Jennifer O'Neill scored a school-record 43 points in UK's 133-130 win over Baylor on Friday night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Reflecting on the game she had just played in and won, Jennifer O'Neill realized she lost track of time.
The top-10 matchup between Kentucky and Baylor lasted an astounding four overtimes, seemingly taking on a will of its own to delay the second half of a men's and women's doubleheader as long as possible.
Wrapped up intently in every one of the 60 minutes the Wildcats and Lady Bears played on Friday night in massive AT&T Stadium, O'Neill thought it lasted even longer than it did.
"I thought it was more overtimes than four, to be honest," O'Neill said. "I thought we were going to break the Syracuse record (of six overtimes against Connecticut in 2009)."
That record was about the only one that didn't fall in a game that's a massive early favorite to be the best of the year in women's college basketball.
O'Neill scored a school-record 43 points, joining all-time great Valerie Still as the only Wildcat to score 40 or more in a UK Hoops uniform. Given that she didn't know how many overtimes the game lasted, it should come as no surprise she didn't realize she had scored so many until taking a peek at the postgame box score.
"I didn't even know I had that many points, honestly," O'Neill said.
Her coach didn't either.
"You just had to make plays tonight and Jennifer was really, really hot," Matthew Mitchell said. "I do such a bad job; I don't realize what's going on in the game sometimes. I didn't realize she had 43. I knew she was doing a good job and we were trying to get her the ball, but it's an amazing performance. We needed all of them."
No. 5/6 Kentucky (9-0) needed all of them because Baylor star Odyssey Sims was matching O'Neill shot for shot and then some. Sims poured in 47 points, living up to every ounce of the pregame praise lumped on her by Mitchell, who called Sims "the best singular talent" in the country.
Even though she had 13 points and six rebounds of her own and often had the unenviable task of tailing Sims, Bria Goss couldn't help but marvel at the back and forth between the two top scorers.
"It just really makes me excited for women's basketball in general and for more people to get involved with women's basketball," Goss said. "I think, after today, we might have some bandwagoners or just more people in general watching women's basketball."
Sims played much of the evening saddled with foul trouble and finally picked up her fifth late in the first overtime period.
"I don't know that they have a meter that could measure my happiness when she got out of the game," Mitchell said. "The happy meter was broken at that point in time because we pride ourselves on being a pretty good defensive team that gets after and we just couldn't stop her."
Happy as he may have been, the Lady Bears weren't about to back down without Sims.
Imani Wright hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of that first overtime to prolong the proceedings. In the third extra session, No. 9 Baylor (8-1) seemed poised to take control when it grabbed a five-point lead. And in the final overtime, another potential game-tying 3 by Alexis Prince rattled out, finally giving UK its first back-to-back wins over top-10 teams in school history.
"The game was so long, you had time to play bad and you had time to play good," Mitchell said.
Though 10 players fouled out -- including seven for Baylor and six of the game's 10 starters -- there was much more good than bad. Impressive talent inside and out was on display and the result was an offensive explosion the likes of which the women's game has never seen.
"It's hard to put into words this game," Mitchell said. "It was a heck of a game."
UK and Baylor set an all-time NCAA record by scoring 263 combined points. The Cats topped the century mark for the fourth time in six games, breaking the single-game school record for most points in the process.
"Hopefully people see that we have a high level of skill and a high level of athleticism," Mitchell said. "I thought that was a real -- if you weren't coaching in it -- watching it was a real entertaining game tonight."
The talk of what UK-Baylor could do for the profile of women's college basketball is a testament to how good the game was, but Mitchell's more immediate concern is about his team. Barely a year removed from being dismantled by the Lady Bears in Waco, Texas, UK went toe-to-toe with the two-time national champions and came away with the win.
"I think we have a better team than we had last season and I'm really proud of the players," Mitchell said. "They worked extremely hard. They've practiced extremely hard for a long time. You could see the results of that just in their conditioning."
That conditioning translated directly into confidence. Other teams might deflated heading to the sideline with the score tied following yet another five minutes of overtime having elapsed, but not these Wildcats.
"We're in such good condition, every time we went into another overtime we were excited," Goss said. "Like, we get a whole 'nother five minutes. We do this. We're waking up four days a week 6 a.m. in the summer. This is what we train for. I think every time we walked over to the bench we just had this positive attitude."
That positivity turned into downright elation when the score finally went final. Since the preseason, the Cats have talked about this team being special. Getting the job done where there was every excuse not to is perhaps the clearest sign yet that they are ready to make that much more than idle chatter.
"Once the horn went off and we were going to the locker room, it was just like a big relief," said Goss, voice hoarse from reveling in the victory. "Like, this is the team, this is the year."
In the life of college volleyball players, it doesn't get much busier than early December.
Like normal students, they have the end of the fall semester and approaching final exams to think about. Unlike normal students, their seasons are on the line.
