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Video: Cauley-Stein, Ulis, Booker on UNC win

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Video: Battle of the Blue Bloods Intro

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Alexis Jennings had 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Middle Tennessee on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Alexis Jennings had 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Middle Tennessee on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The ball came to Alexis Jennings outside the arc.

The 6-foot-2 freshman had already scored four straight points for Kentucky by then and she didn't hesitate when she received the pass from Makayla Epps.

Watching Jennings set up to take the shot, Jennifer O'Neill, concerned over how Matthew Mitchell might react if it didn't go in, wasn't so sure.

"I'm glad she hit it because if she didn't he wouldn't have been too happy," O'Neill said, laughing.

Jennings, however, would calmly sink the shot. And as it turns out, Mitchell couldn't have been happier with the development.

"I was so happy that 3 went in because I'm hoping that gives her some confidence," Mitchell said.

Jennings would follow the 3 with two more made free throws, meaning she closed the first half on a personal 9-1 run. Thanks to her, UK turned a tenuous seven-point lead on visiting Middle Tennessee into a comfortable 41-26 margin heading into the halftime locker room on the way to a 78-62 win. The No. 8 Wildcats won their fifth straight game to move to 9-1 on the season.

"I'm proud of our players and we just need to stay humble and hungry and keep getting better," said Mitchell, who won his 100th career game in Memorial Coliseum on Friday night. "This was a great win for us tonight."

No player showed more improvement than Jennings. Coming in, the Madison, Ala., native had scored just 14 points after a 10-point performance in her college debut. But against the Blue Raiders, she scored a career-high 11.

"It's been real rough for me right now about being in the post and finishing all my moves," Jennings said, "but tonight I just focused and I just played really hard and everything that we did in practice just came together and I was able to contribute today."

She contributed in more ways than just scoring too.

Jennings checked in at the 12:20 mark of the first half, at which point UK led just 16-14. She would play all but two minutes to close the half, grabbing six rebounds and three on the offensive end.

"I was so pleased because it was a very close game and I thought her energy on the offensive glass really kind of started a big spurt for us that we were able to get distance in between us and Middle Tennessee State," Mitchell said. "Very good half for Alexis. We just need to keep plugging and working and she has to keep a great attitude and keep getting better. But she can help us."

Jennings came to Kentucky a highly touted post prospect and has shown glimpses of her potential, but never quite so much as Friday night.

"Well, that's what I think she can be," Mitchell said. "I think she can be that kind of player. She's practicing OK; we just need to keep working with her. But she showed you tonight some things that she can do."

Jennings chalked up her big night to improved self-belief she brought to the game. After it paid off - and she buried the second 3-pointer or her college career - that only figures to grow.

"I just played," Jennings said. "I had confidence tonight and I think that's what carried over into my play today."

Alex Poythress will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein was clearly in pain.

Speaking in measured tones, the normally colorful 7-foot junior struggled to come to grips with the torn ACL his suite mate, former roommate and best friend on the team, Alex Poythress, had suffered less than 24 hours prior.

It just didn't seem fair.

"I mean, he's just that older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the good brother that's always doing the right stuff, got his grades right, and like it's just crazy. Like why's this got to happen to a dude who just does everything right and definitely doesn't deserve to go down with an injury like this?"

Even right after it happened, it didn't quite seem real.

Scrimmaging during a normal Thursday practice, Poythress -- averaging 5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 20.3 minutes per game this season -- raced ahead for an open layup, but landed awkwardly on his left leg. He screamed in pain, but walked reasonably well and experienced less swelling than normal for a serious knee injury. An MRI, however, revealed the damage and John Calipari summoned the Wildcats for a late-night team meeting.

"Guys cried," Calipari said.

"It was honestly like somebody in your family died," Cauley-Stein said.

Poythress, though his season is over, is very much alive. Maintaining perspective is difficult so soon after news so devastating, but it's necessary.

"When I saw Alex last night, I said to him exactly what I said to Nerlens (Noel): 'You're fine. If this is something crazy, you have insurance and you're a millionaire,' " Calipari said on "You have even more time than Nerlens had to prepare yourself for the draft if that's what you choose to do. You can also come back. You're going to have your degree in May and you can start on a master's degree for your last year.' Alex is nearly a straight-A student and one of the greatest kids that I've ever coached."

Cauley-Stein, broken up as he was about the news, understands that perspective better than most.

Just last March, an ankle injury ended Cauley-Stein's season in the Sweet 16, relegating him to the sidelines as UK made its incredible run to the national championship game.

"I know for me, I understand how he's feeling, like you get hurt like that it feels like everything's just coming down on you, especially in basketball (where) you've got stuff you're trying to accomplish here, not only me and him together, but us as a whole team," Cauley-Stein said. "Just to have that kind of just end and not knowing what's going to come next is the worst part."

