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Video: Aaron Harrison, Johnson on Alabama trip

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Tim Garrison thinks of everything he can to simulate a meet-like atmosphere in practice.

He turns up the pressure on his gymnasts as much as possible, but his hands are still tied. When it comes down to it, duplicating the feeling of competing when it counts just isn't possible.

"There's only so much you can do, so actually getting out there and competing and seeing what kind of team we have was a very good thing," Garrison said.

That first look at his team in competition came on Monday, as the Wildcats traveled all the way to Seattle for a season-opening meet against No. 24 Washington. UK came on top, 194.975-194.325, with a score good enough to bump its ranking nine spots to No. 13 entering Friday's home-opening Excite Night meet against LSU and Arizona State.

Garrison called it a "decent opening day," saying plenty of small mistakes and even a few large ones will need to be addressed. But most importantly, the Cats showed themselves to be a team capable of overcoming adversity.

"When we made a mistake that was a large mistake resulting in a fall, the very next competitor was able to step up and actually hit their routine," Garrison said. "So I think that's good. I think that speaks to the toughness of our kids which is something that we're proud of."

An example of that toughness was Alexis Gross, the redshirt junior who missed all of last season due to injury. After Sara Shipley fell twice on beam, UK's final event, Gross needed to post a score to steady the Cats and preserve a slim lead. She did just that with a 9.725. Garrison also cited senior Kayla Hartley as being in "mid-season form."

From veterans like Gross and Hartley, that kind of effort is expected. From freshmen in their first college meet, not so much.

UK relied on its four true freshmen - Katie Carlisle, Brittany Furuyama, Cori Rechenmacher and Sydney Waltz - for six routines on Monday. They weren't perfect, but they weren't afraid either, not as the night went on.

"The way I put it, I think they grew up in front of our eyes," Garrison said. "I think on the first event they were freshmen. They were freshmen being freshmen. I think by the time they competed their second events they had already settled down and kind of gotten into the rhythm of the competition, which is something that we were looking to see."

The freshmen will get more experience under their belt in Memorial Coliseum for Excite Night, the meet that annually kicks off the home season for UK. A pair of strong teams, including the second-ranked Tigers, will be there, making for an event worth seeing.

"I'm expecting a big crowd, that's for sure," Garrison said.

Garrison can't promise anything about the way the Cats will perform, but the way they handled their first meet is a good sign. Regardless, he expects it to be the start of a season to remember.

"As far as I'm concerned, this team is limitless in our potential," Garrison said. "I think we're going to break a lot of records this year."

Video: Coach Cal on UK's trip to Alabama

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It didn't take long for Matthew Mitchell to find a positive in Janee Thompson's horrific injury against South Carolina.

In fact, it was within a few hours of Thompson going down with a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that Mitchell found that silver lining.

"The outpouring of support from people literally from all over the country, it was an amazing experience," Mitchell said.

It was an experience, of course, that Mitchell would give most anything to not have gone through, but amount of people who reached out and the way in which they did made it one he won't forget.

"It was very uplifting to see that and just all of the support we received from all of the people who aren't even connected to our program who just saw it on television and sent their thoughts, prayers and support," Mitchell said. "We are a very grateful team and program and we are excited for Janee to start the recovery process and get back to full speed."

Thompson's recovery has already begun. After receiving initial treatment and a diagnosis in South Carolina, she was able to fly back to Lexington with her teammates on Sunday night. On Monday at noon, she underwent successful surgery with an eye on returning next year.

"She will miss the rest of the season, but we are extremely optimistic that by the time the players gather up for summer school in June that she will be fully participating and will not know that she was injured if everything goes like the doctors feel like it will go," Mitchell said. "We are very appreciative of our doctors here. They did a great job, as always."

Thompson has spent the week resting, but will return to class as soon as she is able. Once that happens, she'll assume an important role as a team leader.

"She has developed into an incredible example of sacrificing personal things that might have been holding her back as far as her development and just really buying into the program with honesty, hard work, discipline, being high-character, being a person of great preparation, being a person of high preparation, being a person willing to sacrifice," Mitchell said. "All of the things we try and teach, she has become a great part of and is a great example of that.