For No. 15 Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament begins on Saturday against Duquense. With a week and a half since their last match, the Wildcats attacked their time off by honing their focus.
"We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now," senior Alexandra Morgan said.
Those distractions come in many different forms.
"It's us-or-them time of year," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "There are so many things going with school, finals coming up, a lot of people wanting to come to matches that haven't been there yet, all kinds of social life and whatever it may be."
Skinner is asking his team to tune those things out for the next couple weeks.
"For us to eliminate those things so we can focus on getting our schoolwork done and then focusing on volleyball is very important and I'm glad Zan has taken that to heart," Craig Skinner said. "And I think all our team is just based on what our concentration level's been like at practice. I think they're very serious about performing well and they like competing with each other. That's a big part of it."
When he addressed the media on Wednesday, Skinner reported his team had had three strong days of practice in preparation for what he initially thought would be a Friday match. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas and inclement weather moved this weekend's matches back a day.
For a less experienced team, that delay might be a problem. The Cats, though, are well-accustomed to playing in win-or-go-home situations.
"You just can't create the atmosphere, a little extra pressure being in the NCAA Tournament," Skinner said. "It's us or them moving on after each match."
Skinner is counting on that past experience, but knows it offers know guarantees.
"Does that translate into wins and losses? I'm not sure about that," Skinner said. "At least there's a sense of comfort. I've done this before. I have an understanding of what's at stake and how hard I need to play for my team."
Cementing that understanding for the Cats were the three matches they played to close out the regular season. Facing Texas A&M, Missouri and Florida, UK took on three tournament teams, two of which earned top-five overall seeds. The Cats beat A&M, but dropped back-to-back matches to No. 4 Missouri and No. 5 Florida to close the season.
The kind of competition UK went up against in those matches will be an asset as the Cats move on to what's next.
"It's a heightened level of concentration," Skinner said. "You have to be engaged for every single point because against good teams it's going to be back and forth a lot. You're not going to get runs of points. You're not going to score three, four, five points at a time very easily unless teams make mistakes."
The Florida match, in particular, offered plenty of teaching moments.
UK was blitzed in the first set, losing 25-11, revealing the importance of a strong start. To that end, Skinner changed around practice.
"We did a time drill (Tuesday) where all of a sudden they're on the clock and they have to perform within five minutes and execute," Skinner said. "We weren't very good at it to begin with, but then understood and got better as practice went on. So doing some things in practice where they're on the clock and have to perform within a certain amount of time I think was beneficial to us."
If not for that slow start against Florida, UK very likely would have upended the highly ranked Gators. The Cats narrowly lost set two before winning in three and four to force a decisive fifth.
"The way we played in sets two, three and four against a top team in the country, that's the level we need to perform at," Skinner said.
Duquense (20-9) doesn't boast the same lofty ranking as Florida, but Skinner still wants to see that kind of volleyball against the Dukes at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"They're team made up of kids that have come from a lot of good club programs, so they're experienced and they have three attackers very capable of putting the ball away," Skinner said. "We have to be very prepared in each particular rotation and understand which attacker is the one that's getting the most balls."
Whoever is across the net and whatever round the Cats are playing in this NCAA Tournament, Skinner expects to see an aggressive team.
"We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here," Skinner said. "We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
DeNesha Stallworth and her UK team will face Baylor at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday in AT&T Stadium. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's men's and women's basketball teams share a practice facility every day. This week, they'll share a plane, a hotel and even a stadium.
The two teams will play in a doubleheader against Baylor on Friday night in AT&T Stadium -- the home of the Dallas Cowboys -- turning an idea hatched by John Calipari two years ago into reality.
"He just called me one day a couple years back and had the idea and it went from there," Matthew Mitchell said.
Knowing Coach Cal could have put the event together with only the men's teams, Mitchell said it took him "about 15 seconds" to agree to participate.
"In college basketball what our men's program has done over more than a century is created a brand that is recognizable as any sports brand in the world," Mitchell said. "I just have thought you are silly if you don't try to do everything you can to be a part of that. Cal is just so supportive and so creative and thinks about things like this."
That attitude has come natural to Calipari ever since his arrival in Lexington in 2009. Whether it's tweeting support for the women's soccer team in the NCAA Tournament, offering advice to Mark Stoops about working at UK or putting together this unique doubleheader, Coach Cal is willing to do most anything to help his university.
To say thanks for that support, each UK Hoops player penned a hand-written note to Calipari on Tuesday. He appreciated it, but it wasn't necessary.
"This is not just about the basketball program; it's about this athletic department," Calipari said. "It's about a lot of athletes from all the different sports and anywhere we can come together and help each other is good."
Now, the women will go about the business of taking advantage of the opportunity Calipari helped create for them.
The Wildcats will take on Baylor at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday in a matchup of unbeaten and top-10 teams. Even though the capacity of AT&T Stadium will be limited by the court configuration, it figures to be the biggest crowd most of the Cats will have ever played in front of.
