas Classic with Louisiana Tech and No. 15/16 Texas on Friday before facing IPFW Saturday. The weekend will continue with seeded contests Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning to conclude the five-game weekend.
"I think this is the most depth that we have ever had during my career," senior outfielder Ginny Carroll said. "Before the season when the players were talking with each other about what the lineup might be, and we had no idea. There are so many options. Each game could be different, which is great for competition and practice and then also seeing who is hot on that particular day. I think the competition makes everyone work harder, and no one can be complacent. It's really nice we've got a lot of good stuff."
So many options. Lawson and the coaching staff have to like that. While a consistent lineup might fall into place, the ability to have different options could be UK's secret weapon in 2014.
With their sights set on making the program's first trip to the World Series, the Wildcats will need as many of those secret weapons as possible.
UK Hoops wore pink uniforms in support of breast cancer awareness for its annual Play4Kay game on Thursday night. Before tip, this special intro featuring breast cancer survivors was shown.
DeNesha Stallworth had 19 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Six days ago, Matthew Mitchell offered a prediction about DeNesha Stallworth, the star forward who was then still trying to find her form after a December knee injury.
"One of these nights she's going to go for 18 or 20 (points) and eight or 10 rebounds and that's when you'll know she's back," Mitchell said last week.
The night was Thursday.
Stallworth nearly hit those forecasted numbers on the head in a 108-78 Kentucky victory. In just 22 minutes against Ole Miss, Stallworth posted 19 points and 11 rebounds.
"It feels good to have our All-American back," Jennifer O'Neill said.
Stallworth made 7-of-12 field-goal attempts in her best performance since her injury, registering her second straight double-double in the process.
"We need to get her the ball a little bit more because we're missing her, but just the effort and the willingness to go to the boards is important," Mitchell said. "It's being talented and being able to get up there and have strong hands."
The senior said afterward that she feels "a hundred percent," an encouraging sign for a UK team trying to shake off a prolonged slump in SEC play during which the Wildcats (18-6, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) lost five times in nine games.
"I think I was kind of a big piece that we were missing, but this is not always all on me," Stallworth said. "I think we all have out little parts as a team. But it just feels good to be back out there and playing hard and playing with a purpose. It's just a great feeling, especially to get a win."
When Stallworth had it going pre-injury, UK was one of the best teams in the country. The Cats sprinted to a 9-0 start with her in the lineup, taking down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor in the process. Since then, UK has never looked better than they did against the Rebels (10-16, 1-11 SEC).
"It was exciting to see that we could get back to playing the way we were once before," O'Neill said. "Even though we still have a lot of stuff to work on, it was really good just to get a win."
The win started with entry pass after entry pass.
UK built a first-half lead by getting the ball to Stallworth and she delivered with 10 points and six rebounds. At halftime, Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell -- a Mitchell assistant at UK until last season who received a big ovation when he was introduced in Memorial Coliseum -- had no choice but to adjust.
The inside game established, O'Neill -- the sharp-shooting point guard -- had ample room to operate.
"D's always preaching, 'Throw the ball inside, throw the ball inside,' " O'Neill said. "And we try to play inside-out and sometimes we miss the post a lot -- not sometimes -- we miss the post a lot and it was just good because it made her draw more attention and it allowed me to get open easier."
Taking advantage, O'Neill was dominant in the second half. She poured in 19 of her 27 points after the break, drilling 5-of-6 shots from the field and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
Watching O'Neill and Stallworth playing well together, it's not difficult to remember why UK was so good to start the season.
"They're real good when DeNesha Stallworth plays," Insell said. "They're even better when Jennifer O'Neill plays. And so you get both of those clicking together on the same night like they had tonight, that's a team right there that has a chance to play in Nashville."
The Cats have a trip to the Volunteer state on their mind, but to a city about 180 miles east of this year's Final Four site.
"It just felt fantastic, especially going into the next game versus Tennessee," Stallworth said of UK's Sunday trip to Knoxville, Tenn.
A.J. Reed will start UK's season opener vs. No. 1 Virginia at noon ET on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
When he put together his team's 2014 schedule, Gary Henderson didn't know at first that UK would face the nation's top-ranked team to start the season.
What he did know was that the Wildcats would travel to Spartanburg, S.C., for the Hughes Brothers Baseball Challenge. He saw the event as an opportunity get the season started with "something different," so he called UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf to commit to playing in it.
It wasn't until later that Henderson found out No. 1 Virginia would be UK's season-opening opponent at noon ET on Friday. It was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.
"We kind of caught a break there," Henderson said.
In fact, Scalf made sure to run the possibility by Henderson before finalizing the plans. The conversation wasn't a long one.
"When Mark called me up and asked if I would be willing to (play Virginia) in the opener and I said, 'Absolutely,' " Henderson said. "I think that is great. It is win-win."
Opening day always brings excitement, but playing the team tabbed by Baseball America and Perfect Game as the best in the country adds a little extra edge.
"We've put in so much work in the offseason and continued to this spring," pitcher Chandler Shepherd said. "We're all just ready to go. That's all we're talking about and it's to the point now where we're just ready to let loose and have fun and play ball. It's that time."
With a constant onslaught of cold weather, ice and snow this winter, it hasn't always felt that way. For that reason, the Cats haven't gotten nearly as much outdoor work as they would like. That's a challenge -- and one teams throughout the country have shared these last two months -- but no excuse.
"Until we get those repetitions under our belt and we get that experience you'll expect that maybe the game is not quite as crisp in weeks one and two as you'd like, but you'll grow from it," Henderson said.
Henderson anticipates the biggest learning curve happening in the field, while UK's star junior center fielder expects to use a simplified approach at the plate.
"When you're growing up, you go out there your first two times and it's like riding a bike," Austin Cousino said. "You see the ball and hit it and you don't try to get too complicated with it."
After a scorching start to 2013, UK struggled to put together enough offense to back a solid pitching staff. The Cats scored just 3.8 runs per game last season in narrowly falling short of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2014, Cousino doesn't expect UK to be the kind of offensive juggernaut the 2012 squad was in slugging 56 home runs. He does believe, however, that the Cats will be more than capable of putting enough runs on the board to win.
"Our lineup's not going to have as much bang as it did freshman year, but we're going to play to our strengths a lot better," Cousino said.
If Cousino is right, the Cats could be the kind of team they thought they would be a season ago.
UK has a three-man weekend rotation that could be among the nation's best. Shepherd, a junior, will move from the bullpen, where he excelled, into a Saturday role, while sophomore Kyle Cody will occupy a Sunday spot after pitching his way into the rotation late in his freshman season. On Fridays, Henderson will hand the ball to two-way star and preseason first-team All-American A.J. Reed.
"We are going to have three starting pitchers that are good, if not very good on any given date," Henderson said. "We'll be able to match up with starting pitching every weekend."
Reed enters the season as the staff ace for the second year in a row, but could be poised for an even better junior season.
"In the offseason and the fall we really worked on changing my body so I can last throughout the season longer," Reed said. "I dropped about 20 pounds, which was a big thing for us being able to work the whole field hitting wise and going the other way using the gaps. Also really enhancing my pitches by making them better, sharper and I got a better curveball."
But as much as Reed's transformation will help him at the plate and on the mound, it could be an even biggest boost in the way it sets the tone for his younger teammates.
"I think any time a college kid makes a commitment like that and changes how he goes about his business, I think it's a really positive thing," Henderson said. "I think everybody appreciates it. I think everybody respects it and appreciates it and I think we are going to benefit by the fact that A.J. has taken his physical condition to a new level."
Henderson has already seen that pay dividends.
"The maturity of our group is at a different level than it was at any time last spring, so that's really a positive," Henderson said. "The team culture is good to this point and obviously I'm well aware we haven't played a game yet, but I am proud of what the kids have done."
Now, UK has its first chance to show what that work means on the field.
On opening day a season ago, UK-Virginia would have been a matchup of highly ranked teams. This year, the Cats are the underdogs.
"There are less expectations for us out there," Cousino said. "I don't think there's any shortage of that in our locker room. I think we know what we're capable of, I think we know what kind of squad we have and I think it'll be a good game."
Regardless of how good of a game it is or even the outcome, UK's will still have work ahead this weekend. The Cats will face host UNC Wilmington on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, VMI at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday and USC Upstate at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.
The way UK handles that will be the first measure of what Cousino expects to define this season.
"I think we just have to get back in the process, the approach of playing a game one pitch at a time, one weekend, one game," Cousino said. "I think year's club is a lot better at that."
Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points in UK's 64-56 win at Auburn on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Tonight, we break down Kentucky's second road win in five days, a 64-56 victory at Auburn.
At some point, you figured the shots would start falling for Kentucky. They never did, but UK survived anyway. The Wildcats pulled away late at Auburn, outscoring the home-standing Tigers 29-18 over the final 11:29 to turn a three-point deficit into a 64-56 win. UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 30.9 percent for the game, but scored 21 second-chance points off 22 offensive rebounds in winning its fourth game in a row. Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points and Julius Randle added a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.The difference:
Defense. As hard as it was for UK to score on Wednesday night, the Cats made it even harder on Auburn. The Tigers shot just 32.7 percent as a team, getting consistent scoring only from leading scorer Chris Denson (26 points on 8-of-18 shooting). Denson's backcourt mate, K.T. Harrell, struggled from start to finish with UK's length and scored only seven points -- more than 12 points below his season average -- on 2-of-15 shooting.Player of the game:
Harrison. UK's most consistent offensive threat, Harrison didn't shoot the ball particularly well (3-of-10). However, he pushed the ball in transition effectively and picked his spots on drives to go 8-fot-11 at the free-throw line. The freshman point guard also converted a big and-one with 6:23 remaining to double UK's lead from three points to six. Auburn would get no closer than five the rest of the way. Turning point:
With 11:25 left and UK trailing 38-35, Randle had just four points and five rebounds. At the under-12 media timeout, John Calipari called his star freshman's number. UK fed Randle in the post and he delivered a basket in a matter of seconds, getting himself and his team going. Starting with that basket, Randle had eight points and seven rebounds as UK finished off its fourth victory in a row.Key stat:
3-point shooting. On the season, UK is shooting 52.6 percent from inside the arc. The Cats typically make their living inside, but they only 12-of-43 (27.9 percent) from 2-point range on this night. Thankfully, the shots were falling at a reasonable clip -- 5-of-12 or 41.7 percent -- from 3. UK, meanwhile, held Auburn to 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) shooting from 3.Unsung hero:
Johnson. The 7-foot freshman has settled nicely into a starting role. Johnson had eight points and eight rebounds in his 21 minutes, grabbing a team-high seven boards on the offensive glass in the process. He also added two steals and a block.
What this one means:
For the second game in a row, UK wasn't at its best on the road. In SEC play, that often means back-to-back losses. The Cats, however, were able to gut both games out. Coach Cal will have plenty to talk about in Thursday's film session, but it will be much more pleasant coming off another win. UK has now won seven times in eight games to set up a highly anticipated showdown with SEC-leading Florida on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. Postgame video interviews
Fifth-year senior Micheal Thomas started 41 of UK's 55 games behind the plate as a junior. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
This is the final edition of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino), part eight (Greg Fettes), part nine (Max Kuhn).
Five years ago, Kentucky senior catcher Micheal Thomas was the quarterback for his Elizabethtown High School team.
While under center, he led E-Town to a 10-3 record and a narrow loss in the regional finals.
Flash forward to the 2014 preseason and those leadership skills, honed as a high school quarterback, are being put to full use Kentucky's primary returning starter behind the plate.
"When you look at the 2012 team, you have guys you can kind of focus on, Luke (Maile), Michael Williams, (Matt) Reida, guys that were clear leaders," Thomas said. "You can look at the professional level, the Red Sox, they had a core group of guys that really wanted to get to the World Series, and not just get there but win it. Every baseball team needs a clear-cut group of leaders that can focus the guys in when things aren't going nearly as well and get the guys to be where they need to be in the preseason to get ready for the season ahead of them."
Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound fifth-year senior, played in 49 of UK's 55 games as a junior, making 43 starts, including 41 behind the plate.
Thomas hit .239 with 23 runs, three doubles, three homers and 21 RBI at the plate but it was his steady defensive presence that drew constant praise from UK coach Gary Henderson and catching coordinator Keith Vorhoff.
"For a guy that the first three years hasn't seen as many innings behind the plate or as many at bats as you would want to or hope for, you definitely learn and get a feel for what you need to get better at, mentally and physically, and how quick you need to find a way to be able to get the team to reach the goals that we want to have," Thomas said. "I definitely learned how to approach the game in a way that I can lead the team, whether it is on the field or off the field, to help us make it to the postseason."
He put together the best defensive season of any UK catcher in the modern era and the best of any catcher in the SEC, fielding .997, with his lone error coming on a catcher's interference early in the year. He threw out 35 percent of base stealers, as UK ranked third in the league in pickoffs and fewest stolen bases allowed.
That falls right in line with one of Henderson's cornerstones in building a program: shutting down an opponent's running game. Since Henderson arrived on campus, UK has allowed the fewest steals in the SEC in five of 10 seasons, with UK also annually ranking among the league leaders in pickoffs.
With a new era of bat standards sweeping the college game in 2011, offenses had to get more creative in an effort to score runs and pitching staffs had to quickly adapt to a new style of play. One pitching staff that did not need to learn the fundamental of holding runners was Henderson's group, which has earned a deserved reputation as a staff that is stingy with its steals allowed.
"Hendu takes pride in it," Thomas said. "He tries to prepare our pitchers for every possible situation when it comes to guys trying to steal bags. We definitely spend a lot of time on it so in the season it is almost like second nature to them. It is a big jump for the freshman who in high school threw so hard that no one ever thought they could steal off them. Now they have to come in and pursue the ability to control the runner, control the tempo and have a level of awareness of different body languages, when they are going to run, when to pick and when not to pick. Overall, we do a pretty good job at controlling the running game, if not completely shutting it down."
Thomas's ascension to the starting catching position in 2013 highlights what a long way he has come in five year on campus. Thomas made the UK team as a walk-on entering the 2009 season and a tireless work ethic, attention to detail and determination have earned him a spot in the lineup."
"The most important thing I have learned over the last four years is that I have found a way to play the game of baseball at a mature level," Thomas said. "And look at things with a little different insight then when I first came in."
One of those projects that required complete dedication was transforming his body into one that could handle the rigors of catching 40-50 games a year, which started with losing extraneous weight and then building up his body mass into a strong and compact frame.
"I made some huge strides in trying to get my body to the best ability that it needs to be to play at the college level and hopefully pursue a professional career," Thomas said. "Catching is such mental game, you have to be able to control not only yourself but your pitchers. Coming in as a younger guy, or being a guy that doesn't play as much, it is really hard to try and take on that role unless you have the right approach to it."
Thomas will benefit greatly from the emergence of UK sophomore catcher Greg Fettes, who became the first Kentucky catcher to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team. Along with Fettes, Thomas is joined behind the plate by talented sophomore Zach Arnold, who has tremendous defensive skills and an emerging offensive game.
"They are both great guys," Thomas said. "They both have the ability to be great leaders and great players behind the plate. The big thing I have noticed from being with Greg the last two years and Arnie last year, is how much they have grown up. This year, they are both going to have an impact. Greg is going to be a big help with his bat and behind the plate. And Arnie has a real gift to catch and his hitting is really coming around. This year they are both going to be huge fundamental parts of the team. They are going to have key roles to play. As far as years to come, there is a bright future for Kentucky catching."
Now the elder statesman on the roster, Thomas knows his leadership is going to be a priority, not just because of his seniority but also his positional home.
"Being a catcher is one of those positions that everyone doesn't really want to play because if it was easy, everyone would want to play it," Thomas said. "You have to be able to come in and have the right mindset, stay as positive as possible. Everything is not necessarily going to go your way but you have to have the ability to be a leader, stay positive and control your guys and be the second coach on the field. The guys that we have behind the plate this year are going to be able to do a lot better job at it this year and help lead us as far as possible."