Through that uncertainty, the Cats will be offering any support their fallen teammate needs, whether that's in the form of space to spend time with family, watching TV together, playing video games or whatever else.

"I'm just being here for him, stepping in, (seeing) if he's good, do you need anything, and then kind of just letting him chill," Cauley-Stein said. "A lot of it, you do want to be alone at first, and then once you start feeling really good where you can start moving again, that's when you want people around you."

At this point, it's unknown whether Poythress will be in attendance when No. 1 UK (10-0) faces No. 21 North Carolina (6-2) in a game that has taken somewhat of a backseat. The show, as they say, must go on, as difficult as that may be.

"I mean, this is all part of it," Calipari said. "Things happen that you have to deal with and you have to respond to. Next man up and all that, and it's all great coach speak. The reality of it is the fear and the anxiety and all the other stuff that Alex has and we have for him, it's just it zaps you."

How UK will respond emotionally less than 48 hours after Poythress' injury is an unknown, and that doesn't even capture Poythress' impact on the court.

"Nobody can make the plays that he makes," Cauley-Stein said. "He's a freak athlete. (He) does special things you can't replace. So now we've just got to figure out how to play differently. That's going to be the biggest thing is how we're going play now, what lineups are we going to use if we still use the platoon system, and if we do, just make it work."

Speculation, as Cauley-Stein suggested, has immediately shifted to whether Calipari will stick to the platoon system. Could he simply plug Derek Willis into Poythress' spot on the first platoon with Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker likely to return to the rotation after practicing Thursday? Will he keep the platoons but mix them up? Might he abandon them altogether?

Since his primary focus to this point has been the mental state of Poythress and the team at large, Coach Cal simply doesn't know yet.

"We'll figure some stuff out in practice," Calipari said. "See what we look at. We're just practicing and I'll watch and I'll get a feel for it. I also don't want to throw guys to the wolves. I don't want to do that to them. That's not fair. But we'll figure that out."

There's only so much of that can be done in practice.

"Some of this is going to be just throwing -- at some point, 'All right, let's try this lineup, see how they work,' " Calipari said. "I've got to be willing to do it. There's going to be some ups and downs. We'll probably get dinged some. I hope not Saturday, but it could be Saturday."

It could be Saturday because the Tar Heels come to town playing good basketball. With preseason All-American Marcus Paige leading the way, Coach Cal expects North Carolina to present a major challenge.

"This is going to be a terrific basketball game," Calipari said. "They should be 8-0. The game they lost to Butler, they had every chance to win it. And the game they lost to Iowa, they had the game and Iowa made a couple plays down the stretch and beat them. But, they easily could be 8-0. This could be again another top-10 team we're playing with a different bounce of the ball."

Once the ball begins bouncing on Saturday, the Cats will try to put aside everything they've dealt with in the previous two days.

Well, almost everything. They're not about to forget their brother.

"It's just play," Cauley-Stein said. "Play hard. Everything else will--the Xs and Os will take care of itself. Everybody's just gotta play hard and play for him. For the rest of the time, that's what the motive is now. We're trying to do this with him and still have him a part of it."

Battle of the Blue Bloods: UNC promo video

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In Their Own Words: Redshirt freshman Alyssa Bertoni

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Bertoni Journal Graphic.jpg
Throughout the year, each UK gymnast will share her thoughts about the the 2015 season, what it's like being a Division I student-athlete at Kentucky and what makes being a Wildcat so special. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.

Next up is redshirt freshman Alyssa Bertoni, a native of Frederick, Md. As preseason practice concluded last week, Bertoni talks about the changes she has seen from the team this fall, compared to her first season and how the expectations and goals of the team are different.

A full archive of all the gymnast's "In Their Own Words" entries can be found here.
This season has really gotten off to a great start. We had our last practice of the preseason on Sunday, and in my opinion, this year's fall practice was much different from last year. We went in to fall practice in September with high hopes and expectations for our program, which really transformed the way we worked in the gym as a team.

As Montana mentioned last month, we've done a lot of things together outside the gym, including team bonding and community service projects, which have made us a much closer group.

From going  bowling to running 5Ks to visiting children's hospitals and participating in community events,  we all became a lot closer. It really helped us come together not just as teammates but as a true family.

Working in the community definitely brought a positive atmosphere to the team as well as our community. It is so great to give back, because they have provided us with so many opportunities and experiences that will last a lifetime. I felt like this really helped us in the gym because we all got to know each other more than we ever have. This really made an impact on how well we did in the preseason because we got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses and used this to gain confidence in our skills and perform better.

Training in the gym this fall, I felt like we all looked better and were more prepared than last year. As a program, we know we are on the rise and with this year's preseason, we can sense that we are going to be a stronger, more reliable team than ever before. Everyone looks more confident and more determined in their gymnastics.