"It's going to be a lot of people there, but we just know we have to play Kentucky basketball to get the job done," said DeNesha Stallworth.
Getting the job done against the Bears won't be easy. Baylor is averaging 96.5 points per game and has won its seven games by an average of 45.5 points.
"They are a top-10 team and they have won two national championships and have been consistently good for over a decade now," Mitchell said. "They are one of the really fine women's basketball programs in the country."
For four years, a matchup with Baylor meant a matchup with Brittney Griner. The 6-foot-8 center, however, went on to the WNBA this offseason.
"Life continues after Brittney Griner and they are alive and well, I can promise you that," Mitchell said.
Her departure leaves the task of leading the Bears in the capable hands of point guard Odyssey Sims. As UK prepared for a game at Baylor last season, Mitchell went out of his way to praise Sims, even as questions about Griner flooded in. It's now easy to see why.
"Odyssey Sims is probably the best singular talent that I've seen in the country this year," Mitchell said. "She is really, really amazing. There are some other really talented players, but she is putting up monstrous numbers right now and they found a way to increase their scoring average."
Sims is averaging a staggering 27.3 points, shooting better than 50 percent from the field, nearly 80 percent from the line and almost 40 percent from 3-point range. The senior had 18 points and six assists against UK last season, when Baylor was dominant in an 85-51 victory in both teams' second game of the 2012-13 season.
Stallworth admits retribution will be on her mind "a little bit" come Friday, but not overwhelmingly so.
"We're both two totally different teams from last year, so it's just going to be a new battle and a new challenge and we're definitely looking forward to it," Stallworth said.
Stuart Brown with his 3-year-old filly, Patinka. (Courtesy Stuart Brown)
Perhaps more than anything else during her 44 years, Christine Brown was passionate about horses and UK sports.
She came to the University of Kentucky to pursue one of those passions and stumbled on the other. A three-day eventing competitor and member of a national-championship Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Riding Team while in college, Brown graduated in 1991.
As she went on to a career as a registered nurse and married Dr. Stuart Brown, Christine stayed involved with horses as both an equestrian and breeder. At the same time, she developed close ties with UK Athletics as an ardent fan and supporter, particularly of the women's basketball program.
The Brown home is a picturesque property near Versailles, Ky.
There, Stuart -- an equine practitioner at the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute -- operated a commercial thoroughbred breeding enterprise with Christine. But every once in a while, Stuart and Christine would pick out a special horse to hold onto.
Patinka was one of those.
The filly -- now 3 years old -- was sired by Exchange Rate to mare Untarnished, but her journey was a complicated one from the very beginning.
"I had to resuscitate the foal at the delivery," Stuart said. "Many times those foals don't survive, but this foal ended up being hospitalized at my hospital."
Patinka went into a coma for three days, experiencing a reduced supply of oxygen to the brain. As is the case with many such hypoxic brain injuries, recovery was difficult. Christine -- formerly an equine neonatal ICU nurse -- was there every step of the way.
"That's what my wife would do a lot of before she went to college and became an RN," Stuart said. "She was a part of that process with this foal."
That process included re-teaching Patinka to stand, nurse and recognize her mother. Less than a month later, she had to have abdominal surgery to remove an internal abscess. By the time she was healthy, the Browns couldn't think to do anything else but keep and race Patinka for themselves.
"You have a very special bond with those particular individuals that you've put that much time and effort into," Stuart said.
'She was just in'
Christine was a regular at both men's and women's basketball games, but UK Hoops held a special place in her heart.
She always enjoyed the Wildcats' fast-paced style of play, but it was the relationships she built with coaches, staff and players that turned her fandom into fervor.
"She really enjoyed watching them play because she could be so close and she felt like she was part of it," Stuart said. "She'd be mad if somebody wouldn't stand up for the fight song."
Christine also loved sharing her passion. When she didn't go with Stuart, she would often invite family and friends to attend games with her. There were, however, certain requirements attached to the invitation.
"If you were coming to the game, you were in or don't come with her," Stuart said. "If you talk too much during the game or you weren't paying enough attention to the game, you might not get asked back. She was all about being social, but you better be in for the team."
Because Christine certainly was.
"She was in," Stuart said. "She was just in. And I thought that was a legacy thing, so to speak."
Picking a trainer
Once the Browns had decided they would keep ownership of Patinka, their next task was to select a trainer. Since she had always been Christine's horse, Stuart left that to his wife.
"She picked out Graham Motion as a trainer because she had listened to Graham talk about training horses and the process of bringing them along and she had looked at how patient he was," Stuart said.
Patience would be important because of Patinka's medical history and size. Now standing at between 16.2-16.3 hands, she was always a big horse. That meant she would need to be brought along slowly to allow time for development.