That experience leading the Panthers during his high school career from behind center is great training for his leadership role in 2014.
"It is almost one of those positions that you are dictated to be a leader," Thomas said. "You don't see too many receivers or offensive lineman leading the team. Catcher is the same way. It is almost as if everyone is looking at you. You are the big strong guy, the mentally tough guy that can help lead the team."
UK will host Ole Miss on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in its annual Play4Kay game. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell saw positives in Kentucky's 86-80 loss to Florida on Sunday.
The Wildcats turned in one of their best offensive efforts of Southeastern Conference play, shooting 56.3 percent in the second half in nearly coming from a double-digit deficit.
The silver lining, however, was merely a reminder of the issues that have plagued UK of late.
"We scored 80 points and that was good," Mitchell said. "It's just been difficult. Some games we've held teams in the 50s and then we don't score. And then the day we score 80, we give up 86 and so that was tough."
Game to game, Mitchell doesn't know what to expect from his team. He needs look no further in search of reasons for UK's five losses in nine games.
"Just the lack of consistency's what hurting us right now," Mitchell said. "If we ever get that going in practice, we're going to be in really good shape. When we were playing really well early in the season, we were very, very consistent with what we were doing."
That fact is what Mitchell is counting on as he looks ahead to the remainder of the season. The Cats know what they are capable of because they've already done it. They know they can compete with the best because they're already beaten the likes of Louisville and Baylor.
"We're not a team that's dreaming about having good players and being able to make things happen," Mitchell said. "We can do it, so for me right now you just can't give into frustration, you can't give into negative thoughts and you can't give into discouragement."
Kastine Evans - whom Mitchell counts on as a team leader along with Bria Goss - feels the same way. That's why she's altered her approach to dealing with her teammates, trying to uplift them with text messages rather than berate them for mistakes.
"I think I've been a lot more vocal and encouraging (not) so much as criticism or constructive criticism just because that's something that we've needed," Evans said. "It's hard when the coaches are on you and somebody who's at the equal level as you because I'm playing with my teammates to also try to more critical."
No. 18/18 UK (17-6, 5-5 SEC) will look to prove that approach is working when the Cats host Ole Miss (10-15, 1-10 SEC) in its annual Play4Kay game. Both teams will wear pink uniforms and UK is encouraging fans to wear pink of their own for the game, which will tip at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum.
"It's going to be a tough game," Mitchell said. "Ole Miss is certainly a team that has some explosive athletes, one of the best point guards that I've seen in the conference in (Valencia) McFarland and (Tia) Faleru is a very explosive post player that can drive the basketball and just plays with great, great energy and can make an impact on the boards."
The most familiar face on the Ole Miss sideline will be Matt Insell, who spent five seasons as an assistant under Mitchell at UK before being named the Rebel head coach this offseason.
"We speak pretty frequently," Mitchell said. "I mean, we spent a lot of time together in the trenches and have a real strong friendship and he's done a lot for this program and contributed a lot and I certainly was proud for him to be able to move and realize his dream of being a head coach, especially in the SEC."
As warm as the feelings may be between the two, they'll be put aside for two hours on Thursday night.
"We want to beat him really bad tomorrow night if we can, but when we are not in that arena I'm there to support him," Mitchell said. "And he's supported me a bunch over the years, I'm telling you. He's really been a great friend to me, so it's a relationship that I think's built on some friendship and some mutual respect for one another."
Max Kuhn started 54 of UK's 55 games in 2013, charting the most walks in a season for a UK player since Collin Cowgill in 2008. (Photo by the SEC)
This is the ninth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino), part eight (Greg Fettes).
A season ago, Kentucky infielder Max Kuhn opened the year with three career at-bats.
After a season as the everyday third baseman in 2013, Kuhn enters his junior season with an entirely different perspective.
"This year is just, after having a year of SEC under my belt, I just have an idea of what to expect," Kuhn said. "In the summer and the offseason it has just been about focusing on those key things to get better at, working hard at those things and just trying to be as prepared as I can be for this upcoming season and for SEC play."
Kuhn, a native of Zionsville, Ind., started 54 of UK's 55 games at third base as a sophomore. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder hit .242 with nine doubles, one triple, five homers and 29 RBI, stealing 7-of-9 bases.
It was a solid season for Kuhn, who showcased a tremendous skill set at the hot corner. A former high school shortstop, Kuhn has quick hands and owns some of the best third-base arms in the SEC. He finished his first year in the lineup with a .952 fielding percentage, starting primarily at third base, with a few starts at first base with A.J. Reed on the mound.
At the plate, Kuhn's end-of-the-year offensive numbers were not truly indicative of the type of campaign he was capable of. For most of the year, Kuhn's average hovered around .300, with his walk-strikeout ratio consistently 1-for-1.
"What I learned was that SEC pitching is a step above other conferences," Kun said. "You really have to have an approach and stick to that approach. With the SEC having so many different types of pitchers, whether it is a lefty sidearmer or a right-handed power arm, you just have to stick to you approach and be able to adjust between pitches."
Overall, Kuhn drew a team-best 37 walks and struck out 40 times and reaching base safely in 48 of his 54 games. It marked the most walks for a UK player since All-America outfielder Collin Cowgill finished with 49 walks in 2008.
"I never have thought about it too much," Kuhn said. "It is more just going up there and hoping the pitcher makes a mistake. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it can hurt you if I am not aggressive enough. I am just working on the approach and on handling the whole plate a lot better. Handle the tough pitches and be even more selective. Get that walk-strikeout ratio more at 1:1 or better."
Kuhn had several key at-bats during the year, including a game-tying home run at No. 9 Louisville and a game-winning blast in the bottom of the eighth inning in a series opener vs. Michigan State. He added a home run against No. 1 Vanderbilt and Commodore southpaw Kevin Ziomek.
During the offseason, for the second consecutive summer, Kuhn ventured to the highly competitive Northwoods League, regarded as one of the top three summer leagues in the nation.
Kuhn earned all-star honors in the circuit, batting .280 with 39 runs, 13 doubles, six homers and 46 RBI.
One of the hallmarks of the Northwoods League is its grueling schedule, with teams playing upwards of 60 games in a summer.
"It just helped me by showing up to play every day," Kuhn said. "When you are up there, you don't know the area and there is not much to do, so you spend a lot of your time trying to get better, whether it is showing up for early infield work or extra BP."
Kuhn's time in the Northwoods League was his second tour, giving the former 24th-round selection of the Oakland Athletics in 2011 a total of 378 wooden at-bats over the two summers.
That kind of workload can only help Kuhn in his development and after a fall, he earned praise from the UK coaching staff for his leadership. In a season where player leadership takes on an increased role, Kuhn has been praised for his growth and development on and off the diamond.
"My freshman year was definitely a shocker," Kuhn said. "Everything was new to me. I just learned from older guys my freshman year and ever last year, what we are trying to do at Kentucky and our mission. This year, being an upperclassman and being a junior and also having a lot of older guys who were also there in 2012, we all know where we want to be and where this team can go. It is just important to keep the team together and keep everything positive."
UK will travel to Auburn for a game against the Tigers at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This late in the season, there's a line of thinking that says teams are what they are. Some might say that with just a month before conference tournaments tip off, the only work that can be done is fine-tuning.
UK assistant coach Kenny Payne disagrees.
"I don't buy it," Payne said. "I think that every day we come in, our sole philosophy is to get better each day. And we're so young, and what we are can change tomorrow."
Payne can say that with confidence because he's seen it happen.
"One game we can be an excellent post team, one game we can be an excellent guard-oriented team," Payne said. "We have very good depth, but they have to play well together. For us, it's every day getting better."
A particular emphasis in that process of daily improvement since a win at Mississippi State on Saturday has been transition defense. The Bulldogs -- though the box score showed they only outscored UK 8-2 in fast-break points -- repeatedly made UK pay for not getting back in transition.
"Their game plan I think was just to outwork us and so that's what it was," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "The only way they could really score was if they were to do it in transition or straight-line drives. That's what we've really been working on."
The issue, at least for 40 minutes, seemed to be resolved in last Tuesday's victory over Ole Miss. Just days after Missouri torched the Cats in transition, UK held the visiting Rebels to just two fast-break points. But as you might expect of a team as young as Kentucky, learning a lesson takes more than one misstep.
"We've been working on it for quite a while, and I think the thing that we have to continue is continue to build on it, continue to remind them of how important it is, because every team seems to be using that as a disadvantage for us," Payne said. "That's a weakness of our team that we've got to correct."
If they don't, the Cats' next opponent figures to make them pay.
Set to host No. 14/13 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Auburn (11-10, 3-7 SEC) has won three of four. The only loss came over the weekend at LSU at a score (87-80) nearly identical to the one from 87-82 loss UK suffered in Baton Rouge, La., two weeks ago.
"Their coach is probably one of the best coaches in the country at scheming it and stopping people's offense," Cauley-Stein said of John Calipari protege Tony Barbee. "So that's what we're really worried about because we're going down to Auburn, it's going to be a tough place to play at and with our up and down on our transition and stuff they got a couple guards that can really hurt us."
Those guards -- Chris Denson and K.T. Harrell -- have done plenty of that lately. The two are averaging 26 and 20.8 points over their last four games and 20.2 and 19.4 points on the season, respectively.
"If we walk in there and think that we're just going to beat them, it's not happening," Payne said. "We will have to play well to beat that team, and especially at their home."
UK has certainly played well in stretches this season -- Payne named UK's offensive effort against Missouri as an example -- but hasn't put it all together on one night. Coach Cal said it's no given the Cats reach that point this season, but Payne has a good idea what it will look like if they do.
"I would like to say that we're really close, but until we do it once, it's hard to say," Payne said. "If this team ever gets five or six of these guys playing great the same night, who knows how good we can be? And if we do it consistently, it's scary."
Greg Fettes became the first UK catcher in program history to be voted by the league coaches to the All-SEC Freshman Team. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the eighth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino).
Dating back to Justin Scutchfield, Sean Coughlin, Marcus Nidiffer and Luke Maile, Kentucky has had a cadre of talented catchers.
But never in program history have the Wildcats had a catcher earn a spot on the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team.
In 2013, Greg Fettes became the first UK player to be voted on the All-SEC Freshman Team by the league coaches.
"That is pretty awesome to know that the guys that have been here, Nidi (Marcus Nidiffer), Maile, (Michael) Williams and MT (Micheal Thomas); there have been some great catchers here before me," Fettes said. "To be the first catcher to be named that is pretty awesome."
A native of Madison Heights, Mich., Fettes redshirted during the 2012 season, as UK was blessed with Maile, Williams and Thomas behind the plate en route to a school-record 45-win season. He worked hard in the weight room during the redshirt season, as Maile and Williams rotated behind the dish.
"Where I come from in Michigan, high school baseball is just okay. It is not a great competition," Fettes said. "So for myself, the speed of the game, how much faster it is then high school baseball, that was a challenge itself."
With arm strength and tantalizing raw power, Fettes used the year to develop in the weight room and improve as a receiver.
"In college and in the SEC, you have better pitchers, older guys who are bigger and stronger and faster," Fettes said. "As a catcher, my biggest challenge was receiving because those guys are throwing harder and it is also moving. Coming in as a freshman, you are already having your head spinning because you are young, in a new environment, and you have all these other guys looking at you. The game is faster, you have better players around you and you press a little bit. With all the failure in college baseball, it kind of weighs on you that first year and then it takes a little while to figure it out."
Fettes served primarily as the back-up catcher to veteran and defensive dynamo Micheal Thomas during 2013, before emerging as a right-handed hitting weapon in key situations late in the year.
Fettes finished the year batting .250 with five doubles, three homers and nine RBI, sporting a 9-to-12 walk-strikeout ratio. Of his 15 hits as a freshman, eight went for extra bases.
"I learned how to be patient and really go get what you want," Fettes said. "I really didn't play that much in the beginning of the season but I really wanted to play and to play here. I felt like I went out and never gave up. When I got my opportunities I took it and ran with it and did well."
Among those opportunities were his three home runs, with each bomb coming as a key shot in SEC action. His first career home run came as a two-run, game-tying shot vs. South Carolina ace Jordan Montgomery.
In a historic UK series win at No. 16 Ole Miss, Fettes belted a double vs. ace Bobby Wahl in the opener, and hit his biggest blast of the year, a game-tying blast in the rubber match. His first career homer at Cliff Hagan Stadium came in a matchup vs. No. 14 Arkansas and flame-thrower Ryne Stanek, and he also added a double against the Razorback ace.
His progress defensively was also evident, a key ingredient in UK head coach Gary Henderson's ability to construct an effective pitching staff. Henderson annually emphasizes controlling the running game from the mound and behind the plate, with UK allowing the fewest stolen bases in the SEC in five of his 10 seasons guiding UK pitchers. It is an element of the game that has taken on increased importance in an era of less potent bat standards.
"With Hendu controlling the running game and the skill of our pitchers and catchers, it just shuts it down," Fettes said. "We really don't have to worry about people running. Behind the plate, I can get more strikes for my pitchers. Not having to jump out and control the running game, it allows us to stay in there and get more called strikes."
Entering the 2014 season, Fettes is primed for a big season, along with a veteran and talented UK weekend pitching rotation.
"You have A.J. (Reed), who is going to give you seven innings guaranteed," Fettes said. "Then you have (Kyle) Cody, a flamethrower, you are getting 98 (mph). Then Shep (Chandler Shepherd) you are getting a guy that throws hard and throws like seven pitches. A.J. and Shep, it is their third year; they have played in the SEC for two years. And Cody has grown too and those two have taken Cody under their wing. They have pulled him in and we are going to need those three guys to win."
Over the recent history of Kentucky baseball, a common element among its most successful teams - 2006, 2008, 2012 - was a talented, veteran platoon behind the plate. With Thomas, a fifth-year senior who started 41 games behind the dish in 2013, and sophomore Zach Arnold, a lockdown defender in his own right, UK is armed with a trio of catching talents.
"We play 56 regular-season games and that is a lot of baseball," Fettes said. "Just having some options, gives you a fresh guy. Catcher is the most important position out there. You are controlling the pitchers and everyone else. Just having the catcher fresh, with a clear head and in our case you have three guys, means we can have fresh legs throughout the season. That is most important because when you get through those 56 games and get into the SEC Tournament and Regionals, we aren't going to be burned out. We are going to have fresh legs and we are going to be ready to win in Omaha."
- Kentucky turned in a sweep of the Magnolia State with wins over Ole Miss and Mississippi State this week. UK met Ole Miss in a battle for second place in the SEC and dominated the Rebels en route to an 80-64 win.
- Kentucky was paced by the play of sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein who logged his second double-double of the season. He posted a season-high 18 points to couple with 11 boards and six blocked shots. As a unit, UK smacked a season-high 12 blocked shots with freshman Dakari Johnson chipping in with a career-best four swats. Kentucky limited the Rebels to a .357 field goal clip in the second half and outscored the visitors by a 45-30 margin in the second stanza.
- Against Mississippi State, Kentucky earned a 69-59 victory led by freshman Julius Randle who notched 16 points and added seven rebounds. Johnson chipped in with nine points and a team-best eight rebounds. Fellow freshman Aaron Harrison had a steady week providing consistency in all phases of the game. He notched 16 points against the Rebels and had six rebounds in the win. Against the Bulldogs, Harrison chipped in nine points, had six more rebounds and added a squad-best six assists just one shy of a career high.
- Coming off a bye week, Kentucky went on the road to face the Florida Gators for the second time this season. The Cats were looking to avenge an 83-73 home loss to the Gators from earlier this season. Trailing by 14 points with 16:13 to play in the game, the Wildcats clawed back within two with 2:13 to play but Florida capitalized on UK turnovers and hit 4-of-6 free throws down the stretch to defeat UK, 86-80.
- It marked the first time since Dec. 18, 2011 the Wildcats have lost a game when scoring 80 or more points. Five players scored in double figures, paced by junior Jennifer O'Neill's 20 points, 15 coming in the second half.
