Cat Scratches

Recently in Features Category

Willie Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by league coaches. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by league coaches. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On a team full of stars, Willie Cauley-Stein has emerged as Kentucky's top candidate for major awards.

He's been named to the shortlists for three major national player of the year awards, but on Tuesday he missed out on Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors.

Arkansas star Bobby Portis took home the big trophy from league coaches.

"Honestly, you can give him Player of the Year," Cauley-Stein said. "I'll take 31-0 any day of the week. You know, he's a good player but that's what it is. I'd rather be undefeated than get Player of the Year."

Not that he needed any consolation, clearly, but Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 blocks. He also won First-Team All-SEC honors, but assistant coach John Robic knows that won't move Cauley-Stein much either.

"These awards, they're nice and everything, but that's not what these kids are playing for," Robic said.

Instead, the Wildcats have played for each other and their team. The result has been a perfect regular season - the first for a power-five conference team since 1975-76 - and a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking in both major polls, not to mention a few other SEC awards.

John Calipari was named Coach of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns Freshman of the Year and Devin Booker Sixth Man of the Year. Towns joined Cauley-Stein on the SEC First Team, while Booker and Aaron Harrison were Second-Team performers and Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis made the All-Freshmen Team.

"It just shows that we all have just taken each other under our wing and cared for each other and looked out for each other," Towns said. "These awards are very prestigious, and I'm blessed to have a chance, but I'm more blessed to have brothers like I have right now on this team."

Towns credits one of those brothers - Cauley-Stein - for much of his own development during his freshman season.

"He's the cornerstone of this team," Towns said. "He's the leader. This team has been taken to new heights with him here."

Towns and his teammates are fully aware of his impact on the team and his ability on both ends of the floor, but Cauley-Stein isn't so sure the same is true on a national level.

Praise for the 7-foot junior's defense is universal, but his offense is another story. In fact, Cauley-Stein has heard talk of him being a "one-sided" player.

"I don't believe that, my team doesn't believe that and that drives me nuts," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein knows how important defense is and that those outside opinions don't hold much water, but he still turns to them for a little added motivation.

"I'm not just a defensive player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not out there just to play defense and that's what's driving me."

Cauley-Stein has shown an improved offensive game this season with refined post moves and even a midrange jumper, but the fact remains that he's on a team full of offensive weapons. None of the Cats - not a sharpshooter like Booker or a post presence like Towns - has to carry a full offensive load.

"I scored in high school," Cauley-Stein said. "I had to. Here you don't have to score. And I think that's why I play the way I am, is because we got so many offensive weapons that one game I'm probably going to have to score. Eventually, they're probably going to have to start playing on Karl heavy so I'm going to have to step up and score some baskets."

But more than anything, Cauley-Stein just wants to be his best for the sake of his team. He knows everything else will take care of itself.

Cauley-Stein said his last five games he hasn't done that. Leading up to UK's SEC Tournament opener at 1 p.m. ET against either Florida or Alabama, he plans to do something about it.

"I've been playing real tentative, not at the best of my game, but I plan on getting right," Cauley-Stein said. "These next couple days are vital for me getting right and just to show the world, you know, about all these other awards."

Performance of the Week

Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 88, Detroit Pistons: 85
In Davis' first game back since reinjuring a sprained right shoulder on Feb. 21, last year's NBA leader in blocked shots made an immediately monstrous impact on both ends of the floor. Davis posted 39 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks and three steals in the Pels' win over the Pistons on March 4.

Cats in the Spotlight

Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (33-31)
Bledsoe averaged 14.8 points, 6.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds in four Suns games last week. Highlighted by the former first round draft pick's 19-point, 10-rebound, six-assist performance on March 6, Phoenix ended the week with two wins and two losses.

DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings(21-40)
Cousins recorded three remarkable double-doubles in four games after returning from a sprained left ankle and bruised left hip last week. In a 124-86 win over the New York Knicks on March 3, the big man notched 22 points (and his second 3-pointer of the season) and 10 rebounds. However, his 29-point, 12-rebound showing on Friday and 27-point, 17-rebound performance on Saturday both came in five-point Kings losses.



Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (34-29)
In addition to his Performance of the Week effort on Wednesday, Davis continued his pattern of double-double outings in his second and third games back from injury. The Chicago native scored 29 points, grabbed 14 boards and blocked three shots in a 104-98 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday. The next day, NOLA bounced back with a 95-89 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, thanks to 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks from "The Brow."

Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (43-20)
Jones began the week averaging 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest through his first four games, but cooled off on Friday with seven points (on 3-of-12 field goal attempts) and 11 rebounds in Houston's 114-100 win on the road over the Denver Nuggets.

Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (34-28)
Kanter anchored the Thunder with 16 points, 15 rebounds,and five assists in a 108-101 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on March 1. The Turkey native followed with two lackluster performances on Wednesday and Thursday, but OKC turned in a 2-1 record on the week.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (27-33)
Charlotte's 21-year-old starting wingman averaged 10.8 rebounds and 10.3 points in four straight Hornet wins. Kidd-Gilchrist accentuated his week with 11 points and 13 rebounds on March 1 and 10 points and 13 rebounds on March 4. The Hornets beat the Lakers, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, and Toronto Raptors over the four-game span.

Brandon Knight | #3 PG | Phoenix Suns (33-31)
Knight dished out seven assists in all but one of Phoenix's games last week, complemented by double-digit scoring outings in all four contests. In the Suns' 105-100 victory over the Magic in Orlando, Knight recorded 28 points (on 10-of-12 free throw shooting), seven assists and three steals on March 4.

Jodie Meeks | #20 SG | Detroit Pistons (23-38)
Although Davis came out a winner on both the scoreboard and the stat sheet in Detroit's matchup with New Orleans, Meeks poured in 20 points of his own in the 88-85 Pistons loss. Two days later, in a 103-93 loss to the Houston Rockets, the sixth year veteran scored just seven points (4.5 below his season average), but recorded three assists, two rebounds and a steal in only 18 minutes.

Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (14-49)
In the midst of the most stellar rebounding performance of his young career, Noel made his presence known in every facet of the box score last week. The rookie big man posted three double-doubles, averaging 12.0 rebounds, 11.2 points, 3.6 steals and 2.0 blocks per game in the process.

Rajon Rondo | #9 PG | Dallas Mavericks (40-24)
Rondo's week was highlighted with 19 points and five rebounds in a 102-93 win over the Pelicans on March 2. The Louisville native finished the week averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game over one win and two Mavs losses.

John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (35-28)
Kick started by 21 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks on March 3, Wall averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks over three contests last week. Despite his efforts, two Washington losses sandwiched just one Wizard win on March 6, by way of a 99-97 defeat of the Miami Heat.


The Kentucky football team held its second practice of the spring on Monday morning.

To follow up a solid day of work on Saturday, the Wildcats took another step forward.

"Guys had good energy for a Monday morning, came out and had a real good practice," Mark Stoops said. "Still obviously got a lot of work to do, but overall pleased, pleased with their attitude, their effort. Playing a little bit cleaner. There weren't as many footballs on the ground today and execution was a touch better. Just overall pleased with the effort. Continuing to get better and work hard."

Stoops is preparing for his third season as UK head coach and is already noticing growth from his first two springs with his team. The evolution continues.

"It's just another year in the program," Stoops said. "As we would expect, just more progress, more bodies, a little bit cleaner, more efficient in what we're doing. We're certainly further ahead than we were day two last spring, but we should be, and that's good to see."

Under Stoops, UK has been blessed with continuity on the coaching staff for the most part, but a new face has been added to the equation this spring. Shannon Dawson is replacing Neal Brown as offensive coordinator and though two coaches' scheme is similar, there's learning to be done.

That's especially true when it comes to communication.

"They're getting signals from me, and then they're communicating with the group," Dawson said of quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker. "That's all like learning a new language. It's like if I told you to learn Spanish in two days. That'd be tough, right? I mean just communication is -- and you've got some miscommunication. You've got the quarterback flashing signals quickly to the receiver and the receiver not getting it, which is typical."


UK capped off a 31-0 regular season with a 67-50 win over Florida on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) UK capped off a 31-0 regular season with a 67-50 win over Florida on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Thirty-one up, 31 down.

What started with a 40-point victory over Grand Canyon on Nov. 14 ended with a 67-50 victory over Florida on Saturday afternoon. With a roster filled with McDonald's All-Americans, future NBA lottery picks and millionaires, it was the team that shined brightest throughout the entirety of this historic regular season.