But even in handpicking Motion, Christine thought actually convincing him to take on Patinka was a longshot. Motion, after all, trained 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and the Browns owned just one horse at the time.
Stuart, however, knew he had relationships that could help make it happen. He had consulted over the phone with Motion on a few cases in years past and the two had mutual acquaintances. Not long after mentioning the possibility to his contacts, Motion called Stuart directly to tell him was willing to train Patinka.
When he received the call, Stuart's answer was an obvious yes, but with a caveat.
"I said, 'Well, I appreciate you calling and I'm glad to know that you would be able to take her, but that's really only part of the story,' Stuart said. " 'If you really want to train this filly, I really need you to call Christine because she's really a part of this whole thing.' "
Motion agreed and Stuart texted his wife's number to him. Later that afternoon, Motion made the call.
"I hear the door open and she comes bounding out the steps of our house and she says, 'You'll never guess who called me,' " Stuart said.
Making the connection
On the day before Thanksgiving, Stuart was in Memorial Coliseum and he happened upon a familiar face.
"When I came for the Bradley game, I didn't have anybody to use my floor seats that day," Stuart said. "So I walked in and there's this lady who runs the cash register at the track kitchen at Keeneland. She brought her daughter to the game."
Stuart offered his floor tickets to the mother and daughter.
"She saw me Tuesday morning and she came running out from behind the register and gave me this hug," Stuart said. "They had this marvelous time."
It was in that moment that something clicked for Stuart.
Earlier in November, UK staff members approached him about an idea to promote UK Hoops' annual "Pack the House" game vs. Duke on Dec. 22 in Rupp Arena by giving away part ownership of a thoroughbred for a year. He had already committed to buying group tickets for others to use and was well-connected in horse-racing circles, so he was a natural candidate to help.
At first, he racked his brain trying to come up with an owner and horse that would be the right fit. Then he thought of Patinka. Those thoughts inevitably turned to Christine.
By offering 10 percent of his winnings for the 2014 calendar year, Stuart would be able to combine Christine's love of horses and of UK. He would be able to honor her by helping the women's basketball team she loved and exposing someone who likely would never have gotten the chance to experience life as a horse owner, which she so cherished.
Just like he did at that Bradley game, Stuart will give someone an experience that will never be forgotten.
'Nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at the same time'
While wearing the same purple and black colors Christine wore as an equestrian, Patinka has raced five times in her career, winning once. She will rest at home in Lexington for the next 60-90 days before returning to train with Motion in Fair Hill, Md.
Patinka in the winner's circle. (Courtesy Stuart Brown)
There have been ups and downs throughout with Patinka. In many ways, that defines horse ownership.
"It's kind of nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at the same time," Brown said.
There are no guarantees in horse racing, but Stuart is optimistic the next year will be a big one for Patinka.
He remembers well the feeling of Patinka's win at Delaware Park, when she ran a long race on turf for the first time. She sprinted to the lead and held off a late charge to win the mile-and-70-yard race in 1:37.17.
"That's just an incredible feeling, to have them fulfill a destiny, so to speak, in terms of being that competitive and run that strong a race," Stuart said. "You're going to the winner's circle to get your picture taken and they're broadcasting your name over the loud PA system and your phone's blowing up from people who are back home watching the race."
That's a feeling Brown hopes to share with whoever wins the random drawing at Rupp in less than three weeks, but he's confident the winner will have an experience to remember regardless. The winner will be invited to travel to at least one of Patinka's races during the year with expenses paid, as well as visit the amiable filly at Stuart's home.
"She's very, very tractable," Stuart said. "She's got a great personality, which of course she's had a lot of developmentally, behaviorally since she was born."
That has everything to do with Christine.
"That was a big deal of my wife's: that every foal she raised had to be trusting of people," Stuart said. "Because no matter what happened to them, wherever they ended up, whether they were successful racehorses or they were just riding horses for somebody, they had to get the right foundation so they could do whatever because they'd have a good life."
Find out more about the special horse-racing experience one lucky fan will win at UK Hoops' "Pack the House" game here.
Julius Randle will return to his home state on Friday to face Baylor in AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's a rare thing for a Kentucky basketball player to field questions about playing in a big venue. The Wildcats play in the second-largest arena in the NCAA (and all of basketball, for that matter), so they're accustomed to playing in front of 20,000-plus fans.
But even for UK, this is unique.
On Friday night, Kentucky will play a women's and men's doubleheader against Baylor in AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
"I never expected to be playing in a stadium that big and that's that well known," Dominique Hawkins said. "It's just going to be amazing to play there."
On the men's side, Kentucky and Baylor come in ranked third and 20th, respectively, in the AP poll. As for the women, UK is No. 5 and Baylor No. 9. The men will play a half-hour after the women's game, which will tip off at 7:30 p.m. ET.