- Senior forwards DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker each recorded double-doubles with Stallworth charting 14 points and a career-high tying 13 rebounds and Walker adding 10 points and 12 rebounds. Junior Bria Goss and freshman Linnae Harper added 12 and 10 points, respectively.
- After three consecutive weekends on the road, the Kentucky gymnastics team scored a season-best 195.450 against No. 1 Florida in its returned to Memorial Coliseum Friday on DanceBlue Night. UF recorded a 197.175 to win and keep its perfect record intact.
- The Wildcats tallied a season-high score by 0.300 points against the defending national champion-Gators thanks to a 2014-best vault score and individual season-highs set or tied six times. For the first time this year, Kentucky scored a 49.000 or higher on two events, with a 49.025 on floor and a season-best 49.000 on vault to open the competition. The Blue and White also notched a 48.800 on uneven bars and a 48.625 on balance beam, both their second-highest totals on each apparatus in 2014.
- Senior Audrey Harrison led UK with a 39.225 in the all-around, a season-best. Harrison also led the Wildcats with a 9.825 on beam, a 9.800 on bars and tied redshirt junior Kayla Hartley with a 9.825 on floor. Senior Holly Cunningham notched a team-best 9.850 on vault.
- Friday was DanceBlue Night, to raise awareness and money to benefit children with cancer who are treated at UK's Pediatric Oncology Hematology Clinic. UK wore gold warm-up tops, which are being auctioned off on UKathletics.com to benefit DanceBlue. More information about DanceBlue can be found at DanceBlue.org.
- The Wildcats return to the road Feb. 15 at the Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. UK will face a trio of top-15 teams in No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 LSU and 13th-ranked Arizona. Kentucky travels to the Lone Star State for the first time since 2008, when UK won a four-team invitational hosted by Texas Women's University.
- The Kentucky rifle team dropped its final match of the regular season Saturday, falling 4702-4688 at West Virginia.
- Senior Emily Holsopple delivered the Wildcats' best air rifle performance of the year, shooting a 596, while also leading UK in smallbore with a 587.
- Sophomore Connor Davis broke the 590 mark in air rifle for the 11th time this year with a 590.
- After a week off, Kentucky will return to action Feb. 22, hosting the NCAA Qualifiers.
- The No. 12 University of Kentucky softball team started its season in style by going 5-0 on its West Coast swing with wins over No. 2 Oklahoma and Santa Clara, Long Beach State, Loyola Marymount and George Washington. The 5-0 start is the best in school history for Kentucky, while its win over No. 2 Oklahoma - the defending national champions - tied the highest-ranked opponent UK has ever defeated.
- Junior catcher Griffin Joiner paced UK
offensively with a .667 (10-for-15) batting average with two doubles, three homers and nine RBI, while sophomores Maisie Steed and Ansley Smith and seniors Ginny Carroll and Emily Jolly each hit homers.
- Sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley paced UK in the circle with her first collegiate no-hitter and a 10-inning win over No. 2 Oklahoma. The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., struck out a career-high 11 batters against Santa Clara in the no-hit bid, while striking out eight against Oklahoma. Senior Lauren Cumbess and freshman Shannon Smith each tossed shutouts in wins over Long Beach State and George Washington, respectively, while freshman Meagan Prince got the win in seven strong innings vs. Loyola Marymount.
- The No. 17 University of Kentucky men's tennis team got back on track with two wins on Sunday afternoon, knocking off No. 50 Michigan State 4-1, and Wright State 6-0. With the two results, Kentucky snapped a three-game losing streak and upped its record to 7-3 on the season.
- Senior Tom Jomby earned career win No. 75 on Sunday as he came back from down a set to win his match 6-7, 6-3, 6-3 on court one to pick up the victory. Jomby has the highest win total of any active UK player, and currently sits seventh on the all-time wins list at Kentucky.
- The Wildcats' win over Michigan State upped Kentucky's record to 2-0 on the season against teams representing the B1G conference. Four of UK's seven wins in 2014 have come against teams in the current ITA top 50.
- The University of Kentucky women's tennis team went 2-0, Saturday in a doubleheader against Marshall University and Morehead State. Kentucky won both matches, 6-1.
- Sophomore Kirsten Lewis was consistent in both her singles matches. Lewis competed in the No. 4 singles position and defeated Marshall's Anna Pomyatinskaya, 6-2, 6-1, and Morehead State's Sandrine Beaule, 6-0, 6-0.
- Aldila Sutjiadi came from 5-1 deficit to beat Morehead State's Briar Preston, 7-5 in the second set, tying her match on court one. In the tiebreak, Sutjiadi demanded the floor, beating her opponent, 6-2, 7-5 (7).
- Kentucky moves to 6-1 on the season and will be back in action Wednesday, Feb. 12 for a doubleheader against Eastern Kentucky University and East Tennessee State University. The first match against EKU will begin at 10 a.m. ET followed by ETSU at 6 p.m. ET.
Monday, Feb. 10
Women's Golf at UCF Challenge - 9 a.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 11
Women's Golf at UCF Challenge - 8:45 a.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 12
Women's Tennis vs. Eastern Kentucky - 10 a.m.
Women's Tennis vs. ETSU - 6 p.m.
Men's Basketball at Auburn - 8 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 13
Women's Basketball vs. Ole Miss - 7 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 14
Softball vs. Louisiana Tech - 11 a.m. (Austin, Texas)
Baseball vs. Virginia - 12 p.m. (Wilmington, N.C.)
Women's Tennis vs. Ohio State - 1 p.m.
Softball at Texas - 5 p.m.
Track & Field at Tyson Invitational - TBA
Track & Field at Hoosier Hill Invite - TBA
Track & Field at Husky Classic - TBA
Track & Field at Iowa State Classic - TBA
Saturday, Feb. 15
Softball vs. IPFW - 11 a.m. (Austin, Texas)
Baseball at UNC-Wilmington - 4 p.m.
Gymnastics vs. Arizona, LSU, Oklahoma - 8 p.m.
(Fort Worth, Texas)
Men's Basketball vs. Florida - 9 p.m.
Track & Field at Tyson Invitational - TBA
Track & Field at Hoosier Hill Invite - TBA
Track & Field at Husky Classic - TBA
Track & Field at Iowa State Classic - TBA
Sunday, Feb. 16
Baseball vs. VMI - 10 a.m. (Wilmington, N.C.)
Women's Tennis at Indiana - 11 a.m.
Women's Basketball at Tennessee - 1 p.m.
When it launches on Aug. 21 of this year, the SEC Network is going to forever change how fans of the Southeastern Conference follow their teams, in addition to helping secure and strengthen the future of the nation's best conference.
The 24/7 network will provide unprecedented coverage of all league sports, from studio programming to at least 450 live events every year. That will include more than 100 men's basketball games, many of which will feature Kentucky.
Although a schedule for next season won't be released until later, a look at this year's UK men's basketball slate gives an idea of how the SEC Network will affect fans' ability to watch games it the future.
In past years, UK games not picked up by national television have been aired on outlets like the UK IMG Network, Comcast Sports South, Fox Sports South and SEC TV. The new SEC Network is expected to replace all of these options, as you can see in the 2013-14 schedule below.
As many as 10 regular-season games, Big Blue Madness and both exhibitions this season would have been broadcast on the SEC Network had it launched in August 2013 rather than August 2014.
High-definition broadcasts with announcers intimately familiar with the SEC will enhance the watching experience for all of these games, provided fans have access to the SEC Network through their cable/satellite provider.
As of today, AT&T U-verse is the only national provider that has signed a deal to make the SEC Network available to its subscribers. If the SEC Network launched today, fans using major providers like DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner and Comcast would not be able to access it.
If you love Kentucky basketball and you want to make sure you'll be able to watch every game, visit GetSECNetwork.com
to tell your provider you want the SEC Network.Note: The information below is based on how the SEC Network is expected to affect the way games will be broadcast after launch and is NOT official.
Junior centerfielder Austin Cousino was a preseason All-America selection by Baseball America. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the seventh of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal).
There is one common thread that stands out when looking at the most successful teams in Kentucky history: leadership.
The 2006 Southeastern Conference Championship team had Andrew Albers, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Strieby. The 2008 club had Albers, Cowgill and Sawyer Carroll. In 2012, UK was led by star catcher Luke Maile, All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy and fiery closer Trevor Gott.
Entering the 2014 season, Kentucky is hoping that its leadership will come in the form of its dynamic junior centerfielder, Austin Cousino
, who has earned rave reviews for his progress as a vocal and emotional forerunner during the fall and preseason.
As a freshman on the 2012 record-setting club, Cousino played a key role as the leadoff hitter and defensive dynamo in centerfield. He and Maile tied for the team lead with a .319 average, with Cousino belting nine homers and driving in 41 runs en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. While hitting leadoff in 62 games, Cousino was the sparkplug at the top of the order and brought an energetic presence to the UK club.
Following the summer, Cousino went on to lead the USA Collegiate National Team in hitting, including a historic series win in Cuba and a gold medal at Honkbal Week in the Netherlands. That led to the Dublin, Ohio, native entering his sophomore year as the Baseball America preseason SEC player of the year.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound left-handed hitter got off to a slow start in non-league play, as teams worked around the dynamic hitter with a blossoming résumé.
He finished with a .249 average, belting 12 doubles, one triple, six homers and 27 RBI, stealing 14 bases. In SEC play alone, Cousino finished with a .270 average.
"It definitely humbled me," Cousino said. "It can only help because some people never experience that kind of failure before, maybe not until their second or third year of pro ball. Looking back on it, obviously it was tough, it was a roller coaster, but I learned a lot about myself and how to overcome it. You can take for granted sometimes what you've done in the past. The SEC is a grind and it is not how you start but how you finish. You can look at that from freshman year. It is a long season and you have to take it one at-bat, one pitch at a time."
Defensively he continued to shine, becoming the third player in program history to win the Rawlings Gold Glove, given to the nation's top outfielder.
"It was something that couldn't have happened without the pitching staff and the players around me," Cousino said. "It was a cool award to win. Other than that it is just something that you put on the shelf and you look back on. The team goals are something that you really want. To be able to host and get to a super (regional) and make it to Omaha is the priority."
After the 2013 campaign, Cousino joined Team USA for a second tour, batting .273 in 22 games and 19 starts, belting one homer and driving in seven runs.
"It is always a cool experience to be a part of USA Baseball," Cousino said. "It is first class and everything you do with it is enjoyable. It is fun. It is entertaining. You get to do a lot of cool stuff. But the best part is the relationships that you form and the people that you meet."
He was joined for the first portion of the summer by his UK classmate, two-way standout A.J. Reed
, who split time between Team USA and the Cape Cod League.
"A.J. was my locker mate (with Team USA)," Cousino said. "It was cool, knowing someone that you are close to going into it made it a bit more comfortable. He is a great player. And while he didn't stay the whole summer, he did play to the best of his abilities while he was there and he enjoyed the whole experience."
Following the summer, Cousino arrived in Lexington for the fall practice season focused and prepared to help lead the Wildcats back where they left off in 2012.
"The swing is good," UK head coach Gary Henderson said about Cousino's development through the fall. "He has worked hard. You are going to see a stronger body and a little bit more athletic look. The swing has always been nice. It has been a pretty swing, really. What you are going to see is a much more disciplined approach and a freer mind. We are really excited about what Austin has done."
After a great fall, Cousino earned praise for his on-field progress but most notably to the UK coaching staff was his vocal leadership presence.
"That is the coolest part about this team is everyone buys in," Cousino said. "We have great leadership this year. We have some kids that like each other and we are excited to get the season going. Everyone is aware and everyone is important. There is no separation because at the end of the year in a regional, you just don't know who you are going to need in a 22-inning game. We have guys that came in focused from day one and it is great that the younger guys were open to the older guys leading the way, Micheal Thomas, A.J., Max (Kuhn), (Matt) Reida, Chandler (Shepherd). The new guys didn't come in hard-headed but just with a knack to work hard. They understand how we want to do things around the program and we have done a pretty good job so far."
Thomas Bernal drove in the game-winning run in UK's comeback win at USC Upstate in 2013. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the sixth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody), part five (Chandler Shepherd).
When Kentucky first baseman Thomas Bernal suffered an arm injury while trying to haul in an errant throw during a 2013 win over Georgia, the Wildcats were 21-6.
After his injury, Kentucky - faced with precious little right-handed hitting production and a shortage of options at first base - finished the season 10-19 to narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Wildcats, who hit .292 as a team with Bernal as an option in the lineup and .223 with him in an arm sling in the dugout.
Entering the 2013 season, Bernal was going to be counted on in variety of roles, most notably as the first baseman when standout A.J. Reed was pitching or serving as the designated hitter. His competitive, hard-nosed approach in the box also gave Kentucky a unique right-handed option as a pinch hitter late in games.
"I knew going to the year that I wasn't going to start every day," Bernal said. "Figured I would get some starts every other day or at first when A.J. was pitching but I was just ready to come off the bench in key situations or to be able to come in at first if A.J. was pinch ran for. I always just knew I had to get ready every game. Of course no one wants to come off the bench, but at Kentucky, playing in the SEC, that is what I came here for. It is all about staying ready and taking advantage of any situations that come up."
Through the first 27 games of the year, before his injury, Bernal had started seven games and played in 18, starting each game against a left-handed starter. He had a game-winning RBI single as the pinch hitter in UK's ninth inning comeback win at USC Upstate to open the year, finishing with a .321 average with three doubles and five RBI before the errant throw vs. Georgia.
"It was obviously hard, having to watch the end of the year from the bench," Bernal said. "It wasn't just me; we all kind of collapsed at the end. It really hurt watching from the bench and knowing you could help the team out, especially since we knew we had a lot of talent and thought we were supposed to be pretty good. It hurt that there was nothing I could do about it on the field but I just stayed positive."
Bernal's skill set fills an important need for the Wildcats. With a roster recruited to succeed in the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium, with its short rightfield porch that is tailor made for left-handed hitters, a tough right-handed bat fills a need.
"We have Cousi (Austin Cousino),(Matt) Reida and A.J. (Reed), big-time lefties that have been doing it for a long time," Bernal said. "We need to bring in righties to mix it up. It is going to help our lineup to be successful. We should have some power and some speed from both sides in the lineup."
Bernal's career at Kentucky began when he came to Lexington from Paso Robles, Calif., as an infielder who UK saw a potential as a catcher. A former football and baseball star at Paso Robles High School, Bernal redshirted the 2011 season while learning the nuances of the backstop position, serving as UK's bullpen catcher.
After a summer in the California Collegiate League in 2011, Bernal emerged as a feisty competitor in leading his San Luis Obsipo Blues to the CCL Championship.
He earned the start as the designated hitter in the 2012 season opener, also serving as a vital right-handed pinch hitter and defensive upgrade at first base. A former shortstop in high school, Bernal brings quick hands, a sturdy frame and great instincts to the first-base position, also owning an ability to play around the infield.
During his freshman year, Bernal hit .370 in 19 games and six starts, batting .370 with four RBI. He helped spark Kentucky to a school-record 45 win season, while serving as the primary back-up first baseman for Reed, while also sharing the position with alternating catchers Luke Maile and Michael Williams. He had several moments as a freshman, including forcing in the walk-off run in a UK win over Buffalo with a bases-loaded walk.
In the 2012 offseason, Bernal married his high school sweetheart, the former Lauren Redberg.
"Being married has definitely matured me," Bernal said. "I have to stay focused in school so I can graduate and support my wife and hopefully a family one day. It has definitely changed the way I look at life and the way I go about things."
Over his four years in Lexington, Bernal has grown on and off the field, developing into a polished young adult who helps lead the team with his unassuming and infectious personality.
"I have grown as a person and as a baseball player," Bernal said. "The coaches have helped me change my body and get stronger. My swing is better, getting more flexible and just being around so many great coaches that know what they are talking about would help anyone as a person and a baseball player. It has been great getting to learn the game that I thought I always knew a lot about but now I know 20 times more than I thought I did."