"I would tell you what these kids have accomplished, and as young as they are, it's not winning every game; it's that they shared," UK head coach John Calipari said. "... This is a great story for college athletics, for society. Instead of me, me, me, it's us, us, us."

Kentucky (31-0, 18-0 Southeastern Conference) completed the first undefeated regular season by a power-five conference team since 1975-76. In front of a sold-out Rupp Arena crowd that was buzzing well before the opening tip with anticipation of what was to come, UK shed all the pressure and attention and played the team ball that has allowed it to succeed

"The first thing I want to say is congratulations to John and his team," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "What they've done may not happen again for a long, long time. For people that have covered their team, I think it's really important that people at least reflect in a real positive way of what they've accomplished this season.

"When you look at a team, so much of the team is based on chemistry, how connected they are, how they play for each other, share the ball, all those kinds of things."

Prior to Saturday's game, the Wildcats said they were not focused on 31-0 or the "pursuit of perfection." Instead, they said they were simply focused on defeating Florida because Florida was the next game on their schedule. They've preached the cliche "one game at a time" throughout the 2014-15 season, but they've also practiced it.

On Senior Day, with all of the attention and pressure of the college basketball world weighing down on them, Coach Cal decided it was more important for UK to recognize its three seniors, all walk-ons, by starting them.

"What would you have done if we would have lost this game?" Coach Cal said. "How many of you would have said, 'How could he do that, start these kids with this on the line?'

"Let's think about it. I keep telling you this is about these players, it's about them. What about those three?"

Junior Willie Cauley-Stein said their 31st win was for those seniors, Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone.

"It wasn't even about the perfect season," Cauley-Stein said, who scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds. "It was about everybody else, like the seniors. That's what it was about. We were playing for them so they could get in the game and have that moment for the rest of their life."

Following the win, the Wildcats donned blue T-shirts with "31-0" printed on the front in white, and "Not done yet" below that. Sophomore Andrew Harrison and junior Willie Cauley-Stein then took the mic and thanked the fans.

"We appreciate y'all coming out and supporting us and everything, but we're not done yet," Cauley-Stein said to a loud, approving roar from the crowd.

It's been a wild ride for the 7-footer from Olathe, Kan. As a freshman, Cauley-Stein and the Cats went to the NIT where they were ousted in the first round by Robert Morris. Then one year later, Cauley-Stein suffered an ankle injury in the Sweet 16 and missed out on playing in the Final Four with his teammates.

"The NIT thing was just bad," Cauley-Stein said. "It was just bad. I didn't really have any control over it. Last year was just - to see everybody else in the tournament was worse than losing.

"It hasn't really set in yet. It's just, everything happens for a reason. ... End up coming back and end up being part of history and end up doing stuff people didn't really think you could do."

The Cats did not have their best offensive performance against the Gators, scoring just 1.063 points per possession. But as they have shown all year, there are many ways for this team to earn a win, primarily through its defense.

Kentucky blocked eight shots against the Gators, including six by freshman phenom Karl-Anthony Towns - who also scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds - and held Florida to a season-low-tying 50 points.

Now, Kentucky will head to Nashville, Tenn., home of this year's SEC Tournament, where it says it will play for its passionate fan base that has shown its unrivaled support all season long. The Cats maintain, however, that whatever happens in the SEC Tournament, happens. They have much bigger goals on their mind.

"I feel like there's no pressure on the winning," Cauley-Stein said. "Everybody's like, 'Oh, they have to go 40-0.' That's not what we're playing for. If we lose, we lose. You're just going to learn from it and have a feeling in your gut that you're not trying to lose again. So, I mean, going a perfect season is great, but that's not what we're trying to do."

Karl-Anthony Towns had 13 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three assists in UK's 67-50 win over Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns had 13 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three assists in UK's 67-50 win over Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Karl-Anthony Towns had people buzzing again.

Kenny Payne, Kentucky's associate head coach, called him "one of the most complete players there is" after he helped lead the Wildcats past Florida and to the first unbeaten regular season for a power-conference team in 39 years.

Experts wondered aloud whether such performances could make him the No. 1 overall pick come June's NBA Draft.

Afterward, one reporter asked Towns whether he was "feeling it" after his latest big game, which caught the 6-foot-11 freshman off guard.