"She is a powerful force on our team and will continue to be that and so we are moving in a positive direction in what has been a tough situation."

But as the No. 10/11 Cats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) move in that positive direction, they'll have to do it without Thompson on the court. The junior was averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists as UK's point guard, making her loss a significant one in every way, but not one that can't be overcome.

"The way you deal with it is that you have a very talented group of players," Mitchell said. "We're not the most talented group of players left standing in the country, but we are a talented group. Janee makes us less talented because she's such a great talent and has been performing so well for our team, but it certainly does not mean we cannot go out and be a functioning basketball team and be our very best."

To that end, the Cats have adopted a new slogan in Thompson's honor: "Our B3st." It's a play on the year's theme of "Our Season" and Mitchell wore a shirt bearing the slogan to his pregame press conference on Wednesday. The team will do the same for warmups before Thursday's 7 p.m. ET matchup with Florida in Memorial Coliseum.

"The t-shirts are our one and singular goal for this season and this team," Mitchell said. "We need to see if we can possibly become the very best that this team can be and so we put the number three for the E and 'Our B3ST' is what we will continue to try to be and Janee will be a big part of that. It's just a way to honor her."

The other way the Cats can honor Thompson is by sustaining their strong start to the season even though Mitchell says their margin for error is slimmer now. No longer can they rely on Thompson to pick up the slack in practice or games when someone lacks energy. Instead, everyone must be focused at all times.

"It does need to heighten everyone's sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team," Mitchell said. "It does impact everyone from that standpoint."

Fortunately, Bria Goss is expected to reenter the lineup just as Thompson is leaving it. The senior guard and defensive stopper has missed a month with a broken left thumb, but is slated to play.

"That's a blessing that we can get her back," Mitchell said. "I don't know to what extent she is going to be able to perform. I can't give you a percentage. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. It's still tender and it's not 100 percent in the hand, but she is cleared to play and she is going to give it a whirl on Thursday night and that will help us tremendously."

Considering the test the Gators (9-8, 1-3 SEC) always present, Goss will be needed. Florida took two of three from UK a season ago, with the Cats winning the third matchup in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are coming off a 66-47 loss at Missouri, but Mitchell says to pay little attention to that game since Florida played without junior guard Carlie Needles.

The Cats, according to Mitchell, have approached practice accordingly.

"We have a huge challenge ahead of us so I have not seen us lacking focus yesterday (Tuesday)," Mitchell said. "I thought yesterday was a good day and a step forward. We need to have a tremendous day today and we need to have a terrific practice tomorrow before tomorrow night's game and we got to come out incredibly focused and energized to beat a very tough Florida team.

"One thing, it doesn't matter what Florida's record has been is now has been they just always seem to be extremely prepared. Coach (Amanda) Butler does a great job and I'm not expecting anything other than a very difficult game and we've got to find a way to be tough enough to win."

Dominique Hawkins scored six points and had two steals in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dominique Hawkins scored six points and had two steals in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari was cagey speaking to the media on Monday.

He mentioned a "great" team meeting. He asked rhetorical questions about what Kentucky needed to do to regain the swagger the Wildcats had seemingly lost in a pair of overtime wins to open Southeastern Conference play, questions to which he seemed to think he knew the answers. There was something he was choosing not to say.

On Tuesday night, when starting lineups were posted before UK's matchup with Missouri and Dominique Hawkins' No. 25 appeared, everyone found out what he was withholding.

The platoons, they were coming back.

"Well, I had planned on it, I just didn't tell you guys," Calipari said. "I don't tell you guys everything."

Following Alex Poythress' season-ending injury, Coach Cal cut his rotation to nine players, abandoning the strict 10-man platoon system that had drawn countless headlines and propelled UK to a hot start. The Cats kept winning after the move, but in increasingly unconvincing and therefore uncharacteristic fashion, eventually prompting Calipari to declare "enough is enough."

Perhaps everyone should have known then what he was about to do. Maybe everyone should have known how top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 SEC) would respond, too. The dominant form that had inspired talk of a possible unbeaten run through SEC play, it was back with the platoons in an 86-37 win over Missouri (7-9, 1-2 SEC).