Now as a veteran presence on the UK club, Bernal is counted on for more than just his competitive presence in the box. He has started to emerge as a leader, a role that is vitally important in the competitive SEC.
"It is really important," Bernal said. "Coming in as a freshman I never thought of myself as a leader. Being here for four years, the coaches and players all look up to me to lead by example and show how we do it here. It is great to be a leader. Everyone wants to be a leader. It is nice that young guys and coaches look up to you and respect you."
It's impossible to pinpoint the exact genesis of UK Hoops' January slump, but the problems that led to the were on display for the first against Florida.
After the 83-73 defeat, Matthew Mitchell bemoaned the fact that the Gators simply played with more passion than his Wildcats.
"I am just so disappointed that happened and that we were outplayed from an energy standpoint and from a focus standpoint," Mitchell said on Jan. 5. "It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us."
It was a tune Mitchell found himself singing far too often as UK lost four times in seven games.
"We just looked like a team that I thought was entitled to win, felt like they were entitled to win the game," Mitchell said, reflecting on the game more than a month later.
Mitchell went on to say the Cats played like a team that expected to win by virtue of the incredible success they have had on their home floor of Memorial Coliseum. The belief was reinforced as UK took a nine-point lead at the 12-minute mark of the second half after trailing by double digits.
"We were able to get it flipped and go up and I thought that hurt us probably even more," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, this is what we thought. We're going to win the game.' We lost a lot of composure when it got close down at the end, so that would be the best way to describe it. I just thought we sort of felt like we were going to win the game no matter what."
Now facing a rematch with Florida (16-7, 6-4 Southeastern Conference), it's hard to imagine No. 15/13 UK (17-5, 5-3 SEC) will feel the same way.
"They really took it to us here in Lexington and beat us pretty badly on our home court, so we definitely have to focus in on a very good opponent and try to get prepared this afternoon and tomorrow for what we know will be a tough game," Mitchell said. "It's always a tough game with Florida."
Though they certainly won't assume victory, the Cats have reason to be confident this time around. They are coming off an impressive home victory over top-15 LSU and have tried to build on that during a bye week before a trip to Gainesville, Fla. The focus has been entirely on building team closeness.
"Our whole key is we have to have a team mentality," Mitchell said. "We can't have a collection of individuals playing individually well. We really have to come together as a team. Our whole deal is playing for each other and great energy on the court, great energy on the bench."
Mitchell says UK is "making progress," but he isn't about to pronounce his team as being over the proverbial hump.
"We didn't start playing that way overnight and I think it's been some great stuff that we've been able to do as a team to try to see if we can get the situation to where we can become our best," Mitchell said.
Just as UK's struggles didn't start all at once against Florida, the Cats can't prove they are over against the Gators. That will take time.
"I think you're going to have to let it play out here over the last seven games of the conference season," Mitchell said. "The team needs to play well and win some games and get into the NCAA Tournament and take advantage of the SEC Tournament and see what happens."
Jon Hood played a season-high 13 minutes in UK's 69-59 win at Mississippi State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Today, we break down UK's 69-59 win at Mississippi State.The skinny:
By no means was it pretty, but Kentucky got a precious road win on Saturday, taking down Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., 69-59. No. 18/14 UK (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) won for the sixth time in seven games behind a solid defensive effort. MSU (13-10, 3-7 SEC) shot just 38.3 percent from the field and scored 0.881 points per possession. UK, meanwhile, never could quite pull away, but led by no fewer than six points after closing the first half on a 19-6 run. Julius Randle scored 16 points to lead all scorers, while James Young added 11 points in 20 foul-limited minutes.
Second-chance points. UK's 38-33 rebounding edge wasn't its widest of the season, but it was enough to give the Wildcats the separation they needed. UK grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Mississippi State's eight and outscored the home-standing Bulldogs 14-4 in second-chance points.Player of the game:
Randle. Coping the double and triple teams to which he's grown so accustomed, Randle was efficient from the field (8-of-13) in scoring a game-high 16 points. He also added seven rebounds, a steal and a block and made a number of nice passes out of the post even though he finished with just one assist. Turning point:
That run to close the first half. His team trailing 17-13 with 9:38 left in the first half and Andrew Harrison, Young and Willie Cauley-Stein saddled with two fouls apiece, John Calipari went to his bench. In search of energy, he inserted Jon Hood and the senior delivered exactly what UK needed. Hood had played only five minutes since the start of SEC play, but he -- along with Jarrod Polson -- was on the floor for every second of the run that turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point halftime lead. For the game, Hood had only three points and two rebounds in 13 minutes, but he sported a team-high plus-minus of plus-15.Key stat:
Nine turnovers. At no point was UK in sync offensively, but the Cats positioned themselves to win by committing just nine turnovers to the Bulldogs' 13. With offensive rebounders like Randle, Dakari Johnson and Cauley-Stein, a missed shot can often be UK's best plan of attack. Limiting turnovers allowed UK to maximize those chances.
Johnson. Making his third consecutive start, Johnson continued his recent emergence in posting nine points, eight rebounds and a block. He was a perfect 3-for-3 from both the field and the line in his 21 minutes, showing toughness and touch around the basket.
What this one means:
A win is a win. Even though the performance revealed the Cats still have a great deal to work on, UK avoided short-circuiting the momentum it built against Missouri and Texas A&M by surviving a trip to a hostile road venue. The Cats stayed within two games of first-place Florida with games against Auburn and the Gators looming next week, moving to 4-5 away from Rupp Arena in the process.Video: Postgame interviews with Calipari, Johnson, Hood
Chandler Shepherd is ranked as the 70th best college prospect available in the 2014 MLB Draft by Baseball America (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics).
This is the fifth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody).
A year ago, Kentucky right-hander Chandler Shepherd did a little bit of everything.
Shepherd, a native of Louisa, Ky., was a late-inning reliever, a midweek starter, a long-relief man and UK's primary set-up man as a sophomore.
He was valued so much in 2013 that Shepherd got his first career at-bat, all in an effort to keep his valuable right arm and fiercely competitive demeanor on the mound.
It was the top of the ninth inning at No. 16 Ole Miss and the Wildcats had just rallied to take a one-run lead in the ESPNU Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week. It was just a day after Kentucky had played the longest game in college baseball of the year, an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky that saw the Wildcats use its record-setting closer Trevor Gott for 3.1 innings and 70 pitches, forcing UK to attempt to close out a potential historic series-opening win without its save king.
Shepherd stepped into the box to lead off the ninth inning, facing off with Ole Miss closer Tanner Bailey.
"My mindset was to definitely get up there and get a hit," Shepherd remembered. "It was a close game and it was an important at-bat regardless of if it was me as a pitcher or anyone else. I went through and took the first pitch; it was an 87 mph fastball. I took that and it was the first time I had seen a pitch like that in a couple years at least. Then he ended up throwing me three straight sliders. I had never seen anything like that in my life, so I had no shot."
All told, Shepherd appeared in 26 games, owning a sparkling 5-0 record and a club-best 2.77 ERA. He pitched when it mattered to UK and coach Gary Henderson, whether that was in the second inning of a Saturday game, the middle innings of a tight game, or the eighth and ninth innings of a series opener.
"I knew that was an important role," Shepherd said. "Everyone knows that. I really enjoyed filling that role. The way that I am, I like pitching when the game matters. I like being in the game in important situations. I got in a routine where I was used to pitching on back-to-back days or every other day. It worked out great. It is just as important a role as starting."
Now entering his junior season, Shepherd is primed for a full-time role as a weekend starter in what could be one of the top rotations in college baseball. In the preseason, Shepherd was one of three UK standouts on the Baseball America listing of the top 100 draft-eligible players in the NCAA, checking in at No. 70.
After a season as a go-to reliever and a freshman campaign as a primary midweek starter, Shepherd is ready to shift back into a role that involves his name on a starting lineup card.
"Honestly I don't think it is going to be that big of an adjustment," Shepherd said. "The routine is a little different. It is going to be the same; I am going to pitch just like I would if I came out of the bullpen. Just try and do everything we can do to be in a position to win."
As a sophomore, Shepherd worked in 55.1 innings, allowing just 50 hits and 17 walks, striking out 39. He has pieced together an impressive resume in his two seasons in Lexington, with an 8-1 record and a 3.30 ERA in 44 games.
Over Shepherd's two years, he has consistently improved as the season has worn on, with the pride of Lawrence County owning a better ERA in the nation's best conference than in non-league action. Over his career, Shepherd has a 4-0 mark and a 2.43 ERA in SEC play, allowing just 31 hits in 37 innings.
After the 2013 season, Shepherd ventured to the Cape Cod League for his second foray into summer baseball. He earned all-star honors in the CCBL, owning a 2-3 record and a 2.70 ERA in eight games and seven starts. Entering his final start of the summer, Shepherd had eyes on the Cape ERA title, with a 0.87 mark.
"It was good. It is a little bit different than playing down here," Shepherd said. "We got to face a lot of guys from around the country, a lot of very talented players. It was just a good experience to meet those guys and talk baseball. I got smarter as a pitcher."
Shepherd's summer in the Cape Cod League came a year after he dominated his way to first-team summer league All-America accolades from Perfect Game. While playing for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the PG Collegiate League, Shepherd was named the league pitcher of the year after pacing the circuit in ERA, wins and opponent average. He finished the summer with a 9-0 record and a 1.73 ERA in 10 starts.
As a freshman, Shepherd stepped right into the UK pitching staff and had an immediate impact as UK won a school-record 45 games and finished a win shy of the SEC Title in 2012. He finished the year with a 3-1 record and a 3.83 ERA, with a save coming in the NCAA Tournament.
It was his tournament outings that left an undeniable mark on his career. After Kentucky and Kent State played an epic 21-inning game in the opener of the tournament, it left the UK pitching staff depleted for its run through the loser's bracket in scabrous Gary, Ind. Shepherd stepped up in an elimination-game win over Valparaiso, working three shutout innings for his first career save to push Kentucky to the championship round.
In a rematch of the Kent State tilt, Shepherd got the call as the starting pitcher, just a night after he threw 34 pitches for a save. Shepherd showed up, working a shutout into the eighth inning of a scoreless game, earning a spot on the NCAA Gary Regional All-Tournament Team.
Looking back at his first two seasons, Shepherd has done a little bit of everything, which will help the former 41st-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox emerge as a leader in 2014.
"It is really important and something I take a lot of pride in," Shepherd said. "It is something that I have been looking forward to in a way. We have so many guys on the staff that have stepped up to be a leader that we all kind of help each other. I am real excited about it."
Audrey Harrison's season-best all-around score of 39.225 highlighted UK's season-high 195.450 against top-ranked Florida. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Holly Cunningham was pretty sure what was in store on Monday.
Kentucky was just two days removed from a season-low score in a meet at Georgia, the kind of effort that simply hasn't happened during Tim Garrison's time as head coach.
Practice, she figured, wasn't going to be any fun at all.
"We had one of our worst meets ever and we were expecting to come into the gym and for it to be really hard and for him to really mad at us," Cunningham said.
Cunningham was wrong, a pleasant surprise to her and her teammates.
Garrison decided the Wildcats didn't need a drill sergeant. They didn't need to be told the performance wasn't good enough because they were perfectly aware already.
"I think every athlete, every coach at some point has to have amnesia and I think that's what we needed to do because that wasn't a representation of what our team is," Garrison said. "It's not what we're about, it's not the way we train, it's not the way we compete, speaking of last week."
With that in mind, Garrison and his coaching staff took a positive tone as the Cats prepared to host No. 1 Florida.
"You don't know what to expect after a bad meet, but all the coaches know we're so much better than that and we just need to believe in ourselves," Audrey Harrison said.
The approach worked, as UK posted a season-high score of 195.450 on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum.
"We definitely didn't have a perfect meet, but if someone did wobble they tried to save every tenth," Harrison said. "I saw a lot of fight and excitement and positivity."
It started on vault, UK's opening event.
Showing no signs of a hangover from last Saturday, the Cats opened with five solid scores. Stepping to the runway as the anchor for her only routine of the evening, Cunningham executed and stuck her landing for a season-high score of 9.850 to give her team a season-high score of its own, 49.000.
"She did what she was capable of," Garrison said before pausing to think. "Actually, I think she's got a little bit more in the bag. She can make that thing a little bit better, but at least she stuck the landing and that's what we're looking for. Last person on vault, bringing it home for the team, getting ready to move to the second event, we need somebody to make a statement and she did that for us."
UK rode the momentum to solid scores on the bars and beam, as gymnasts refused to let minor mistakes turn into major missteps, save for Shelby Hilton's fall on beam. But even then, Marissa Beucler and Harrison picked up their teammate with good routines.
"That was huge for us," Garrison said. "Not that we wanted the mistake to happen, but the fact that it happened and the fact that two athletes immediately after her corrected that, that was huge for us to see moving forward."
Finishing up the night on floor, the Cats posted four scores of 9.800 or better. Included in that group is Harrison, who closed out a season-high all-around score of 39.225 with a 9.825 on floor.
"Being a senior and the fact that she means so much to this program in the gym and also in the classroom, she's just a stellar person," Garrison said. "To have her come out and compete a good, solid all-around, she struggled the last couple weeks, to have her turn that around at home in front of her fans was really exciting to see."
UK's season-best score wasn't enough to take down the defending national champion Gators, who tallied a 197.175. Though he noticed Bridget Sloan's perfect 10.000 on beam en route to an all-around title, Garrison wasn't all that concerned with Florida.
"We want to be seeded for the first time in University of Kentucky gymnastics history, which means top 18 in the country after SECs to give ourselves a chance to make it national championships," Garrison said. "We really weren't worried a whole lot about what they were doing. We were running our own race tonight."
In running their own race, Garrison said the Cats "made progress" Friday night.
It was around this time last season when UK hit its stride and began shattering program records. Garrison can see a similar stretch around the corner if his team keeps up the work.
"What tells me that more anything else is what I see in the gym," Garrison said. "So now we're getting more comfortable. We've been in a competitive environment five times now. We're starting to get more comfortable in the gym. What I'm seeing in the gym is going to come through more and more on the competition floor, whether we're home or away."
James Young had 26 points and 10 rebounds in UK's 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Jan. 8. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's a unique experience in conference play, facing a rematch with a familiar opponent. This weekend, Kentucky will take on that challenge for the first time.
After taking down Mississippi State 85-63 on Jan. 8 -- exactly one month before the second round with the Bulldogs -- the Wildcats have reason to be confident.
"(The coaches) really haven't told us anything special about it, but since it's our first time playing a team twice we feel like we should be able to play just like last game because last game we played great," freshman Dominique Hawkins said.
Hawkins is one of eight scholarship freshmen on the youngest team in the country, a fact that might cause some concern that the No. 18/14 Cats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) could overlook Mississippi State (13-6, 3-6 SEC), a team that has lost four in a row. UK, however, is on guard entering Saturday's game at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC TV).
"We definitely don't want to do that because we know playing in the SEC anything can happen," Hawkins said.
That's especially true away from the comforts of Rupp Arena. At home, UK is a perfect 14-0. In games not in Lexington, the Cats are just 3-5.
"Going into atmospheres on the road, I never experienced anything like this before and I think it's insane how the fans are like yelling at us, telling us names that I never heard before," Hawkins said. "It's just unique though how the fans come up with creative stuff just to try to mess with us and get in our heads."
UK last traveled to Starkville, Miss., en route to its 2012 national championship. The Cats trailed by as many as 13 points and seven with 6:28 to play before rallying to a 73-64 win. In 2010, UK needed double-doubles from John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson to survive an overtime thriller against the Bulldogs.
"I think they've already learned that any road game in the SEC is tough," Jarrod Polson said. "Us veterans have told them: It doesn't matter what team you're playing; if you're on the road in the SEC, it's going to be a dogfight."