"Feeling it?" Towns said. "I was feeling the rim a lot. I struggled today."

Struggled, huh? His stat line begs to differ.

Towns posted 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists as top-ranked UK (31-0, 18-0 Southeastern Conference) pulled away from Florida (15-16, 8-10 SEC) for a 67-50 win. All Towns could think about, however, were the six shots he missed in 10 attempts, especially his 1-of-5 first-half effort.

"Every game I'm not going to be going 7 for 7, 10 for 10, 9 for 9," Towns said. "The only thing I can take out from this game is a lot of tape to improve my game and also just go back to the drawing board, see what I gotta do to get back."

Towns had set a high standard for himself over the last month, shooting an incredible 80 percent from the field in his previous six outings. That helps explain his seemingly harsh self-critique.

"The game's not always going to be as efficient as always," Towns said. "But like I said, if one aspect of the game's not working for you, you gotta go to the other aspect. I'm glad I was able to keep playing defense the way I was playing tonight."

He certainly had the defense covered. Towns blocked six Gator shots in his 27 minutes, helping hold Florida to 42.9-percent shooting and 0.82 points per possession.

"Just doing what I do," Towns said. "I mean, my sister always taught me when one aspect of the game doesn't work for you, make sure all the (other) aspects work. So I was just trying to be a defender out there, also. The offense was going to catch up and I'm glad it did, but it's a game where I definitely have to go back to my room and, I guess as we all say, have Karlito chew me out a little bit."

Karlito likely won't have much to say when UK's decisive run comes up on tape.

"When we needed him to play at the end, he played," Calipari said.

With 10:28 left, the Cats led by a slim 44-41 margin. Towns, however, spearheaded a 9-2 run that lifted the lead to double digits and began the celebration of a historic regular season in Rupp Arena. He scored four points, added two rebounds and a block, and started the spurt rifling a beautiful cross-court pass out of a double team to Devin Booker for a 3-pointer.

"He's got a great feel of how to play," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "And the thing I like about him more than anything is when he does get post trapped, he's got long arms, he's got good vision, he's a good passer for a big man, he seems to be willing to throw it out of the post."

As willing a passer as Towns may be, he still has moments, says Coach Cal, where his judgment falters and he tries to make "hero plays." His coach won't stop until those have all disappeared.

"Well, look, I keep trying to explain to Karl, 'You are so good, you don't have to do anything crazy,' " Calipari said. " 'So why do you keep trying to do crazy stuff?  You're too good a player.' "

Asked about his "crazy" plays, Towns smiled knowingly. He's still trying to strike the right balance between aggressiveness and recklessness.

"I guess I just play the game," Towns said. "I don't have (any) fear and if I have to do something that a lot of people say is very risky I'm kind of the guy that would be the guy who would try to do it. I guess, yeah, that makes me crazy."

Craziness aside, Towns has evolved into a go-to guy of sorts for a Kentucky team with unparalleled depth. There were times early in the season when he blended in, but no more.

"It took me some games," Towns said. "It's like I said, I went through the process naturally. I didn't make it artificial. I didn't try to rush everything. I just let it come to me and as time went on everything started to click."

He'll take the same approach to the next step Coach Cal is asking him to take.

"I'm on him because I want him to be the best," Calipari said. "I don't want him to be just a good big; I want him to be the best. He's working toward that."

Gutsy Epps carries Cats to SEC semis

| No TrackBacks | 2 Comments
Makayla Epps scored 31 points to lead UK to a comeback victory over Mississippi State on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Makayla Epps scored 31 points to lead UK to a comeback victory over Mississippi State on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
They say no one makes it to March 100-percent healthy, but Makayla Epps isn't anywhere close.

Epps is battling a strained Achilles tendon, plus the normal wear and tear of a long season. She limped visibly at points during a matchup with Mississippi State on Friday night.

But when it counted, she wasn't about to let it slow her down.

"You know what, I was cramping up, I was hurting and stuff like that you just gotta fight through because my team needed me," Epps said.

Epps delivered.

The sophomore guard and daughter of former national champion Anthony Epps fought through the pain to play 38 minutes. Not only that, she shook off any defenders the third-seeded Bulldogs threw at her to score 31 points in an effort nothing short of heroic. On the back of Epps, UK (23-8) advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 76-67 victory.