"We aren't going to have 80,000 there but my hope is that because of the games that are being played there, everybody is ranked, it's going to be a terrific environment," John Calipari said. "I haven't been in the building but everybody tells me it's just ridiculous. They are moving the court to one side but the court will be raised, so it will be like that kind of environment."
What Coach Cal means is that he wants to simulate an NCAA Tournament atmosphere as closely as possible, which has been an M.O. of his in scheduling in recent years. AT&T Stadium will play host to the Final Four, so the Cats will be stashing away the memories of what it's like to shoot in a building so cavernous.
Julius Randle hasn't played there, but he has at least been inside.
"I went to a game last year in that arena and it was kind of funny, the dome and everything," Randle said. "It seemed like a really fun environment."
Making it more fun for Randle will all the family and friends in attendance to support him. For the first time since the start of the fall semester, the Dallas, Texas, native will be returning to his home state.
"I would say it's a dream of mine just to be able to come back to my home state and be able to play in front of family and friends and fans in the city too, so I'm looking forward to it," Randle said.
Eight players on the Bears' roster are from the Lone Star State, which means Randle will see some familiar faces wearing Baylor jerseys as well.
"I know some of those guys just because of AAU basketball and high school playing against them," Randle said. "I'm very familiar with their guys. They're a really good team. They can shoot the ball and have some long, athletic bigs."
That length is what stands out to Coach Cal, and the Bears (7-1) use it to mix disruptive zone and man defenses.
"Their zone is very effective, my feel is they will play us 95 percent zone and they play it different ways," Calipari said. "They are like us in that they are so long that you are not getting the looks that you think you will get."
Though the zone will pose problems, Coach Cal doesn't necessarily mind seeing it. Eight games in, Kentucky has already grown accustomed to seeing non-man looks.
"The good news is just about every team has played a zone and the one thing I want to tell you is there is a cohesiveness to playing this game," Calipari said. "Against man to man, we don't seem to be as cohesive as we do against zone."
The zone, according to Calipari, forces the Cats to play together. Against man, the temptation for his talented group of youngsters is to rely too heavily on their individual gifts.
"You can't just try to make a play, you have to pass the ball, pass the ball, move it inside, kick it out, drive it, and all of a sudden we become a cohesive team," Calipari said.
Assuming the Bears play zone, that means Randle is likely to have to cope with multiple defenders at all times, like he has ever since his 27-point, 14-rebound explosion against Michigan State. He says it would be "like Christmas" if opponents tried to play him one-on-one, but he isn't holding his breath.
In high school he received the same attention from opposing defenses, but Randle was able to use his size and strength to get the job done on his own anyway. Now, he's being forced to adjust to playing against bigger defenders.
"It's a different challenge," Randle said. "It's nothing I can't handle. Luckily for me I have teammates who can help plays and guys who are capable of doing a lot of different things. You have to kind of pick and choose what you want to do."
Randle, always one to put pressure on himself, is learning patience.
"The one thing I said was quit trying to be perfect," Calipari said. "He is acting like he should make every play, just stop and play harder than the other guy. Just worry about that, don't worry about anything else. He's doing fine, he's doing fine."
Given that he's averaging 18.1 points and 12.6 rebounds and has double-doubles in all but one outing, "fine" might be an understatement.
Alexandra Morgan will lead UK into an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Duquense on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team has gotten used to being in this position.
As they gathered on Sunday night to watch the Selection Show together, the Wildcats had advanced to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. In two of the previous three years, they earned the right to host the first and second rounds.
That doesn't make accomplishing both feats yet again any less rewarding.
"Our kids played really hard this year and we had a great schedule. We had a lot of good wins throughout the year," Skinner said. "To be in a position to be on your home court the first and second rounds, to host the first and second round, is a great feeling."
UK (21-8) was tabbed the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the Cats will once again play their first- and second-round matches in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum. Alexandra Morgan remembers well playing NCAA matches at home in previous years and the advantage it provides.
"It's so much fun," said Morgan, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team on Monday. "Our fans are always amazing at our games, but I felt like the in the tournament they were louder, there were more people there just because it is the national tournament and our season's ending."
Kentucky will open its postseason run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET against Duquense (20-9). The Dukes won the Atlantic 10 for the first time this season and enter the tournament having won 13 of their last 14 matches.
"You've just gotta think about the first round, and Duquesne is that team," Skinner said. "They won their league and had a great season."
By the time the Cats take the floor later this week, they will have waited nine days since their last match. UK took days off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and returned to the practice floor for two solid days of work over the weekend.
"We've been working really hard in our past two practices," Morgan said. "We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now."
With the fall semester coming to a close, the Cats will have to balance preparing for finals with volleyball. They aren't particularly worried.
"I don't think that's going to be tough for us," Morgan said. "This is a really strong team, we're a competitive team and we're really good at focusing on volleyball and that's going to get us pretty far, I think."