Though the final score may have indicated otherwise, the first edition of UK-MSU was a dogfight for much of that Wednesday evening. The Cats fell victim to one of their trademark slow starts as Mississippi State took a double-digit first-half lead. And with 13:11 to go in the game, UK led by just three.
Mississippi State leading scorer Craig Sword had 19 points in that game as the Bulldogs poured in 40 points in the first half.
"They're not going to walk away from us," John Calipari said. "This is a great challenge. They left our building saying, 'We can beat these guys.' "
Previewing the matchup, Coach Cal jokingly asked reporters whether there were any promotions going on with UK coming to town. Told UK-MSU is yet another white-out game, Calipari feigned surprise.
"It's a huge game there, sellout and everything else going on," Calipari said. "It will be a hard game for us."
UK survived a tough road environment last weekend at Missouri, coming away with one of its best wins. Their confidence buoyed, the Cats are looking forward to Saturday.
"I think, honestly, we kind of like to play on the road," Polson said. "It's kind of just us against the world when we're on the road, and we kind of like that, so we're excited for the challenge and hopefully we can come out with a win."
It's been more than 48 hours since the last member of Kentucky's 2014 signing class became official, but people are still talking about Mark Stoops' record group.ESPN's SEC Blog ranked the league's 14 classes
in terms of how each school performed against expectations. UK fared well, coming in second behind only Alabama. Here's what Alex Scarborough had to say about the class:
No. 2: Kentucky
Rundown: This ain't your grandfather's Kentucky. It's not your father's or your older brother's, either. Mark Stoops didn't have the highest ranked recruiting class in the country or even the SEC, but the top-20 class far outpaced even the highest expectations . The signees speaks for themselves -- an infusion of young talent desperately needed for the road ahead -- but the overall statement Stoops and his staff made going out and landing the best of the best was huge. Nabbing four-star defensive lineman Matt Elam from Alabama sent shockwaves through college football. It not only said that Kentucky was here to play; it's here to play and win.
Instant impact signee: There's opportunity abound in Lexington. At one point, a walk-on was starting at receiver against Alabama. With that, four-star Thaddeus Snodgrass has the athleticism (4.5 second 40-yard dash) to provide a quick spark to the Wildcats' offense.
Link: Most impressive classes in the SEC
Another interesting read, Ohio State outlet Eleven Warriors
took a look at Kentucky's success in recruiting Ohio and how Stoops' class would have ranked third among Big Ten schools.
However, it is more interesting how Kentucky built its recruiting class. Kentucky football finally discovered how close it is to Ohio. Eschewing past recruiting approaches that sought fringe players from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow used their Ohio roots to pull the best of the second-tier from the Buckeye State.Link: The Big Ten's Kentucky problem
J.C. Shurburtt, national recruiting analyst from 247Sports, mentioned this was learning from a wrong approach employed by Joker Phillips. "If you're Kentucky, where do you go recruit? Joker Phillips made a serious tactical mistake trying to get fifth-tier guys out of Georgia and South Carolina and compete." Shurburtt continued, "now, they're getting the second-tier guys out of Ohio, the first-tier guys out of Kentucky and dropping down and getting some guys out of Florida. I think that roster's going to get much, much better in the near future."
Ten of Kentucky's 29 recruits in its 2014 class came from the Buckeye State and not all were from Southwest Ohio. Players like Dorian Baker of Cleveland Heights had offers from Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. Mikel Horton, a promising tailback prospect from West Chester, had offers from those three schools as well. Basically, all of those recruits had offers from Illinois, Indiana, and most had offers on the table from Minnesota and Purdue as well.
Kyle Cody, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound righthander, is rated as the seventh-best sophomore in college baseball by Baseball America. (Photo by Chet White, UK athletics)
This is the fourth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett).
Never before had rivals Kentucky and Louisville met with both teams ranked in the top 10.
It was early April and with both teams off to near identical starts, the matchup between the two in-state foes - a rivalry that dates back to 1925 - was billed as vitally important.
Kentucky turned to freshman right-hander Kyle Cody to make the start at Jim Patterson Stadium, in front of a UL record 4,733 fans.
A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody delivered in his biggest pitching outing of a short, yet tantalizing career.
The former Gatorade Wisconsin High School Player of the Year fired a then career-long 6.1 innings, allowing four hits and three runs - two earned - walking one and striking out four.
"This is the most people I've ever pitched in front of before," Cody said after the emotional win that ended with a 5-4 result in 10 innings. "I had to calm myself down before the game. The main thing when I was on the mound: I had to breathe. That was the biggest thing. When you start getting base runners on, you just gotta breathe and relax and throw the ball where you want."
After the game it was undeniable that Cody was growing into the type of dominant arm the Wildcats have had on their pitching staff since 2007.
"Sure he (grew up)," Henderson said after that Louisville start. "It was a full house here against a really good club. An absolute disaster there at the beginning of the third inning and we just flat out handed them two runs. I was really interested in keeping him in the game at the point. I wanted to get him through that. Fortunately, he was able to get past it, found his rhythm and was really pretty impressive in the fourth, fifth and sixth."
It was the first quality start of the year for Cody, who would secure a spot in the weekend rotation by the final three weeks of the year.
"After that Louisville game I gained a lot of confidence," Cody said. "It was the first time I had thrown in front of that many people and I did well. It gave me confidence moving forward and I just went from there."
Cody, a native of Chippewa Falls, Wis., put together some strong outings, culminating with another dominant midweek start, his last of the year, in an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky. Cody worked six innings, striking out seven and allowing just one run.
His next outing came as his first career Southeastern Conference start, facing off with No. 14 Arkansas in the final game of a crucial series at Cliff Hagan Stadium. A 33rd-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, Cody allowed three runs on four hits and two UK errors in the first inning. He then found a rhythm, allowing only three hits over his final six shutout innings of work.
"Obviously that start strengthened it my confidence," Cody said. "I felt really good that game. Obviously that first inning wasn't how we planned. But you just have to get over that and move on. It gave me a lot of confidence that I belonged here and that I could pitch against anyone."
He went on to fire a quality start in his following start vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, allowing three runs in six innings, before posting 5.1 innings and allowing three runs on three hits in his freshman finale at Missouri.
Overall, Cody appeared in 15 games with 10 starts in 2013, owning a 3-3 record and a 4.84 ERA, striking out 47 in 57.2 innings. In SEC play, Cody appeared in five games with three starts, working 20.1 innings with a 3.10 ERA.
"I just learned to relax in pressure situations," Cody said about 2013. "I wasn't used to a lot of pressure in making outs in key situations. I was just always able to do that without a problem. Moving up to the next level is a lot difficult and you have to use different ways to get people out."
After the summer, Cody ventured to the Cape Cod League, where he pitched in two games for the Wareham Gateman before returning home with a minor injury. In his first start, Cody worked six shutout, two-hit innings. He ended the summer by allowing five hits and five runs in a three-inning start.
"It was fun, getting to meet new guys and play with different players around the country and to see the different aspects and different expertise on the game," Cody said.
Entering the 2014 season, a strength that jumps off the page is Kentucky's three-man weekend rotation. With junior southpaw A.J. Reed, junior Chandler Shepherd and Cody, the Wildcats have a trio of talented, experience arms.
In fact, in Baseball America's extensive college preseason preview, Cody was ranked as the seventh-best sophomore in college baseball. His rotation mates were also honored, with Shepherd tabbed as the 70th-best and Reed the 85th-best college prospect available in the 2014 MLB Draft.
"It is different than previous years," Cody said. "It has been usually lefties but this year we will have a couple righties in there. We all have different strengths and it will keep the other team off balance. With A.J. throwing and Shep throwing, everyone has different strengths and ways to get people out."
The Wildcats enter the season prepared to make another run at the SEC Championship it last won in 2006 and narrowly missed in 2012.
"The chemistry feels a lot better," Cody said. "The older guys are taking the younger guys under their wing and welcoming them here. It makes it easier for the younger kids, to give them more confidence. We need everyone on this team. When the younger guys feel like they belong here, it makes it a lot easier."
Andrew Harrison is the latest Wildcat to blog for our "In their own words" series. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Our latest entry is from Andrew Harrison, who writes about the string of bad luck with weather and travel, UK's big win at Missouri and his development. By Andrew Harrison (follow on Twitter)
What's up, Big Blue Nation?
Coming off Tuesday night's win against Ole Miss, I feel like we're improving a lot on the defensive end and the game is starting to become more enjoyable for all of us. We're starting to learn. I think each individual is playing better.
Willie played his best game in a while and everyone was happy for him. I sent out a tweet Tuesday night just to show him how good we all know he is. Willie is talented. Sometimes I don't think he knows how good he can be. I just wanted to show him how proud of him I was for how hard he's been working.
Practices have been pretty tough. Even though we won a couple games, Coach is still pushing us to get better and better every day.
It's been pretty crazy lately with all the weather we've had to deal with. It was bad at LSU, and then on our trip to Missouri we were stuck on the plane for a few hours after we landed because we had to land in St. Louis and wait for the buses to come from Columbia and pick us up. That was pretty tough on our bodies with a lack of sleep, and it's also tough on your mindset.
When you're stuck on buses and planes, you don't' really think about the game. You can't help but think about when you're going to get to the hotel and are we going to be safe and stuff like that. Coach told us there is nothing we can do about it. You just try to relax and get to know each other better, crack a couple of jokes and have fun.
While we were waiting, we talked about a lot of stuff, including the NBA All-Star Game coming up. We were just giving Alex a hard time and talking about how he is going to have to guard LeBron in a couple of years. They were making fun of me saying I was going to have to guard Chris Paul and Dakari was going to have to guard Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard. We were just having fun with that.
I was surprised DeMarcus Cousins didn't make the game. I think he's one of the top two or three centers in the league. And Lance Stephenson is having a pretty good year. I'm pretty surprised neither of those guys made it.
Anyways, back to the whole travel thing. Coach just turned the waiting around into a positive. He said it just comes with the territory and you never know what's going to happen. He said it can really prove what we have inside of us and that we can show our mental toughness right now. Even though we didn't get as much as sleep and weren't on our normal routine, we had to take care of business, try to win a basketball game and get back to Kentucky. We had to show that we can still persevere and do what we have to do, and I think we did that at Missouri.
The win at Missouri was very emotional and everyone was so enthusiastic about playing the game. I think everyone could see on TV that we have the fight that we didn't show at LSU the game before and that we're growing and maturing as a team. It's exciting because the sky's the limit for what we can do.
Playing on the road in the SEC has been a fun experience for me. I like when you come out and everyone is booing you. It's fun. It makes it exciting. At the same time it's a little bit more difficult because I feel like the teams hit shots they normally don't make because they're at home and everyone is behind them, so we just have to be ready for that and be prepared to play on the defensive side of the ball.
Being on the road also makes you appreciate playing at home even more. When you come back to Rupp and play it's exciting because all the fans are rooting for you. Every time someone makes a good play, the place goes crazy. It's fun playing here.
Personally, I think I'm doing pretty well right now. I'm just trying to run the team and trying to be a better leader on and off the court and making sure I know what's going on and know what Coach wants. I'm just trying to display that out on the court. I need to make sure I'm not worried about myself and how I'm playing and be more concerned about my teammates. I'm still working on getting used to the speed of the game, making sure my teammates are involved and having fun out there playing with me.
I'll be honest, it's been pretty tough taking a lot of the criticism and stuff like that. I've never been criticized this much in basketball, but I think it's helped me grow as a person and as a player. You have to remember who you are playing for. You're playing for your family and your teammates, so you can't really worry about what everyone else is saying. There are going to be ups and downs no matter what happens. You have to keep playing. You can't look at the polls. Of course you see yourself scrolling down at the bottom of ESPN, and we were pretty surprised going down some spots after that big road win at Missouri, but that's just how it is. It just makes you hungrier.
It's been good for me having my brother here. I feel like our relationship has gotten stronger because some of the criticism we get falls on both of us. We're getting used to it and I feel like it's just putting a chip on our shoulder and making us play better.
At the end of the day, I just want to be the best point guard in the country and just become a leader of this team. For this team, every one can say they want to win a national championship, and of course we want to do that, but we just want to become better every game. That's all we're worried about right now.
School is going good right now. It's tough getting from class to class with all this snow. They didn't tell me about all this weather before I came here, but we were pretty excited about getting a snow day on Monday. We were hoping to get another one after all the ice Tuesday night.
But school is school. It's hard on us with all the basketball responsibilities we have and sometimes you're tired and don't feel like going to your tutors. What makes it easier is going through it with all of your teammates. We all know we've got a job to do.
I know some of the other guys have written about this already, but we really like hanging out with each other. We don't have a clique or anything like that on this team. We all play video games together, just talk and joke with one another like any college kid. Marcus likes to buy these toy guns and shoot people with them so we've got to be careful with him.
It's our day off so I'm going to get out of here and go enjoy a little time off. If my mom is reading this, I want to let her know I miss her and I hope she's doing well. Talk to you later, BBN.
Outfielder Kyle Barrett led UK in hitting as a freshman, batting .349 en route to All-SEC Freshman Team honors. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the third of a 10-part season preview leading up to Kentucky's season opener with No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida)
When Kentucky outfielder Kyle Barrett arrived in Lexington for his freshman season, there was not a huge expectation for the native of Douglasville, Ga., to make an instant impact.
Fairly lightly recruited out of Chapel Hill High School, Barrett fought his way into the UK lineup in 2013 and finished the year leading the Wildcats in hitting and earning a spot on the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team.
"Last year, being a new guy to the team, in my mind I had a lot of things I wanted to accomplish but I wasn't looked on as someone who needed to produce coming in," Barrett said.
Overall, Barrett finished the year pacing the club with a .349 average, playing in 46 of UK's 55 games with 38 starts. He clubbed four doubles and one triple, driving in 14 runs and stealing four bases. In SEC action, Barrett hit .333 with starts in 27 of 30 games, driving in eight runs.
It was a tremendous breakout season for the speedy 5-foot-11, 180-pound left-handed hitter.
But it didn't happen overnight, as in Barrett's first taste of collegiate action, a blowout win over Niagara on a bitterly cold afternoon in Spartanburg, S.C., he dropped a fly ball hit to him in leftfield, his first defensive chance. In his first collegiate plate appearance, Barrett hung a sacrifice fly, with his next three appearances coming as a run-scoring pinch runner, showing a first glimpse of his game-changing speed.
He then earned his first career start in UK's second home game of the campaign, going 1-for-4 with his first career hit and stolen base. After coming off the bench in his next three games, Barrett emerged as a legitimate lineup force with a start in rightfield in the series rubber match vs. Michigan State. He smacked a one-out double that started UK's game-winning rally in the fifth inning of a scoreless game.
"After the Michigan State series, right then and there I knew that I could play here," Barrett said.
Over the course of the next 10 weeks, Barrett became an everyday starter in rightfield, starting as a left-handed weapon at the bottom of the order. After coming off the bench in the SEC opener at Florida, Barrett started the next 21 games before suffering a minor injury in an extra-inning loss at No. 14 South Carolina.
His skill set was readily apparent: an electric runner who knows the type of hitter he is, a line-drive, opposite-field weapon. He collected 15 multi-hit outings over his next 37 games, including three three-hit performances. His 16-game-hitting streak was a season-long for the Wildcats, with its new freshman sparkplug batting a blistering .394 during the stretch, smacking 26 hits - all singles.
In an April 9 win over Austin Peay, UK head coach Gary Henderson inserted Barrett into the leadoff spot in the order, seeking to find a run-producing role for All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino, UK's former leadoff dynamo. Barrett took to the role, hitting .360 with a .414 on-base percentage, as UK's leadoff hitter for the remainder of the year.
Following the season, Barrett traveled to play for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the recently re-named Perfect Game Collegiate League. He continued to hit, earning all-star honors after hitting .343 in 38 games, stealing 18 bases and owning a 16-13 walk-strikeout ratio.