"She was real tough," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm real proud of her. Big night. We needed every bucket she made."

Epps started strong, scoring 16 points in the first half. UK, however, trailed by four points at the break after using a strong finish to trim a lead that was once as large as 10 points.

After the break, Mississippi State (26-6) seized control once again. The Bulldogs took a 54-39 lead with 15:18 left behind Victoria Vivians, who scored 10 of her 19 points in the opening minutes of the second half.

The Cats wouldn't go away.

"We just talked about trying to be tough in the second half, and we were tough," Mitchell said. "We were really tough and did it with a really untraditional lineup because of the foul trouble. So I couldn't be prouder of the players."

Epps, no doubt, is at the top of the list.

With the Cats in a hole, she pulled them out. At one point, she scored 11 straight points for Kentucky, the last of which on a 3-pointer that pulled UK into a 58-58 tie. On the following possession, she found high-school teammate Kyvin Goodin-Rogers for a go-ahead 3 in the midst of a back-breaking 30-6 run for UK.

"Her contribution was significant," Mitchell said. "I was most proud about the way she handled herself. If there was ever a time to get negative and down, it was with 15 minutes left in the game and we were down 15. We did not have anything going at all. We hung in there as a team. I think she was a part of that."

Epps has been brilliant for nearly every second of the two games she's played against Mississippi State this season. Less than a month ago, she poured in 42 points, including a buzzer-beating game winner, in a double-overtime thriller in Memorial Coliseum. Combining the two games, Epps has scored 73 points on 30-of-51 shooting.

"Like I just told their coach, they make me step up and play to my highest potential and I salute them for that," Epps said. "That's not doing anything but making me a better player and making my team better against tough competition like Mississippi State."

Epps is line to face more tough competition in the semifinals with a matchup against second-seeded Tennessee (26-4). The Lady Volunteers dismantled Georgia to advance to face Kentucky and twice defeated the Cats during the regular season.

"They're up on us two games to none and slipped one in on us in Lexington and then got us pretty good down in Knoxville," Epps said. "Our chances tomorrow, my dad always told me it's hard to beat a team three times."

Willie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats will look to complete a perfect regular season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats will look to complete a perfect regular season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By no means is this the finish line.

A Saturday matchup with Florida marks but another step on a memorable journey, but this step merits some special attention.

With Kentucky a win away from completing the first perfect regular season by a power-conference team since 1975-76, even John Calipari stopped for a moment to think about what it's taken to get here.

"I'm not reflecting back right now, I'm looking forward," Coach Cal said. "But I will tell you for them to stay the course is a challenge in itself here."

With each win, the hype with which the top-ranked Wildcats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) began the season has only intensified. Even so, they've remained as one.

"To stay into each other, to not listen and let the clutter affect who you are and how you play, it's amazing," Calipari said. "I mean, you got guys that aren't worried about Player of the Year, yet if they were playing 35 minutes a game and getting the ball every time, they'd be Player of the Year. They're not worried about it. They're just playing basketball. They're just trying to play for each other."

With the eyes of the college basketball world trained on Lexington for Saturday's 2 p.m. ET matchup with the Gators (15-15, 8-9 SEC), the Cats are choosing to keep that attitude. Like Coach Cal, they'll save most of their reflection for later.

"I think that's one of those things that's gonna hit you later," Willie Cauley-Stein said, "maybe not at the time just because, you know, it's not gonna really mean a lot at the time 'cause you still got other stuff--like after the season's over, a month from now, when you look back at how fast it went by."

The speed with which this season has passed was a common theme as UK held its normal pregame media availability. It seems, everyone agreed, like the Cats' preseason trip to the Bahamas only just ended.

"The season has flown by," Calipari said. "I can still remember me using the Bahamas, having a bunch of wide-eyed freshmen not knowing what in the world to expect that played well down there and started feeling good about themselves."

Calipari pointed to that trip as a proving ground for the platoon system that has helped carry Kentucky to 30-0. Taking full advantage of their unmatched depth, the Cats overwhelmed professional opponents even with Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles sidelined by injury.

"We'd have team meetings and (Coach Cal would) be like, 'This is crazy,' " Cauley-Stein said. " 'We don't even have our whole team here and we still look really good,' and how excited he was for everybody to be back and the season to get going."  