Each of us has a goal to get to the national championship. In the fall, all of us listed our goals, so we could make that dream a reality. I am more confident than ever that every class has brought something new to the table and we are ready to show off what we have been working towards.

We ended the season last year on a high note by sending one of our teammates to nationals in Audrey Harrison. This year, each of us wants to work until we make it to nationals and succeed as a team. We really have had positive atmosphere throughout the entire fall. The seniors make it easy to come and talk to them if we are having problems or struggling. The coaches are also open to discussion and encourage us to ask questions if things do not make sense or if we need extra help. It's a really positive environment to be around every day.

I'm extremely excited to see where our gymnastics takes us this year. As a team we are prepared for every outcome and have worked incredibly hard to take this program to the next level. I can't wait to see what this year has in store for us as we kick off the season in Washington on Jan. 12, 2015!

Matthew Mitchell seemingly has two teams on his hands.

There's the one that makes him say things like this: "This group is just not naturally competitive."

And then the one that makes him say this two sentences later: "But, they clearly are competitive because when they get into the situation that's sort of desperate, they come out swinging and lock in and get going."

The two Kentuckys have combined for an 8-1 record to start the 2014-15 season, including a pair of wins over top-10 reams, but not without causing their coach a serious dose of stress.

The Wildcats, lacking "competitive fire" out of the gates on multiple occasions, have fallen behind by 14 points against No. 8 Baylor, nine points against Oklahoma and USF and 16 at No. 7 Louisville. But each time, they've managed to claw their way back from seemingly dire circumstances to win.

Mitchell, thankful as he is that UK has had the fortitude to pull it off each time, wants the habit to end.

"I just think they understand that there is an immediate threat and so they respond," Mitchell said. "When there is 17 minutes left in the first half, they think, 'Hey, maybe we have time to respond,' and I'm just saying that that's not a sustainable course of action. We can't be the team that we want to be with that kind of attitude."

Since the latest slow start that set up a big comeback - UK's fourth straight win over rival U of L - the Cats have gone to work trying to shift that attitude. To that end, Mitchell has structured practices leading up to a matchup with Middle Tennessee (4-2) at 9 p.m. ET on Friday to be as competitive as possible from the outset.

"You've got to get them to a spot where it's ultra-competitive and see who is ready to roll and who is not and try to make sure that we are practicing with a sense of urgency so that hopefully we can start the game with a great sense of urgency and maintain that," Mitchell said.

To that end, Mitchell is considering tweaking his starting five of Janee Thompson, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Azia Bishop that he has used in all nine games this season.  

"We won't just stay with it to stay with it because that's how we've started," Mitchell said. "It's very much a situation to where right now every minute is up for grabs in a competitive situation in practice and if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, it's on you because we are being very clear on what needs to be happening in practice."

It would be one thing for Mitchell to hold his team to such a high standard if the Cats hadn't shown they can play that way, but they obviously have. Their No. 8 national ranking and No. 1 RPI proves that. Now it's about evening out the effort.

"We know what we are capable of doing," Mitchell said. "We know we can play some good basketball. We also know that when we are not focused, we can play some bad basketball, so just trying to get that consistent mentality of attacking and being aggressive and being tough and being competitive. That's what we have tried to do in practice."

Middle Tennessee will offer the next test on that front, and it won't be an easy one. The Blue Raiders have played among the nation's most difficult schedules and have won their last two games against Clemson and Xavier by a combined 63 points.

"It's going to be a very tough game," Mitchell said. "It always is with Middle Tennessee. They're a very good team, always tough and always able to score the basketball and well-coached. Coach (Rick) Insell does a great job with Middle Tennessee State and this is another good team. It's a huge challenge for us tomorrow night."

Video: Coach Cal on Poythress injury, North Carolina

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Recent Comments

  • joel alberto luna colon: I agree with you, UK has not only the talent, but some experience. They could go undefeated if they want read more
  • Berdj Rassam: This was expected to be an easy win for UK. read more
  • dannyone: if the cat,s play like that in every game as they should they could go all the what I,m read more
  • Dale Sine: Coach Cal at it again. He is the best coach in America and the only coach that could handle coaching read more
  • Mike J.: Cal is the best coach out there. He returned Memphis to national prominence and stayed 9 years, a helluva lot read more
  • Berdj Rassam: Booker will be a key part of whether or not this team will be successful this season. read more
  • Tom Moore: Since Tubby 98 and 2003-2004 team which should've won it all, Kentucky fans ( I am true blue ) have read more
  • John Mylant: Kentucky verses Kansas I am a UK fan but bringing this into perspective, this was just one of those games. read more
  • Catherine: We have the Blue Platoon and the White Platoon, I say we should name the rest team "The Closers"! read more
  • Sandy: Great game. I couldn't take my eyes off in the second half. Proud of all of you. I thought Epps read more