"I had a good time up there in Amsterdam," Barrett said. "Coach Griff (Keith Griffin) has been there a while and won some national championships. It was great because my weakness last year was that I couldn't bunt very well. He taught me how to bunt. The atmosphere in Amsterdam is very serious because those people live for summer baseball."
He teamed with his UK brethren, southpaw Dylan Dwyer on the Mohawks, along with UK staff member Mike Brown, a former Wildcat great.
"Brownie was a huge energy guy for us," Barrett said. "In summer ball it is very easy to go through the motions. Some days you may not want to be there because you are playing every single day. But Brownie made sure to keep up in line."
Also on the eventual league champion Mohawks was lefty Matt Snyder, who at the time was headed to Temple. After the Owls announced cutting the program, Snyder was able to transfer immediately without penalty in January to Lexington to join his former Mohawks teammates, Barrett and Dwyer.
After the summer, Barrett was tabbed as the third-best prospect in the Perfect Game League by Baseball America.
Now a seasoned sophomore, Barrett enters 2014 with a whole different level of expectations as a returning starter with a knack for slashing singles.
With a roster full of returning starters and a weekend rotation that will help anchor a pitching staff, Barrett enters the season with great excitement and enthusiasm to help pace UK back to the NCAA Tournament.
"This group of guys is different," Barrett said. "Last year we had a lot of guys with talent but this year's team is a lot more mature. Everyone works a lot harder. People want to be in the cages in our off days. People always want to hit. The effort level and the desire to win are there."
Signing Day 2014 is in the books and with it UK's highest-rated class ever according to Rivals.com.
Mark Stoops and his coaching staff filled needs, adding much-needed depth along the offensive and defensive lines and wide receiver. They protected their home turf, securing pledges from four of the top five prospects in the Bluegrass. They brought in top-level talent, with 16 of their 28 signees rated as four-star prospects according to at least one major outlet.
Clearly, there's a lot to be said about the newest crop of Wildcats. With that in mind, here are links to some of the best stories on a historic Signing Day for Kentucky football.My story on Stoops delivering a record class in a "critical" year
At last check, the Kentucky class ranks 15th nationally according to Rivals.com, 20th according to both ESPN.com and Scout.com and 22nd according to 247sports.com.Sports Illustrated on UK's improved recruiting efforts
"I knew we'd recruit good players," Stoops said. "Where it was rated and all that and the publicity, I like it, and it helps our program and all that, but, again, that's not what I'm out for. I'm out to get great players to help build this program day in and day out."
On extremely short notice, Stoops and his staff did that with their first class. With just two months to work, they brought in a group that contributed immediately, which was vital to UK's future in both the short and long term.
This class, however, was even more important.
Kentucky's recruiting surge has coincided with the school's effort to upgrade its football facilities. The university board of trustees voted last Friday to approve a plan to construct a privately funded $45 million training facility. In November, the school unveiled the design for a $110 million renovation to Commonwealth Stadium. "It helps when prospects come on campus and see our athletic director making the commitment to upgrade the stadium and then put in a brand new football facility," Stoops said.CBSSports.com on UK becoming an SEC presence in recruiting
A turnout of nearly 51,000 fans at the Wildcats' spring game last April helped put the newfound excitement surrounding the program into perspective. Experiencing the game first-hand moved Barker to make his commitment. "When I saw all those fans, and how bad they wanted to have a really good program again -- that really piqued my interest," he said. "It just showed me a lot as to people really wanting to turn the football program around, and that they're not playing around anymore."
Even Nick Saban, the recruiting king for a fourth straight year, was the runner-up for Elam, a 6-foot-5, 372-pound behemoth.
"We're definitely not afraid to compete with anybody in the country," Stoops said Tuesday.
In a recruiting cycle that many coaches say featured rampant player poaching. Kentucky would have been a logical poaching victim. But the Wildcats locked up much of its class a year ago and didn't lose traction. About sixteen of its 28 players committed before the end of last summer, Stoops said.
John Clay of the Herald-Leader on how a group of "different thinkers" made the class happen
Mark Stoops could have returned to Florida State for another year as defensive coordinator, been a part of a BCS national championship, maybe had a chance at a so-called "better" job than UK.Jen Smith of the Herald-Leader on the UK signees' unbreakable bond
Surely there were those who told the Ohio native that to win these days you have to be able to recruit, and at Kentucky you can't recruit the quality players you need in the Southeastern Conference.
Stoops obviously thought differently. And in the Class of 2014, he has obviously signed some players who think the same way.
The special recruiting stories were aplenty on Wednesday, from offensive coordinator Neal Brown and offensive line coach John Schlarman's treacherous, icy trek to land Jervontius Stallings to running backs coach Chad Scott sitting in a class all day with a recruit, to tight ends coach Vince Marrow playing Monopoly with a family on an official visit.Brett Dawson of CatsIllustrated.com on how UK kept the class together
"We got to know their families," Stoops said. "With me going on the road -- and I don't even know exactly how many living rooms I was in, but we got a very high percentage of guys that we brought in here for an official visit."
What you see is what you get. That's what coaches and players will tell you about Stoops. And the straightforward approach helped Kentucky clear perhaps its biggest hurdle in keeping its class intact.Video: Signing Day press conference with Stoops, Brown, Eliot, Marrow
Stoops and his staff knew that the on-the-field product would be lacking in 2013. So the Kentucky coaches took a calculated risk to say so to the players they were recruiting.
"I don't think we tried to -- we didn't minimize where we were as a program," Brown said. "We knew we were in the foundation-building process, we knew it was going to take a little bit of work, or a lot of work really. So we didn't sell them on a bunch of things that we knew weren't going to be possible early."
Mark Stoops signed the highest-rated class in school history on Signing Day. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops has never been short on confidence.
From the moment he arrived in Lexington, Stoops has declared in no uncertain terms his belief in his vision, his belief in Kentucky football.
But to reel in the best class in school history barely a year into his tenure? To piece together a group that fits perfectly in terms of both personnel and character?
"If I'm honest, we maybe had a little bit better success than I thought this quick," Stoops said.
All 28 members of UK's 2014 signing class -- 16 of which are rated four-star prospects by at least one major outlet -- sent in valid National Letters of Intent before 11 a.m. ET, short-circuiting some of the drama typical of Signing Day. None of the coaches or support staff at the Nutter Training Facility for an unprecedented live webcast of the event seemed to mind.
At last check, the Kentucky class ranks 15th nationally according to Rivals.com, 20th according to both ESPN.com and Scout.com and 22nd according to 247sports.com.
"I knew we'd recruit good players," Stoops said. "Where it was rated and all that and the publicity, I like it, and it helps our program and all that, but, again, that's not what I'm out for. I'm out to get great players to help build this program day in and day out."
On extremely short notice, Stoops and his staff did that with their first class. With just two months to work, they brought in a group that contributed immediately, which was vital to UK's future in both the short and long term.
This class, however, was even more important.
"I thought this was going to lay the foundation to turn this program, and it was a very critical year, and I felt like we really had to hit the pavement and recruit extremely hard," Stoops said. "Could not be more proud of this staff and the way they went about their business."
The staff made waves with the 2014 class immediately, scoring verbal commitments from a variety of prospects early in the process. UK shot up recruiting rankings accordingly, drawing national attention. Pundits were impressed, but wondered whether the class would remain intact.
A year and just one de-commitment later, the answer is an emphatic yes.
"This is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've ever been a part of," Stoops said. "This group was so solid for so long."
Of course, there were nervous moments and the occasional rumbling about a recruit falling off the wagon. In those cases, there was no substitute for the hard work that has come to define Stoops and his staff.
"We don't take anything for granted," Stoops said. "We recruited every bit as hard last night and today as we did last year or the day after Signing Day or the whole year. We recruited from start to finish extremely hard, don't take anything for granted, and go about our business the right way."
In the end, not only did UK hold on to its verbal commitments on Signing Day, but a new one also came on board.
Lloyd Tubman, a Louisville, Ky., native rated a four-star prospect by 247sports.com, announced his UK pledge late Wednesday morning and sent in his NLI not long after.
"We liked Lloyd a lot," Stoops said. "Recruited him for a full year. Again, I think he's one of the top players in the state, a great football player. And he's a great student and a fine young man."
Originally a Vanderbilt commitment and later a Penn State pledge, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound defensive end was finally swayed by defensive coordinator and lead recruiter D.J. Eliot.
"I think it just took time for him to see what we had to offer and what was the best future for him," Eliot said. "When he sat down and looked at everything, I think it was the right thing for him to do and he made that leap."
Tubman is the third-ranked player in Kentucky according to Rivals.com, meaning UK signed four of the top five prospects in the state. Quarterback Drew Barker and defensive tackles Adrian Middleton and Matt Elam will join Tubman in staying home to play their college ball.
"Really feel good about what we did in Kentucky," Stoops said. "I said that a year ago. I said that in my opening press conference about how important it was to recruit this state."
When a quarterback like Barker is in your backyard, that becomes even more important.
Asked to pick out a turning point when UK's momentum on the trail went from encouraging to unstoppable, Stoops mentioned Barker's commitment last May. Though his new coaches never encouraged him to do it, Barker took on a reputation as Kentucky's unofficial recruiting coordinator. Stoops doesn't discount Barker's role making a big Signing Day a reality.
"He just has that ability to be a leader, and he wanted other great players around him," Stoops said. "You know, I said that a year ago as well. Players want to be around other great players."
Barker is only the most prominent example of a group of players who have already built a bond even though just seven are on campus. From the 10 Ohio signees to the two from Texas and four from Florida, UK's signees have developed a sort of collective personality.
"They've been very solid that way," Stoops said. "They've got to have a--this group is very confident in their ability, but you know what -- and I know they have some fun with the media, which is great. They have the personality, and it's good. It's good for everybody. I want them to be themselves. But as a group, they're also very humble, and I think humility is very important."
Humility will be necessary as the recruits arrive on campus and compete for playing time. Because for both players and coaches, it's time to grind after a short celebration of a memorable day for Kentucky football.
"I've read a lot of quotes from these guys that caught my eye that they know and understand that this is just the beginning of a lot of work," Stoops said. "We've got some good players that's going to help this program, but we've got to go to work now and keep on building and put another great class together and do all the work, whether it be right now in winter if they're here, or the guys that are going to show up in the summer. I think they're very special that way."
Senior Matt Reida has started every game of UK's last two seasons at shortstop. (Photo by Chet White, UK athletics)
This is the second in a 10 part series previewing the Kentucky baseball season, leading up to the season opener on Feb. 14 vs. No. 1 Virginia in Wilmington, N.C.
When Kentucky opens the 2014 season vs. Virginia on Feb. 14, it will mark the 119th consecutive start at shortstop for senior Matt Reida.
Reida, a native of Russiaville, Ind., has started every Kentucky game at shortstop over the last two seasons, with Taylor Black the last UK player to start at short, way back on May 21, 2011 for a tilt at Florida, marking a span of 1,001 days.
A 5-foot-11, 185-pound left-handed hitter, Reida has been a fixture in the lineup since he arrived as a freshman out of Western High School. A 47th round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, Reida stepped right into the UK lineup as the primary starting second baseman.
He anchored the keystone for the majority of 2011 while Black played short, showcasing the type of defensive abilities that led him to Lexington, drawing immediate comparisons to former UK left-handed hitting middle infield Chris Bisson.
"It was exciting because it was the first time that I was playing at that high level and like any freshman, you aren't sure if you belong at that level yet," Reida said. "For me it was nerve-racking, the first time playing in front of big crowds and on national television. So it takes some time to really get your thoughts under control and the slow the game down because you are so excited to get out there for the first time. My freshman year was a good learning experience for me to be fortunate enough to get so much time and so many at-bats. And to struggle shows you what you need to work on to improve."
Overall, Reida played in 40 games with 27 starts, batting .218, with a better mark in Southeastern Conference action (.225). He had several moments that foreshadowed his future as a premier defender, most notably with one out, the bases loaded and the game-tying run at third base in the top of the ninth inning vs. No. 12 Arkansas. Reida charged a slow roller up the middle, fielding it in one quick motion and throwing a strike to force out the tying run at the plate and help clinch the UK win.
But it was a nice back-handed scoop and throw while manning second base in an ESPN Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week matchup at LSU that helped Reida feel he belonged in the nation's best conference.
"That game was the moment that stands out for me because they had a packed crowd and it was my first ESPN game," Reida said. "I remember being extra jacked up for it, making that play in the first or second inning, and after that I calmed down and it helped me realized I belonged here."
After a freshman summer in the Northwoods League, Reida entered the 2012 season in a battle with J.T. Riddle for the middle infield positions. Riddle was the jaw-dropping talent with a cannon arm, great instincts and a potent bat. Reida won the position and pushed Riddle to second base with his ability to dominate the average play.
During the 2012 season, Reida helped the Wildcats to a record-setting campaign. Kentucky won a school-record 45 games and finished a win shy of the Southeastern Conference Championship. Defensively, Reida continued to shine, forming a dynamic duo with Riddle. UK finished with a school-record .976 fielding percentage, also setting new program bests in putouts and defensive assists.
Reida totaled 224 defensive assists, the second most of any UK infielder in school history and the most since 2006. At the plate, he finished with a .239 average with two homers and 22 RBI.
"2012 was a really special year," Reida said. "We had really good leadership and a lot of guys that really wanted to win and compete. They were excited to show up every day and just play. That is kind of rare, especially when things aren't going well, to want to show up and just work. That group was a really special group in the sense that they just wanted to work hard all the time. It was just a really special group."
Reida took his talent to the Cape Cod League for the 2012 summer, helping lead Harwich to the CCBL Playoffs. He ranked third in the league in defensive assists while continuing to showcase his range and instincts up the middle.
As a junior, Reida began to breakout offensively towards the end of the campaign, while starting all 55 games at shortstop. His offensive progress led him to move out of the No. 9 spot in the order for the first time in his career, finishing with a .242 average with 20 RBI and a career-best walk-strikeout ratio, of 25-to-31.
"I have worked really hard on my offense," Reida said. "Last year, I cut down on my strikeouts a little more, I started having some better at bats, and I came up and was able to hit in bigger situations. It is more about concentrating all the time, not throwing away at-bats and learning to do the little things to have a better approach at the plate. It is going to pay off this year, just that learning process for me. It has come a little slower than I would like but last year I was able to take another step."
As the season wound down and UK head coach Gary Henderson searched for a hitter in the lineup that was not slumping, Reida stood out.
He finished the year on a career-long 10-game hitting streak. In the season finale at Missouri, with UK missing a pair of starters in the lineup, Reida took over as the leadoff hitter, a testament to his offensive progress over the last three years.
After the season, Reida saw his double-play partner sign as a draft pick of Florida Marlins in the 13th round. While Reida went undrafted, despite entering his junior season as the No. 97 college prospect available in the draft, he immediately sought more at-bats, traveling to the New England Collegiate League.
Reida earned the starting spot at shortstop in the NECBL All-Star Game after hitting .274 during the season, with five doubles, and 11 steals in 30 games.
During the summer, Reida dedicated himself in the weight room, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle and increasing his agility and athleticism.
"New England was a really good experience for me because the schedule is pretty light, so I was able to just live in the weight room," Reida said. "I would be in the weight room all morning and if I was too sore and needed the day off I could take the day off. The Cape is a little more of you want to go out and play as hard as you can every day. Whereas New England it was a little more laid back for me and I was able to get my at-bats and really focus on getting stronger and getting my body to where I want it to be for this year."
Always a player with a fierce competitive fire, Reida plays the game with a hard-nosed mentality. His experience, competitiveness and talents have helped him emerge as a vocal leader for a talented but somewhat youthful team which will include a new double-play partner up the middle for UK's senior shortstop.
"It is a lot of fun because we have a great group in the middle infield," Reida said. "Obviously, you have Connor (Heady), JaVon (Shelby), (Tyler) Tipton and (Troy) Squires, and even (Tyler) Marshall, those guys are fun to work with and they all work hard. It makes it easier as a leader when the guys around you want to work harder and get better."