The excitement was justified.

The Cats have charged through the regular season, never losing their grip on the top spot in both major polls. They lead the nation comfortably in scoring margin at 21.4 and boast a defense that's allowed fewer points per possession than any since kenpom.com began measuring the statistic in 2001-02.

Mix all that in with the cohesiveness and chemistry of this group and it's clear that something unique is going on.

"I told them, you know, we have limited time together," Calipari said. "I told my staff, 'Every minute you can spend with these guys you better spend with them. I mean, when you get to the (Wildcat Coal) Lodge, we'll go to meals - let's just do everything together because this thing's going to wind down."

Saturday will be Senior Day for Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter. Though none of the three has a regular role, the fact remains that this will be the last time this group plays together at Rupp Arena as currently constituted.

"It's very special because as a team we've been through a lot together this year," Tyler Ulis said. "It's going to be our last time playing at Rupp together. It'll probably be memorable. Last time Tod, Sam and (Brian) will play in Rupp. It'll be fun to play."

Whether the three seniors start remains to be seen. Cauley-Stein expects to be electric no matter what.

"It's probably going to be really good energy," Cauley-Stein said. "But it's going to be tough too at the same time, so it's not something that you can just take lightly and stroll in there and think you're going to win. You know, we're going to have to come to play."

A month ago, the Gators gave Kentucky all it could handle in a 68-61 Cats win in spite of playing much of the night without Michael Frazier II. The sharp-shooting guard is expected to be available on Saturday.

"Well, he spreads the court," Calipari said, "and what they're doing in their pick and rolls is just keeping everybody away from the basket, trying to get rim baskets or 3s or moving the ball from there into driving. Billy's (Donovan) done a great job with his team."

Just a year ago, it was Florida going for an unbeaten run through SEC play against Kentucky, but the Gators are now viewed as little more than a roadblock en route to an even more impressive feat. The Cats don't see it that way at all.

"That's how you get beat," Cauley-Stein said. "If you think about it like as a whole like that, you just gotta take it one step at a time and let nature take its course."

Jennifer O'Neill scored 19 points in UK's win over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill scored 19 points in UK's win over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky, for a while, seemed poised to coast in its Southeastern Conference Tournament opener.

The Wildcats, after allowing Vanderbilt to score the game's first basket, reeled off 16 straight points to build a big lead.

Things wouldn't be so easy though.

"Sometimes when you get off to a hot start, it all kind of unravels on you, you don't get it back," Matthew Mitchell said.

It unraveled in the form of a 23-8 run by Vanderbilt to close the first half. The spurt gave the Commodores a 25-24 lead heading to the break. The Cats made just 3-of-14 shots to allow Vandy to charge back into the SEC Tournament second-round game.

"I think we lost our defensive intensity because we weren't scoring on the offensive end," Bria Goss said. "We had to refocus and regroup at halftime."

That's precisely what the sixth-seeded Cats (22-8) did en route to a 67-61 victory on Thursday night. UK would build a lead of as large as 12 points in the second half, coming alive offensively in the process.

At the center of it all was Jennifer O'Neill.

The senior guard - who has three times played on teams that lost in the SEC Tournament finals - had three points and three turnovers in shooting 1 of 8 from the field in the first half. After the break, she would score 16 of her game-high 19 points.

"I was more aggressive," O'Neill said. "I told my team, I apologized, I was settling for jump shots instead of attacking the basket or getting fouled or getting other people involved. That was really it, just changed my mindset."

That mindset spread to the defensive end as well, including on a vital charge she drew with less than four minutes remained. At that point, Vandy had climbed to within 58-51 and Jasmine Jenkins was driving to the basket intent on cutting the lead to five, but O'Neill made a play.

"I tell you the biggest thing for Jennifer right now is she is affecting the game defensively," Mitchell said. "When we're good, she really, really turns up the defense and does a great job. Bria is always there, always a rock defensively. Jennifer has become that, too, for us in this time of success for our team. That's what we'll need from her more than anything (Friday), just a real focus."

Third-seeded Mississippi State (26-5) will be the next test of that focus on Friday at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. Kentucky took down the Bulldogs in double overtime three weeks ago in Lexington behind 42 points and a buzzer beater by Makayla Epps.

