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UK Hoops looking to send off special group of seniors with big win

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UK will honor Kastine Evans and three fellow seniors on Senior Day this Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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."

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