All the action -- from our live webcast to social media -- is going on at our Signing Day home page right here
. But in case you only want to follow along with Cat Scratches' live blog, you can join below.
Alex Poythress scores two of his 10 points on a rim-rattling first-half dunk vs. Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within just a couple games of his college career, opponents realized they had to throw two and three defenders at Julius Randle. Otherwise, he was perfectly capable of winning a game on his own.
After more than two months of watching his star freshman swarmed from tip to buzzer, John Calipari drew up a similar game plan for Marshall Henderson.
"Obviously, Henderson could go for 40 and we were doing stuff that you don't do to a normal player," Calipari said. "He gets played like Julius gets played. You've got to keep him away, and it forces you to do different things. That's how good he is."
Henderson, of course, gets the job done in very different ways from Randle. He uses off-ball screens to create openings, hoisting nearly 75 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point line. So instead of sending bodies inside at Henderson as teams do with Randle, UK took a team approach to defending the senior guard.
"You can't try to stop him from shooting; you just have to make him take some tough shots," said Aaron Harrison, who scored 16 points. "He's going to hit some tough shots but you gotta keep making him take tough shots."
Harrison began the game guarding Henderson, but he was hardly alone. When he got hung up on one of the seemingly countless screens the Ole Miss Rebels set for their leading scorer, one of his teammates switched onto Henderson.
"When a shooter runs off screens and picks and baseline run-ins like he does, that's a smart thing you can do is switch out because we are so versatile," Poythress said after a solid 10-point, seven-rebound effort. "A lot of our players can guard a lot of positions so it works to our advantage."
As expected, Henderson scored his points -- 16, to be exact -- but the Cats made him work to do it. He shot just 6-of-18 from the field and 4-of-12 from 3-point range, committing three turnovers in the process. With Henderson limited, No. 18/14 UK (17-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) rode a dominant second half to an 80-64 win over Ole Miss (15-7, 6-3 SEC) on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.
At different points, everyone from Aaron Harrison -- the defender who opened on Henderson -- to Alex Poythress to Willie Cauley-Stein was in one-on-one situations with him.
"That's what I really take pride in is guys think that because I'm so long and tall that I can't guard them," said Cauley-Stein, who found his December form with 17 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. "And when I do guard them it's like, you kind of peep them after a dead ball and they look at their coach like, 'What do I do? Like I can't get past him and I can't shoot over him so what am I supposed to do?' "
The approach worked as planned, but that wasn't the only reason Coach Cal implemented it.
"It makes us communicate, and that's why I wanted to do it as much as anything else," Calipari said.
With a group of players that too often falls into the trap of focusing on individual play, Calipari knew the defensive scheme he drew up against Henderson would fall flat on its face if the Cats didn't forget all that.
"When you do what we did today, they've got to talk," Calipari said. "Because you can't start switching like we did and do the things we did unless everyone talks."
Successfully putting the game plan into action was just another step in the evolution of the youngest team in the country.
"For the last week, all we've been doing is recognizing teammates doing things well, and they had to verbalize it," Calipari said. "So if a guy got a good rebound or dove on the floor, nice pass or made a shot, I needed to hear a bunch of guys saying, "Hey, Willie, great," because I'm trying to get their emotions out of their offense and how they're playing."
As UK football welcomes a new class on Signing Day, fans will be able to follow along like never before.Coverage on UKathletics.com
will begin at 8 a.m. ET on Signing Day and continue late into the morning or early afternoon. The centerpiece of the coverage will be a webcast live from the Nutter Training Facility produced by UK Sports Video that will spotlight Mark Stoops' signing class currently rated No. 13 nationally by Rivals.com as National Letters of Intent arrive.
The live stream will feature exclusive access to UK's coaches, including a special "Xs and Os Room" with star UK quarterback Tim Couch. Couch -- the top pick in the 1999 NFL Draft -- will break down film of signees with their respective position coaches, showing why the newest Wildcats project to be the future stars of UK football.
Dick Gabriel, Tom Leach, Kentucky Sports Radio's Matt Jones and former UK quarterback Freddie Maggard will join Couch on the coverage. UK's seven mid-year enrollees - including highly rated quarterback Drew Barker - will be interviewed as part of the coverage as well. As soon as live coverage concludes, the webcast will be rebroadcast on UK's official YouTube channel
In addition to the webcast, fans are invited to be a part of Signing Day. Not only will Cat Scratches host its annual live blog, the first place to learn when signees become official, but UKathletics.com will also provide a social-media experience
that will integrate the best fan posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Fans are encouraged to post with the hash tag #UK2014Class. The best content will be featured both on a social-media mosaic and on the live webcast.
Fans will also be able to welcome signees on Twitter to the Big Blue Nation using the "Congratulate a Cat" feature. The signees generating the most buzz on Twitter will be compiled on a leaderboard called "Trending Cats."
Fans unable to follow online can listen to the Leach Report from 9-10 a.m. and Kentucky Sports Radio from 10 a.m.-noon. Both shows will be broadcasting live from the Nutter Training Facility.
It all begins bright and early on Wednesday morning.
A.J. Reed enters his junior season as a first-team preseason All-America selection by Baseball America. (Photo by Aaron Borton, UK athletics)
This is the first of a 10-part season preview leading up to Kentucky's season opener with No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C.
The time is quickly approaching when Kentucky junior two-way star A.J. Reed is going to have to declare a future as either a left-handed pitcher or a slugging first baseman.
That will likely be decided when Reed hears his name, and designated position, called in the MLB Draft.
For now, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound native of Terre Haute, Ind., is enjoying the rare opportunity to shine as the nation's top two-way player.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Reed said. "That is really all I've ever known. Being able to throw and hit, it is just kind of what I do. Now that the draft is getting a little bit closer, the time may come for me to make a decision. But really ultimately I would do either one in the future. Being able to play every day is what I want to do and that gives me the opportunity to do that."
Reed is coming off a season as UK's Friday-night starter and No. 3 or No. 4 hitter in the lineup - the first player in program history to fill that dual role - earning First-Team All-Southeastern Conference accolades as the designated hitter.
He got off to a blistering start to the season, picking up the win in the season opener on the mound with five innings and a 4-for-5, three-RBI game at the plate. He continued his hot start at the plate in February (.313, 2 HR, 11 RBI) and March (.352, 4 HR, 17 RBI), before wearing down as the grind of a dual role took its toll the last few weeks of the year.
"I started off pretty good and as the season went on, I got tired and we had to change some things up (in the offseason)," Reed said. "I changed my body, just to prepare better for this year. But overall last year, I did okay. I felt like I gave us a pretty good chance to win most games and I felt like I should've hit a little bit better and for a higher average. It was just one of those years where things just didn't go our way and I think we kind of folded."
On the mound, that exhaustion was really evident. Entering his final two starts of the year, Reed was in position to fight for the SEC ERA title with a 2.84 mark, with his 2-6 record at that point emphasizing his role as the hard-luck pitcher that was facing off against the opponents ace. During the year, Reed got a staff-low run support of 4.43 per game, including 2.44 runs per game in his last nine starts.
Overall, Reed's numbers as a sophomore didn't truly reflect his value to the Wildcats. He finished the year with a .280 average at the plate, ranking fourth in the SEC in homers (13) and RBI (52). On the mound, Reed's ERA finished at 4.04 and his record at 2-8 after ending the season with losses to No. 1 Vanderbilt and Missouri, surrendering 14 runs in those two starts to inflate his ERA.
Throughout the season, the USA Collegiate National Team front office and coaching staff were taking a close look at Reed as a potential two-way player on its 22-man roster for the 2013 summer. After the year, Reed was invited to the trials for Team USA, with his teammate, centerfielder Austin Cousino, already guaranteed a spot on the club after leading the team in hitting during 2012.
Reed shined in his time with the USA National Team, going 4-for-11 at the plate with a double and three RBI and working five shutout, one-hit innings in his start on the mound, walking one and striking out five.
"It was a really good experience," Reed said. "It was really cool to play with all those guys, who are the premier guys in college baseball. To be considered one of those guys was an honor and it was just a really cool experience for me to get to play with them."
When the roster was trimmed to 22 for the trip to Cuba, Reed returned to the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod League, where he had started his summer in June. He played in 20 games at the plate in the CCBL, batting .224 with five doubles, one triple, two homers and 12 RBI as he shuffled in and out of the lineup with days in between, not starting every day until August. On the mound, Reed finished with a 1-2 record and a 3.60 ERA in 25 innings, striking out 21.
"The Cape Cod is said to be one of the best summer leagues for college baseball," Reed said. "So to be able to go up there for two years and be able to show what I can do and be able to play with those guys is a really good experience and really good baseball. It really kind of shows you where you stand within that group of players that you play against. It is really a good place to play and the Cape Cod is a really nice place, so it was a lot of fun."
Reed's tour in the Cape Cod League was his second consecutive summer in the northeast, as he ranked third in the CCBL in ERA (2.32) as a freshman, owning a 3-1 record in eight starts. Reed's 2012 summer came after he was the first first-team consensus freshman All-America selection in program history. As a freshman Reed hit .300 with nine doubles, four homers and 43 RBI, owning a 5-2 record and a 2.52 ERA on the mound.
Priority No. 1 in the offseason with Reed and UK coach Gary Henderson was making sure he was in the best shape of his life entering the 2014 season.
"Well, the skill set for A.J. Reed is pretty good," Henderson said. "A.J. is making the normal progress that you would hope guys make, probably a little bit more than normal. He has done a really, really good job of changing his body the last four months. He looks great. Fans are going to recognize him but they are also going to recognize that he is a little bit trimmer. He has dropped about 20 pounds. His bat speed is little bit better. He is moving better, left to right, at first base. He is repeating his delivery at a high level. It is pretty exciting."
Henderson, Reed and UK strength coach Ryan DeVriendt worked tirelessly in helping Reed transform his body into a much more efficient and lean 6-4, 240.
"When you lose that kind of weight, it is fairly simple, you are just carrying less weight," Henderson said. "If you are hoping to do something 85 to 110 times and you are doing it with 20 less pounds on your body it is going to be easier to do and easier to repeat and easier to explode at release. The bat speed is going to be able to stay in place longer. The body is easier to control. The brain feels better because you are not fatigued. It is all of it. It is all related. It is important. He has done a really good job. I am proud of him."
His work ethic, leadership and infectious personality have been a key ingredient in what has been a different dynamic for the Wildcats in the preseason.
"The other thing (working so hard in the weight room) does is the influence it has on his peers," Henderson said. "It sends a message that what he is doing is important. I am really proud of him. It is like anybody, you lose 15-20 pounds, that is work, that is effort. He has done it and he is going to benefit from it."
Reed sees the differences in the 2012 and 2013 preseasons and the feel of the club. As a preseason All-American and one of the top performers in program history, his role is much more than just a run-producer and weekend starter.
"Leadership is essential because comparing my freshman year to last year, the leadership was so much better my freshman year than last year and it was reflected on the season that we had," Reed said. "Some of the older guys, we have been trying to bring that feel back, bring everyone together and show the younger guys how we do things around here and how we expect it to be done and just holding each other accountable. Just setting that really good example and telling them this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it."
His freshman legacy was solidified in a heroic performance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, when the Wildcats and Kent State tangled in a 21-inning marathon that saw the southpaw play the first 12 innings as the DH/first baseman, before coming out of the bullpen to fire nine innings in relief.
He nearly won the game in the bottom of the 18th inning when UK catcher Michael Williams doubled off the cavernous wall with Reed on first base and two outs. With the former Indiana High School Player of the Year motoring around third base before cramping while attempting to slide in as the walk-off run. Despite his cramps, Reed took to the mound and fired scoreless innings in the 19th and 20th to keep UK in the game.
"I know I was extremely tired after that game," Reed said. "It was crazy. All I could think was that this game was never going to end. I was just going out and throwing everything I had and just hoping that we could score a run and just try and keep us in the game and give us a chance to win. Unfortunately it didn't go our way but it was just really special to get to experience it with those guys."
He now enters his junior season with precious little time to play both roles. As a preseason All-America selection by Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game, Reed knows that in order for the Wildcats to reach their expectations, they are going to need production from their two-way star.
"There are not a lot of guys in college baseball, especially in our conference, that get to do both," Reed said. "I take pride in that and being able to do both at this level and have success in both areas. In the future, whatever a team chooses for me I just see that as a positive. Whatever they want me to do, what they think is best for their organization and their team, and I can take all that time that I've spent focusing on the other side of it and put it towards whatever they say and just become better at that area."
- Kentucky went 1-1 on the week while enduring weather-related issues at both LSU and Missouri.
- Freshman sharpshooter James Young led the way for the Cats with a pair of 20-point outings. He poured in a team-high 23 at LSU while sinking a career-best five 3-pointers. He followed with a 20-point performance in a win over Missouri as UK became just the third team to earn a win at Mizzou Arena against Missouri coach Frank Haith. Freshman Aaron Harrison had a team-high 21 points including the go-ahead four points in the final minute of play to earn with the win over the Tigers.
- UK shot over .500 percent from the floor and hit on .571 percent from long range as four different Cats made at least one long ball.
- The Wildcats will return home to host Ole Miss on Tuesday, before returning to the road for two more contests. UK will end the week at Mississippi State on Saturday, a team it has already defeated once this season.
- Kentucky rebounded from a season-low shooting performance and heartbreaking, 58-56, loss at Georgia on Thursday by putting its own defensive clamps on 14th-ranked LSU just three days later.
- The Wildcats held the Lady Tigers to 32.3 percent shooting in a much-needed, 63-56, win in Memorial Coliseum, the Cats' school-record third consecutive win over LSU in Lexington. Nine Wildcats contributed at least two points in the winning effort, paced by junior guard Bria Goss' 11 points and junior point guard Jennifer O'Neill's 10 points off the bench. Goss, who came into the game ranked sixth nationally in free-throw shooting percentage, nailed all six of her attempts on Sunday, increasing her free-throw streak to 23. The mark now ranks fourth all-time in UK history for consecutive free-throws made.
- The Wildcats have a bye week before traveling Gainesville, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 9 to take on Florida for the second time this season. UK fell to the Gators in Lexington in the SEC home opener on Jan. 5, 83-73.
- In the final competition of a season-long-tying three-meet roadtrip, the Kentucky gymnastics team lost to Georgia, 197.300-190.950, Saturday evening in Athens, Ga.
- Despite the season-low score, the Wildcats (4-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) fell just 0.050 points shy of a season-best performance on vault with a 48.850, and 0.125 points shy of a 2014-high on floor with a 49.000. UK's floor score was its second mark of 49.000 or higher of the season.
- Individually, five career high scores, in addition to three season-best scores, were set or tied. Shelby Hilton's 9.825 on floor and Shannon Mitchell's 9.850 on vault, both career highs, and sophomore Amy Roemmele's career-high-tying 9.825 on bars all resulted in team-bests for the Wildcats on each apparatus. Senior Audrey Harrison posted an all-around score of 37.675 to finish second.
- The Wildcats return home to face second-ranked and undefeated Florida on Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. ET. It will be DanceBlue Night at Memorial Coliseum and UK will raise awareness and money to benefit children with cancer who are treated at the Pediatric Oncology Hematology Clinic on the UK campus. All fans are encouraged to wear gold to the meet to support DanceBlue.
- The second-ranked Kentucky rifle team used a 4680 to knock off No. 6 Nebraska Sunday, with the Huskers shooting a 4659.
- Freshman Sonya May delivered the best individual aggregate for a Wildcat, opening the day with a 580 in smallbore followed by a 592 in air rifle.
- Seniors Aaron and Emily Holsopple UK in smallbore, with Emily Holsopple shooting a team-best 583 and Aaron Holsopple following with a 581.
- Kentucky will close out the regular season at No. 1 West Virginia this weekend.
Swimming and diving
- The Kentucky swimming and diving teams closed out the 2014 regular season with a bang on Saturday afternoon, winning 26 of the 32 events held, as the Wildcats defeated Cincinnati. The UK men beat the Bearcats 213-80, while the Wildcats also came out on the winning side for the women, collecting a 186-106 win.