The game was actually somewhat reminiscent of Thursday's win over Vandy with the way it went back and forth.

"Well, we really were clicking in the first half, built a sizable lead," Mitchell said. "I remember we lost focus there at halftime. The first five minutes of the second half was really dominated by Mississippi State. Went back to an 11-point lead, then they came back again. We played some really good basketball against them in stretches, and they played some really good basketball against us in stretches."

With a short turnaround, the Cats will work to maximize their own stretches of good basketball.

"We'll just mentally prepare," Mitchell said. "We'll ask for tremendous focus and we'll ask for them to understand what they need to do. That's the responsibility part of what they really need to do tomorrow night to win, then go out and execute it."

Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter will participate in Senior Day activities on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter will participate in Senior Day activities on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sam Malone's first three college seasons couldn't have been much different.

Coming to Kentucky as walk-on, the Scituate, Mass., native was there every step of the way as the Wildcats went from national champions in 2012 to first-round NIT losers in 2013 to within one win of another title in 2014.

"Freshman year I thought it was going to be like that every year, then the next with that NIT--it was totally different from the first year," Malone said. "But we just stuck with our game plan of what we were doing as far as the program goes, and we're back to where we want to be."

With UK sitting atop the polls with a record of 30-0 entering Senior Day for Malone and classmates Brian Long and Sam Malone, that might be an understatement.

The Cats are a game away from completing the first unbeaten season for a power-conference team since Indiana accomplished the feat in 1975-76. Malone and Long have already been a part of a pair of Final Four teams and they clearly have designs on making it three within the next month.

"So far it's been great," said Long, a Dumont, N.J. native. "We've had two real good years and this year the story's not over yet. It's been a great ride all four years. Just appreciate everything and it's been real fun."

The three seniors have had an inside view of the program that's been at the center of college basketball. They been a part of some downs, to be sure, but more often than not they've watched John Calipari mold groups of young stars into cohesive units.

"I think that he just gets people focused on buying into the team, like he says, and everyone's worried about winning," Malone said. "If we win it's been shown that good things will happen for everyone, so trusting in that is really how it works."

Even more than with that title team, the 2014-15 Wildcats are proof of how well Coach Cal's approach can work. Nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willie Cauley-Stein and in-state high-school stars Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins have put team above self and reaped the rewards beginning with a preseason island trip.

"I think it started in the Bahamas, but we're at the point where I think we know what we're doing is working really well, so why would we change anything," Malone said. "You know what I mean? Just keep trusting each other. There's no reason to do anything we haven't been doing and I think that's really been working out great for us."

None of the three seniors have had a regular in-game role this season or in any prior year, but don't tell them or their teammates they haven't been a part of it all.

"Coming in and seeing the results and seeing all these people succeed after they leave here," Long said. "Just being part of it and seeing everyone succeed has been the best part for me."

For Lanter, that's been extra special.

The Lexington, Ky., native is the son of former UK player Bo Lanter and a lifelong Kentucky fan. He started his college career at Gulf Coast State Community College, but elected to transfer home and take a shot at becoming a Wildcat. His gamble paid off.

"I've grown up around this program," Lanter said. I've seen its ups and downs. I've seen the ins and outs of it through--I've had a little bit of insight with my dad being here, stories and things, and I've had personal relationships with past players. So I've gotten a little bit more of an insight than most typical fans have.

But even Lanter has had moments when he forgets he's in a place he always dreamed of being. It's then that he gives himself a little dose of perspective.

"You get caught up in the ups and downs of a season and the ins and outs of practice and things and you sometimes lose track of where you actually are and what you're getting to go through and how many people would kill to be able to be in this position," Lanter said. "I try to take the time to take it all in."

He'll be doing plenty of that on Saturday when he participates in Senior Day activities. Lanter has long dreamed of walking through that hoop with his picture on it and standing alongside his family for the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home."

"Now I'm going to have to be a part of it and I'm sure it'll be tough, but at the same time it's part of the process and I'm thankful to be there," Lanter said.

The question then becomes whether the three will get the start against Florida. Malone showed his usual humor in answering that question.

"Unless 12 other people get a crippling flu, I don't think we're going to start," Malone said. "But we'll see what happens."