UK enters the tournament having lost two straight, but that's somewhat misleading considering the level of competition faced in those matches. The defeats came against Missouri and Florida, teams seeded fourth and fifth overall in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a win over Texas A&M, another tournament team, in the third-to-last match and you have an end-of-season stretch that figures to have the Cats ready for what's next.
"You can't ask for a better schedule to end the year to prepare you for the NCAA Tournament and our next match," Skinner said. "I'm very excited about how it ended in terms of who we played."
The final result didn't end up being what UK wanted, but the fight the Cats showed in a five-set defeat against Florida is certainly encouraging. The Gators were dominant in the first set and came back in the second to steal a 2-0 lead, but Kentucky didn't fold. Quite the opposite in fact, as UK won the third and fourth before falling in five.
"It's very good to know that, if we start out poorly, that we can finish a lot stronger," Morgan said. "The Florida game was very disappointing, but seeing how hard we fought in the second and third game and the other games just gives me a lot of hope."
Skinner hopes to take even more than hope away from the loss. First, it's a lesson in the importance of starting fast against top competition. Second, it's a lesson in how good the Cats can be when they're clicking.
"We took from sets two, three, four how Kentucky volleyball plays at its highest level," Skinner said. "If we play like that, we can match up with anybody. But it's a matter of doing that and we have to figure it out this week in practice and get the ball rolling on Friday night and hopefully give us a chance to take the next step forward in the tournament."
The next step forward is the second round -- where UK would face the winner of Michigan State and Ohio. After that, Kentucky is looking at an opportunity stay home again for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Lexington was tabbed as a regional host three seasons ago and the Cats have been thinking about playing in that regional ever since.
"We were really excited about that and that's one of our goals we set out in the beginning of the season," Morgan said. "We want to be playing in that regional and we have all plans to be playing in that."
Skinner is all about preparing one match at a time, but he also doesn't mind if his players glean a little extra motivation from the prospect of playing in the regional.
"Of course we aren't going to look past Duquense and that matchup, but sure there's motivation to get there," Skinner said. "You would think that every team that has the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is motivated to advance. We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here. We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
All-session tickets for the first and second round go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. ET and can be purchased at the UK Ticket Office, online at UKathletics.com/tickets or by calling the ticket office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818. All-session tickets are $12 for reserved seats at Memorial Coliseum. Adult general admission tickets (13+) are $10, while seniors (65+) and UK students can purchase all-session tickets for $6 and youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets cost $4. Single-session tickets, which are $8 for reserved seats and $7 for adult general admission seats and $5 for seniors/UK students and $4 for youth, go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.
DeNesha Stallworth had 15 points and six rebounds after halftime in UK's comeback win over Louisville on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell didn't mince words with his star senior at halftime.
DeNesha Stallworth had just turned in a one-point, two-rebound first half, missing all six of her shots as Kentucky fell behind on its home floor, 36-27.
There are times in practices and games when Mitchell uses softer, more measured motivational tactics with Stallworth, but this wasn't one of them. Not with UK's archrival in town for a matchup of top-10 teams.
"DeNesha Stallworth did not have a good first half," Mitchell said. "And so, we had a very pointed conversation at halftime about her first half."
Stallworth allowed a few early misses from short range to derail her and she entered the locker unsure exactly what was going on in her own mind. Mitchell's frank talk crystallized that for her.
"He basically just told me that I'm not playing how I could be playing and just play relaxed and stop being so selfish," Stallworth said. "And I was being a little selfish, just not helping my team. So I just took that personal and tried to contribute more to my team, whether that's rebounding or scoring points or doing the little things that matter."
In the second half, she did all of the above.
Stallworth played 17 minutes as UK rallied from a deficit that grew to as large as 14 points. She scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed six rebounds and the No. 7 Wildcats moved to 8-0 with an early-season signature win over No. 3/4 Louisville, 69-64.
"To her credit, she turned it around and we certainly would not have won without her big second half," Mitchell said. "She is a really good player and I am glad we can learn a lesson out of a win instead of having to learn it through the pain of defeat."
Stallworth isn't the only player who has lessons to learn even though UK defeated a top-five opponent at home for the first time since 2000 on Sunday afternoon. She also wasn't the only player who heard from Mitchell at the break.
"We kind of got punched in the mouth in the first half and when Matthew came in and started, you know, basically yelling at us and telling us what we needed to do and what we weren't doing, it just made us want to play and show him we came here to play, we're ready to compete and we didn't work this hard to get where we're at to just give up a game like this," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half.
The focus for the Cats was simple in the second half: It was all about defense and rebounding.
Louisville built its first half lead on the strength of a 23-13 rebounding edge. The Cardinals scored nine second-chance points to UK's zero in the first 20 minutes, using those extra opportunities to shoot 50 percent from the field.
"It was definitely frustrating knowing that a lot of their points were from the o-boards and from free throws," Stallworth said. "We knew if just limited those two things and just boxed out and got those rebounds, it would be tougher for them to score."