- Junior Christina Bechtel collected two wins, taking the crown in both the 100-butterfly and the 50-freestyle. Bechtel tapped in No. 1 in the 50-freestyle in just less than 24 seconds, at 23.93, while recording a 55.37 in the 100-fly to take the top spot on the podium.
- Senior Greg Ferrucci won both the men's 1-meter and 3-meter wcompetitions, with a 398.25 on the 1-meter and a mark of 374.33. Junior Christa Cabot also won both the 1-meter and the 3-meter for Kentucky. Cabot scored a 335.70 on the 3-meter, while collecting a 330.83 to win on the lower board.
- Saturday marked Kentucky's final meet before heading to Athens, Ga., for the 2014 Southeastern Conference Swimming and Diving Championships. The University of Georgia will host the event, with the championships scheduled to begin on Tuesday, Feb. 18 running through Feb. 22.
- The No. 22 Notre Dame Fighting Irish outlasted No. 13 Kentucky for the second-straight weekend onSunday afternoon in a 4-3 match which featured three lead changes, as NotreDame got a break at four-all in the deciding set in the deciding match to take the 4-3 win for the second-straight weekend.
- No. 68 Tom Jomby continued his great play to start the season, as he knocked off No. 22 Greg Andews for the second-straight weekend on court one, 6-5, 6-4. Jomby won a first set tiebreak, and then got a late break in the second set to serve it out and tie the match at 3-3. He is 7-0 on the season.
- The Wildcats are back in action on Friday, Feb. 7, as Kentucky travels to No. 5 Ohio State to take on the Buckeyes at 6 p.m. ET in Columbus.
- The No. 40 University of Kentucky women's tennis team returned home with a 6-1 win over Penn State University on Saturday. This was the team's first true road match.
- After a 4-3 loss last season to the Nittany Lions, the Wildcats came out firing on all cylinders. Winning the doubles point, the team got off to an early 1-0 lead. Freshman Aldila Sutjiadi expanded the lead to 2-0 with her win on court 2 and No. 108 Nadia Ravita followed with her first win the season.
- Junior Edmée Morin-Kougoucheff clinched the match for Kentucky for the second time this season. Her consistency on the court has led her to four singles wins, a team high.
- The Wildcats will return to action on Saturday, Feb. 8, with a doubleheader against Marshall University at 10 a.m. ET and Morehead State at 6 p.m. ET.
Tuesday, Feb. 4
Men's Basketball vs. Ole Miss - 7 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 6
Softball vs. Santa Clara - 12 p.m. (Long Beach, Calif.)
Softball at Long Beach State - 2:30 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 7
Softball vs. Loyola Marymount - 1:30 p.m. (Fullerton, Calif.)
Men's Tennis at Ohio State - 6 p.m.
Softball vs. Oklahoma - 6:30 p.m. (Fullerton, Calif.)
Gymnastics vs. Florida - 7 p.m.
Track and Field at Notre Dame Invitational - TBA
Track and Field at Virginia Tech Elite Meet - TBA
Saturday, Feb. 8
Women's Tennis vs. Marshall - 10 a.m.
Softball vs. George Washington - 12 p.m. (Long Beach, Calif.)
Men's Basketball at Mississippi State - 1:30 p.m.
Women's Tennis vs. Morehead State - 6 p.m.
Rifle at West Virginia - All Day
Track and Field at Notre Dame Invitational - TBA
Track and Field at Virginia Tech Elite Meet - TBA
Sunday, Feb. 9
Women's Basketball at Florida - 12 p.m.
Men's Tennis vs. Michigan State - 1 p.m.
Men's Tennis vs. Wright State - 6 p.m.
Women's Golf at UCF Challenge - All Day
Andrew Harrison scored 14 points in UK's win at Missouri on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no clouding the positive from Kentucky's win at Missouri on Saturday.
Facing a team that almost never loses at home, the Wildcats built a double-digit lead and held on to it down the stretch. Just days removed from a disappointing loss at LSU, UK refused to wilt.
"I think it just showed our will to win," Andrew Harrison said. "We knew we had to pull it out and we did. It shows that we're growing mental toughness. We do have what it takes to win."
Offense is where UK got it done.
With the home-standing Tigers rallying, the Cats scored on their final four possessions in an 84-79 win. For the game, they shot 53.6 percent from the field and scored 1.25 points per possession, UK's best total in Southeastern Conference play.
"We've matured offensively, and guys executed," said assistant coach Orlando Antigua. "I think they understand what we're asking of them, especially Andrew. Andrew had a great floor game for us."
With his 14 points, four assists and one turnover, Harrison didn't have his best statistical game or even the biggest afternoon on his team according to the numbers, but don't make any mistake about his importance. The freshman was responsible for orchestrating the UK attack.
"He knew when to attack, when to shoot, when to pass," Antigua said. "Defensively he did a pretty good job. But more importantly than that, he kept us organized. When they were trying to throw different things at us, he was able to make the right calls. He's starting to get the feel of what we need."
With its point guard becoming steadier by the day, UK's offense has evolved into an unquestioned strength.
The Cats are first in the Southeastern Conference and sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, relying on a combination of solid 2-point shooting (53.1 percent, 25th nationally), regular free-throw line trips (free-throw rate of 54.5, seventh nationally) and unmatched offensive rebounding (offensive-rebounding rate of 42.7, first nationally).
"We're excited about the way we're playing offensively obviously," Antigua said. "We've got to continue to do that and just continue to work."
On offense, the goal of that work will be to refine and maintain. Defensively, there is more room for improvement.
For the first time in John Calipari's tenure in Lexington, UK has allowed back-to-back opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field in splitting games last week against two sets of Tigers. The Cats have also allowed more than one point per possession in four of their last six outings.
"We've been concentrating on trying to get better defensively as a unit," Antigua said. "I think with a young group, guys have to understand the kind of commitment that you need to make in order to do the things that we want to do. The good thing is that they're coming along, they're getting better."
It's also good news that the Cats can win a game like the one at Missouri even with their defense so clearly a work in progress, particularly considering how fixable some of their problems are.
"We should be a better defensive team than we are right now, but a lot of it's just transition defense," Calipari said. "How about we sprint back? How about--you know, last game we (said) every huddle, 'They're driving right and they're driving right. Make them go left.' And they just kept driving right."
Missouri scored 18 fast-break points against Kentucky, including a number off of made baskets. When the Tigers did have to set up in the half-court, Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28) continually made the Cats pay for not heeding Calipari's coaching.
Recognizing the need to change it up, Calipari went to a 2-3 zone defense for prolonged stretches for the first time this season. By no means was it perfect, but UK's length makes the prospect of using it again an interesting one.
"It worked really well," Harrison said. "We're a pretty big team, so I think it got them off guard because we usually don't play too much zone. Us being so long and being able to deflect balls and stuff, I think that affected them a little bit."
The question now becomes whether Calipari will turn to the zone again with No. 18/14 UK (16-5, 6-2 SEC) set to host Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2 SEC) at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
The Rebels, of course, have a player and personality the likes of which Kentucky has not faced in Marshall Henderson. After sitting out the first two games of conference play, Henderson has returned to average 20.2 points as the Rebels have won four times in five games.
"You just know he's going to shoot," Antigua said. "We're expecting that. He's a talented, talented player. It's going to be a good challenge for our guys--and not just for our guards, but for our entire team--to make it difficult on him. He's going to get his shots up. We know that."
UK was effective against Henderson a season ago, limiting him to 5-of-19 shooting in an 87-74 win in Oxford, Miss. Henderson, however, still managed to score 21 points, a lesson that he is likely to score his points regardless.
Where the Cats aren't conceding points is in transition.
"I think everybody's going to try to test our transition defense because of our size and length," Antigua said. "Once we get in the half-court, I think we're pretty solid defensively as a unit."
To get there, Antigua sees a couple simple steps.
"I think the first part of transition defense is getting back and then communicating," Antigua said. "That's one of the things that we've been honing in on the last couple weeks: just getting back and communicating, stopping the ball first and then identifying the threats in transition."
To Harrison, it's even simpler.
"It's just a matter of sprinting back and just having a 'want to' to sprint back and be a defensive team," Harrison said. "I feel like we'll be much harder to beat if we become that defensive team."
John Calipari and coaches throughout the league joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday. Read what Coach Cal and Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy had to say.
On this week's games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State ...
"You're talking about two teams that have players that can break you down and score when they need to. Mississippi State was up four on us when they played us here and we kind of wore them down with a little bit of our depth but I'm not sure we'll be able to do that down there. Mississippi, Andy (Kennedy) has them playing so well. They're running their stuff, they're executing, they're playing through the people they need to play through, they're playing zone, they're scrambling it up a little bit and putting out a 1-3-1 (zone) and a little bit of half-court trap stuff. They're doing great stuff. Both teams are being well-coached and both teams are in position to win games because of how they're being coached and players are playing their roles well."
On whether the game at Missouri was UK's best performance in SEC play ...
"Well, the thing that I would say is the whole mantra, the whole message for the week was passion, outward emotion, enthusiasm for each other, and show it. We practiced all week on recognizing each other's good plays and verbally doing it. We've got such a young team. We've got the youngest team I've ever coached and one of the youngest teams in college basketball history that their emotions are all tied to how they're playing offensively. And I would say our strength of schedule right now is a five. That's why when everybody gets caught up in, 'They gotta win every game.' We don't. We just gotta take care of business. Our strength of schedule is top five and it's not going to change a whole lot to finish out the year. So they you have our efficiency on offense and we're still holding the ball too much and it's top 10, top five. The issue becomes the enthusiasm, the passion, the spirit we play with on defense. We should be a better defensive team than we are right now, but a lot of it's just transition defense. How about we sprint back? How about--you know, last game we (said) every huddle, 'They're driving right and they're driving right. Make them go left.' And they just kept driving right. So again, there's some things that we can do to make us better. And I keep saying, it's not a skillset, it's not that we don't have good guys. They're a good team. All the things that people say that are weaknesses, we can change. We got size, we got athleticism, we got depth. The things that you have no control over we have. So we've got things that we can change and we're going to try to."
On Jabari Brown's play on Saturday ...
"Yeah, he was outstanding. Again, he flew up and down the court, put himself in positions to get out ahead of our defense and if you leave him alone he makes shots. I mean, the last five, six games he was making 60, 70 percent of his 3s the last six games. So I think, again, whoever's playing Missouri - and I'm happy we're not playing them again - that you have to be prepared to say, 'If he gets going, what are you going to do?' We ran a little zone, we trapped some pick-and-rolls, we did some stuff to try to slow them down and he and (Jordan) Clarkson ended up getting 70 points between them. So we've had now two games where teams have shot 50 percent against my teams. And I bet you if you look over the history of all the years, over 20 years of coaching, back-to-back 50-percent shooting nights against my teams, I can't imagine that it's happened. But it did and both these teams - LSU and Missouri - terrific basketball teams."
On this week's upcoming games ...
"Two very big challenges, obviously tomorrow night in Lexington against one of the better teams in the country, who have had an unbelievable amount of success in Rupp, and then turning around and hosting Missouri, who is playing very good basketball and presents a number of challenges with quite arguably the best back court in college basketball. So another week of SEC play going to certainly present challenges."
On Kentucky's perimeter play ...
"The biggest concern for us is their size. We're not overly big in the back court and they've got a lot of size. They play (Jarrod) Polson a little bit and he's probably the only guy on their roster under 6-5 that gets in the game, so they present a number of issues with their size and their versatility. I think the Harrison twins are really starting to play much more confidently. With all freshmen, as the season gets longer, they get more comfortable in their roles. James Young's as prolific a scorer as a I can remember - I lose track of how long Cal's been there - but I don't know if he's had a guy that came in from day one and really, really scored as efficiently as James Young does. So they present a number of challenges with their size, their athleticism and their ability to make shots."
On what impresses him the most about Julius Randle ...
"His overall game is what sticks out to me. He's obviously very, very physically strong and just attacks the ball. Great players are always around the ball and he always seems to be around the ball. He's facing up and making more shots on the perimeter. Most everybody will do what we'll try to do is put some bodies between him and the basket, and hopefully we can get him off of his straight path, because if you allow him to get to that left hand and have a straight path to the basket, there's very little you're going to be able to do."
This commercial aired just after the end of the second quarter of the Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. It features a voice over by Mark Stoops and 17 Wildcats.
The theme: "Why Not?"
Here's the complete list of players who appeared:
Bria Goss scored a team-high 11 points in UK's 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
After a loss at Georgia on Thursday, the Kentucky Wildcats had dropped four of their last seven games and were searching for answers.
In the midst of that prolonged slump, Matthew Mitchell knows every second of practice counts. But on Friday, he bypassed the chance to take the court with his team.
There was more important work to be done.
"We didn't take the floor Friday," Mitchell said. "We just sat in a room and weren't leaving until we got some things straightened out about how we are going to move forward."
You see, Mitchell didn't think drills or running would cure UK's ills, at least not right away.
"I am telling you, this is not a physical thing," Mitchell said. "It is mental. It is a mindset."
Instead, the Cats spent the afternoon watching film, talking through the reasons they had gone from unbeaten barely six weeks ago to questioning their talent.
"Friday was intense, even though we didn't get on the court," Samarie Walker said. "It was kind of like a tell-all meeting. He was being very open and honest with us; we were being very open and honest with him."
With everything on the table, UK went back to work on Saturday, making up for lost time with back-to-back "great" practices. On Sunday, that work -- first mental, then physical -- paid off in a 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference).
"I am just so proud of them for pulling together and getting this victory," Mitchell said. "This was one of the top teams in the country and we are not playing particularly well right now and we have to find ourselves and to gut this one out and find a way to win is huge."
No. 13/12 UK (17-5, 5-4 SEC) went back to its roots to get it done, relying on stingy defense and capitalizing on LSU mistakes. The Tigers shot just 32.3 percent from the field and UK scored 25 points off 18 LSU turnovers to claim a slugfest in front of 6,333 fans in Memorial Coliseum.
"We're going to have off nights, but we should never have an off defensive night," said Bria Goss, who led a balanced scoring effort with 11 points. "So we can bring our defense a hundred percent of the time and just relying on our defense is just going to get us to the next step."
Jennifer O'Neill, who added 10 points in just 15 minutes off the bench, says the performance was all about transferring good practice habits to the game.
"We've been going like cutthroat, really going at each other one on one," O'Neill said. "We have a lot of drills where you play for the team you're on and we just wanted to bring that to the court today."
Perhaps the best example of that was freshman Makayla Epps, who hadn't scored a point in exactly a month after a strong start to her freshman season. Epps had to listen to some hard truths in that Friday meeting, but she didn't put her head down.
"She is unbelievably talented and strong and skilled and gifted and was just doing nothing for us," Mitchell said. "I think she probably did one of the best jobs I have ever seen a freshman just really, really getting taking to task in a film session and actually showing up the next day and trying to correct it."
Epps was quiet in five first-half minutes, but turned in one of the game's most important stretches with less than seven minutes left in the second. With LSU looking to make a run behind freshman Raigyne Moncrief -- who had a game-high 19 points -- Epps scored seven straight points in the span of less than two minutes to keep UK's lead in double digits.
"She wasn't trying to step outside her role," O'Neill said. "She was trying to do the things she was doing in practice like attacking the basket and trying to look to get the ball inside to the post."
Pleased as they may be with the win, Epps and the Cats have no choice but to attack practice the way they did Saturday.
"It's just all about being consistent," Goss said. "This game was a really good game for us and it looked like we were back to Kentucky's way of playing. It won't mean anything if we go back to being down and low-energy."
Asked a question about whether his team had overcome its January lull for good, Mitchell took the "out-of-the-woods" metaphor as far as he could think to do.
"We are working hard and in the woods right now trying to get through some briar patches and get some machetes out and hack our way through," Mitchell said. "We are not even close to being out of the woods yet. We have a lot of work to do."