Matthew Mitchell leads UK into the SEC Tournament this week in North Little Rock, Ark. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell leads UK into the SEC Tournament this week in North Little Rock, Ark. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Defining success for this team has always been simple for Matthew Mitchell.

"We started the season of the goal of becoming a great team, and that being defined by this team becoming the best that this team can be," Mitchell said.

Wins and losses have never figured into the equation, at least not directly. Nor has Kentucky's performance in the postseason. That doesn't mean those things don't have a role as the Wildcats head to North Little Rock, Ark., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

"I think it would be significant to get in the mix for a championship," Mitchell said. "I think it would be very significant to win the SEC Tournament. It would be a great sign that they have given it their best."

Significant, not to mention especially meaningful to this group.

UK - which enters as the No. 6 seed - has advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons but never won. Fifth-year senior Jennifer O'Neill has been a part of three of those trips, and classmates Jennifer O'Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney two each.

"I think they'll be hungry to go down there and win it," Mitchell said. "Especially the veterans. We have gotten very close. I think the veterans have been to two championship games. It's a big-time tournament. It's a big one to win. We would be very proud to win it and we're going to try to do that."

The Cats (21-8, 10-6 SEC) will open their title bid at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday against either No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Alabama. They will also do so in a much better place than if the tournament had started a week and a half prior.

On Feb. 23, UK had just lost its third straight game. Sensing their team was about to "go off the cliff," those four seniors - led by O'Neill - called a meeting with their head coach to ask him to be more involved in demanding focus and intensity from his team.

"We're not the most talented team around," Mitchell said. "We're talented enough that when we play extremely hard and we're ultra-competitive, we're talented enough to win. We're also talented enough that if we don't compete, if we're not ultra-competitive and we don't play extremely hard, we can lose to anybody. So there's really no in between with the team."

With no in between, Mitchell has changed up practice and even implemented game-speed drills during pregame warmups. He's also abandoned his customary spot in the locker room before games in favor of running the team through those drills. The Cats have responded by winning two straight, including Sunday's upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina.

"For me, it's been fun because I'm sort of bored back in the locker room, staring at the board," Mitchell said. "You've written the words and you know what you want to say and you're just back there by yourself and so it was great."

Mitchell will be on the court again Thursday night helping his team get ready. If anything, he'll be even more eager to be there.

"I think it's a really exciting tournament, the SEC Tournament," Mitchell said. "I think it's very difficult to win and we've had a chance several times to win it and we'd love to taste victory in that tournament. It would really be a big accomplishment if we could win it, so we have to take them one game at a time obviously and no matter who it is, Vanderbilt or Alabama, it'll be a tough test. We will do everything we can to get prepared."

Though UK will be preparing for a game with winning in mind, the ultimate goal remains the same as the one the Cats had to start the season.

"I just talk to them about doing the things that we need from them to be successful and that is to have an edge to us, a competitiveness to us, playing defense for each other, getting on the boards, things like that," Mitchell said. "We'll go down there with the intention of winning, but I'll talk with them more about the process than I will about whatever result we get."

Recent Comments

  • Mary Clem: ALL I CAN SAY GO BIG BLUE BLUE IM FOR YOU ALL THE WAYS GOOD LUCK read more
  • brandon williams : I think that Kentucky is the best this year and i think that they can go all of the (40-0) read more
  • Julie Lowman: Jenn O'Neill you are the Troy Polamalu(and not talking bout the hair) of Women's BB. Enjoy your style of play...clean, read more
  • skeeter skeet: Cincy can say that Willie's dunk was not demoralizing, but they know that it was. They were totally different after read more
  • clint elkins: WILDCATS HAMPS40-0===REPEAT CHAMPS !! read more
  • Glenn Lambdin: I would like to see Kevin Booker and Trey Lyles involved more in the scoring process. When people play the read more
  • Shlton Joiner: Its tourney time all who get a chance want to beat the Cats. Play at your best cats let the read more
  • Berdj Joseph Rassam: Most people feel UK is unbeatable in the 2015 March Madness. read more
  • Jim Wright: Best of luck to MY C A T S --- 6 more games to go! I absolutely LOVE KY Basketball, read more
  • sharoncays: THIS IS ONE OF BEST TEAMS IN 67 YEARS I HAVE EVER SEEN, IM SICK TOO BUT ALEX YOU OR read more