In the second half, Stallworth was proven right.
UK outrebounded U of L 26-21 and immediately began cutting into the nine-point halftime deficit. The Cardinals would hold the lead until the 10:54 mark, but it was then that Bernisha Pinkett hit the first of her two 3-pointers to give UK its first lead since the opening minutes. Seventy-two seconds later, she hit another to put the Cats up 51-45.
"This was not my first year being in a big game," Pinkett said. "I knew when I got in, whatever he needed me to do I had to be ready; whether it was getting a stop on defense, getting a rebound, or making a 3. It so happened to be me being down and ready for the kick out for the 3. I was just saying when I get this ball, put your elbow in, knock it down and get back on defense.
U of L would answer with two 3s by Shoni Schimmel to tie it, but the sellout crowd of 7,963 in Memorial Coliseum wasn't about to let UK lose from there.
"A terrific game today and a terrific atmosphere, we really appreciate all the fans that came out," Mitchell said. "... Really, really appreciate our fans for coming out and making it a sellout and for providing such a great atmosphere for women's college basketball."
Benefitting from that electric atmosphere, UK beat Louisville for the 16th straight time in Memorial and third consecutive overall.
"It's really, really cool," Pinkett said. "That's just one team that, whenever it's time to play them, we get super, super fired up and it was just one of those nights we weren't going to let them come in our house and win."
From the very beginning, Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble were tied together.
Not only did they play the same position, but the two defensive tackles also shared a longer-than-expected journey from signing with Kentucky to finally arriving on campus. Once they gained eligibility the same offseason, that link turned into an unbreakable bond.
They became roommates and, by the description of both, brothers over their four years in Lexington, which made it fitting that they would share the final moments of their careers.
Cobble and Rumph walked into the room for their last postgame interviews arm in arm before sitting down in adjacent chairs. They weren't about to be separated.
"The best way to do it is just hanging with my brother and that's how I'm doing it," Cobble said. "That's why I'm here."
The time would have been a little sweeter had UK managed to take down Tennessee in its season finale, but a 27-14 loss undid that ambition. In spite of 13 tackles and 1.5 for loss between the two, the Wildcats couldn't overcome the Volunteers in finishing the season 2-10.
"It was an emotional game," Cobble said. "Being here five years with my ups and downs and the relationships and the bonds I made, especially with Donte. Just after the game, I told him, I stopped him and was like, 'Keep your head up. Let's just stand of the field and just enjoy it one last time.' "
Mark Stoops, as he has after each defeat during his first season, rued opportunities missed on Saturday night as he fielded questions. But in spite of his disappointment and self-critique, he couldn't overlook the contributions of Cobble, Rumph and the other 17 Wildcats who played in Commonwealth Stadium for the last time.
"It's always difficult, probably most difficult for the seniors that come in with a coaching change: A bunch of new coaches, new schemes, new everything, and I thought those guys really handled themselves well," Stoops said. "You know, really continued to fight and tried to lead us through the end of the year, so I appreciate those guys."
Leading every step of the way for this UK team was Avery Williamson, the linebacker who closed his illustrious career just four tackles shy of 300.
"He's one of the best I've been around," Stoops said. "I love him. He's just a great person and very good football player. He cares. He's a good leader. He's going to be very successful in life."
Even though they only spent a season ago, Stoops and Williamson built a relationship marked by mutual respect.
"Remarkable coach," Williamson said. "He knows what he's doing and he's a great coach, aggressive guy and he gets what he wants. He demanded perfection out of me. I wasn't perfect, but he made me into a great player and he's a great person to be around, on and off the field."
Williamson took it upon himself to Stoops' staunchest ally in this season of transition, reinforcing his coach's process-oriented approach at every turn. For that reason, he won't stop being part of the rebuilding effort going on at Kentucky even though he won't play another game in blue.
"I feel like I left my leadership and the way I play," Williamson said. "Guys are going to see that on film and I feel like I instilled the leadership qualities in a lot of guys in here. They really look up to me and I'm glad of that and I'm really hoping it's going to carry over. I know it's going to carry over and these coaches are going to make it carry over. I feel like I laid the foundation for this program. It's going to get better."
With recruiting, offseason workouts and self-evaluation, that begins immediately.
"We know that we are laying a foundation in our program and everybody in that locker room knows that we are going to get back to work here real soon, like Monday, and be ready to go and push forward for the future," Stoops said.
Williamson, Cobble and Rumph will go back to work themselves, but with a different objective in mind. All three have aspirations to play in the NFL.
"I've really got a good chance," Williamson said.
"That's a dream that I want to pursue," Rumph said. "Hopefully I get picked up and, hey, I'm just looking to play any role. I just want to be a part of it. I'm going to work my butt off and I'm going to try my best to represent the Big Blue Nation and represent Kentucky as a school, as a university 'cause Kentucky has turned me into the man I am today."