"We just needed to get back to what we were," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. "We looked ourselves in the mirror and said we aren't playing the way we normally play. We did that and did a great job with that tonight."

As it always has for this team, that started on defense.

UK overwhelmed the visitors, using a 20-2 first-half run to turn a 12-10 lead into a far bigger one that continued to balloon with every missed Missouri shot. The Tigers shot just 27.1 percent and managed only 0.578 points per possession. In the process, UK allowed the fewest points scored by an SEC opponent since Mississippi State managed 36 in 1987 and rolled up the biggest blowout of a conference foe since a 106-44 shellacking of Vanderbilt in 2003.

"I thought our defensive intensity because of the platoons was back to where it was," Calipari said, later comparing his team to a "buzz saw" the likes of which Kansas and UCLA had experienced in November and December, respectively.

The player who set the tone wasn't even a lock to be on the floor.

Calipari, reflecting on Saturday's double-overtime win at Texas A&M, decided to go back to the platoons. With that out of the way, his next choice was between Hawkins and Derek Willis, gifted yet very different players who have ridden the bench in recent weeks.

Making his judgment based on performance in practice, Calipari told Hawkins on Sunday he would be making the third start of his career.

"Coach, he told us he wants to get back to the Blue and White platoon," said Hawkins, who later revealed he had a sleepless night on Monday thinking about the game. "He told me I was going to be on the Blue one and he just wanted high energy from me and me to be aggressive on offense."

For Hawkins, high energy is pretty much a given.

He was dogged in his 20 minutes, chasing and making life on the Rupp Arena court generally miserable for Missouri's Keith Shamburger with his ball pressure.

"He brings so much energy and so much athleticism to the game," said Aaron Harrison, who bounced back from an off game at A&M with 16 points and five made 3s in seven tries. "And we're all excited for him when he plays well. We're all proud of him. I've seen him get a lot better over these past couple years and I'm proud of him."

Hawkins, true to his humble nature, credited that improvement to his teammates.

"When I'm playing another team's point guard, I feel like it's easier for me to contain them because Tyler (Ulis), he's so quick, he helps me out, like trying to stay in front of a quick guy," Hawkins said. "Andrew (Harrison), he's so big, he's helping me (learn) how to stand up when they get me in the paint and be strong and body them up."

On the other end of the floor, Hawkins displayed the aggressiveness Coach Cal asked of him. He missed all three of his 3-point tries, but took each confidently and buried a pair of shots inside the arc to post six points.

"We know Dom can play," Aaron Harrison said. "He's very capable and he's a really talented basketball player and he showed it out there tonight."

In spite of that talent, Hawkins hadn't played a minute since Dec. 20 against UCLA, when the Cats last blitzed an opponent as they did Missouri. That hasn't been easy on the 2013 Kentucky Mr. Basketball, but he was undeterred.

"It's really hard to stay patient, but with this team you definitely know if you stay patient and get the opportunity you have to go out and ball," Hawkins said. "I was patient enough and Coach finally gave me some time to play and I was able to do well."

Hawkins said he felt his play had earned him the chance to make another start when the Cats hit the road to face a tough Alabama team on Saturday, but he was quick to point out the decision is out of his hands.

That call, of course, belongs to Coach Cal, who was back to his coy, unrevealing self in discussing it.

"I don't know if I'll do it next game," Calipari said. "I may not."

Video: Coach Cal's post-Missouri press conference

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When the Detroit Lions lost on Wild Card Weekend, and the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos followed suit the week after, the playoff dreams of former Kentucky players Larry Warford and Jacob Tamme (as well as injured standouts Garry Williams and Danny Trevathan) were vanquished. Though UK alumnus Chris Matthews signed with the Seattle Seahawks late in the regular season, Randall Cobb and Tim Masthay of the Green Bay Packers are the only starting former Wildcats with Super Bowl XLIX hopes still alive. The Packers will travel to Seattle to face the defending champions in Sunday's NFC Championship at 3:05 p.m. ET on Fox.

Playoff Spotlight

Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4)
Cobb caught a game-high eight passes in Green Bay's 26-21 divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys. The former second round pick finished with 116 yards, including a 31-yard haul late in the first half and a heroic reception off a deflected pass to seal the victory.


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