Said Cobble: "Hopefully, by the blessing of God, I get picked up as well, go to a team somewhere with Donte or somewhere I at least go against Donte because he's always going to be my brother."
Together or not, the three standout seniors and a handful of their classmates will have opportunities to continue their careers, but the realization that their time as Wildcats is done is beginning to set in.
"It was definitely tough knowing that I wasn't going to be on that field in pads anymore," Williamson said. "It still hasn't even hit me, the fact that I won't be playing for them anymore. It's tough, but I'll always bleed blue and I'll always be a part of Kentucky. I'll be back to support those guys."
UK's starting point guard, Janee Thompson is averaging 9.3 points entering Sunday's game against Louisville. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Janee Thompson had quite an initiation into the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.
Then a freshman, Thompson had the best game of her first season at UK almost exactly a year ago. On an evening when her teammates could hardly make a shot, she scored 13 points in just 16 minutes.
Thompson saved her best for last, scoring the game's final six points in a 48-47 comeback win, the last coming on a broken-play 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left and the shot clock about to expire. It's a play she won't soon forget.
"I remember that I was dribbling a lot," Thompson said, laughing, "and I was really just trying to make something happen and the shot clock was running down and I had to make a play."
Even if she did somehow forget, her teammates would surely remind her quickly, but not so much for the shot itself. They enjoy how Thompson reacted. In her words, she "looked a mess" as she celebrated.
"I don't have it on DVD, but I've seen it a million times and my teammates like to make fun of the reaction after I hit the shot," Thompson said. "So I see it a lot."
Makayla Epps remembers it too.
"Janee hits that 3 and literally almost threw my remote through the TV," Epps said. "I was ecstatic."
Epps, now a freshman, is set to play her first game in the in-state rivalry on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. She wouldn't mind making her debut in a fashion similar to Thompson, but the game will hardly serve as an introduction to UK-U of L. Not only did Epps grow up Lebanon, Ky., she also came to Kentucky after originally verbally committing to play at Louisville.
She attended multiple UK-U of L games as a fan, including the one two years ago in Memorial when the Wildcats won 74-54.
"At the time, I was a (junior) so I was like, 'This is nuts,' " Epps said. "I was loving it. It was a heck of a game. Kentucky-Louisville, regardless of who it is or what you are, this is going to be a crazy game to you."
Adding to the crazy is the fact that Kentucky and Louisville enter the matchup as two of the nation's top teams. No. 7 UK is 7-0 with each victory coming by double digits, while No. 4/3 Louisville sports the same record and wins over LSU, Oklahoma and Florida State.
It's only December, of course, but whichever team comes out on top will have an early resume win as both bid for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. On Wednesday, UK announced that tickets to the game were sold out, meaning a capacity crowd will be there to watch.
UK fans in attendance will likely see shades of their own team in U of L, as the Cardinals play at a pace and apply pressure similar to the Wildcats. Kentucky is averaging 98.1 points and forcing 26.9 turnovers a game, while Louisville has averages of 88.4 points and 21.1 turnovers in the same two categories.
"You have to be ready to handle a double-team and sometimes triple-team," Mitchell said. "They are bringing some people at you, so you have to be prepared for that. It's unlike anything we've seen up to this point. They are clearly the best defensive team we've faced."
U of L isn't half-bad on offense either.
The Cardinals boast a balanced attack, led by Shoni Schimmel. The senior helped carry Louisville to the national championship game a season ago and headlines seven players scoring more than eight points a game with averages of 12.9 points and 4.7 assists in 2013-14. The senior guard is on the watch list for every major national award for good reason.
"Schimmel, what a terrific career she's had," Mitchell said. "She's a really, really good player. She can make deep shots and handle the basketball and is a real smart defender."
UK's effectiveness in limiting Schimmel could go a long way toward determining Sunday's outcome. Kentucky and Louisville have matched up each of her first three seasons. In the two UK wins, she totaled just 30 combined points on 11-for-33 shooting. In U of L's lone victory, Schimmel scored 26 on 9-of-18 shooting.
"We'll just have to make her earn everything, which is what we've always tried to do, is to try to make her work hard to get everything," Mitchell said. "Rarely can you shut a player like that down. You have to make her work and make them really, really play hard throughout the course of the game."
Playing hard, in Mitchell's estimation, will be the deciding factor when it comes to both guarding Schimmel and for the game in general.
"I think the intensity level of the game will be terrific and we'll have to see if we can exceed their level of intensity and exceed their level of play," Mitchell said. "We'll see if we can play a little bit harder and see if we can find a way to win."
By no means would a loss prevent Kentucky from accomplishing its goals this season, but the Cats also don't hide from how much this game means.
"It's a big game," Mitchell said. "I think any time we get together in any sport it's certainly important for our fans, so no matter what the records are I think it's an important game, very important for us at Kentucky."