Derek Willis scored five points in UK's win over Columbia on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
When two sets of five-man platoons aren't enough, it pays to be the 12th man (in terms of minutes played) on the No. 1 team in America. For Derek Willis and the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats, opportunities are only what are made of them.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of my opportunity," said Willis. "Devin (Booker) and Tyler (Ulis) are out, so I was called to step up. I'm just out there playing."
With Booker and Ulis -- who together compose the backcourt of Kentucky's White Platoon -- sidelined by injury, Willis was counted on for important minutes down the stretch of Wednesday's tight matchup with Columbia University. The Cats won the game 56-46, while Willis shined in the process.
"Derek was really good today," said head coach John Calipari. "I thought Derek was outstanding."
As a result of the self-sacrificial, all-for-one mentality that Calipari has instilled in his 12-deep rotation, what's reflected in the box score may not accurately represent the impact of each Kentucky player. Willis' five points (on 2 of 2 free-throw shooting and a made 3) and one offensive rebound came in only nine minutes on the floor. In a dismal shooting performance as a team, only two Wildcats scored in double figures. Without Willis' noteworthy performance, the Cats' undefeated record may have been in jeopardy.
"If my opportunity comes up," said Willis, "I'm just going to play my game and just help the team."
Though Willis' first two years in Lexington have been spent mostly learning from the sideline, the 6-foot-9 Mt. Washington, Ky. native continues to prepare for each game with a starter's mentality.
"You go from playing your whole life, starting your whole life, and now you're on probably one of the most unbelievable teams ever made," Willis said. "If you have that mentality of whenever my opportunity comes up, you just take advantage of it and you're always ready."
Like most major collegiate athletes, Willis admits aspirations of one day playing at the next level. With more performances like his on Wednesday, stat sheets will start to matter a lot less than the Wildcats' win total.
"If you can play basketball, (NBA executives) know you can score," Willis said. "So they're looking at defense and rebounding, and all the intangibles that a lot of players don't do, or don't really recognize."
Thanks to Kentucky's crowed roster of nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willis has already tasted the effects of playing alongside top-to-bottom talent.
"The dudes in the NBA that don't play, they're still working out an hour before (the game)," said Willis. "Then, after the game, they put another hour in."
With No. 21 North Carolina on the horizon and Ulis and Booker's uncertain status, Willis may not have seen the last fruits of his labor.
"If Devin can't play and Tyler does play (Saturday versus UNC), then Derek will be the two on that team," Calipari said of UK's second rotation. "He'll be the other player."
The Wildcats and Tar Heels will square off Saturday at noon at Rupp Arena. The game will be televised on CBS. Carolina won last season's contest 82-77 in Chapel Hill, and lead the all-time series 23-13. However, Calipari is 3-2 versus North Carolina since taking over at Kentucky.
Trey Lyles had seven points and 10 rebounds in UK's comeback win over Columbia on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was clear from the opening minutes that Kentucky just didn't have the edge it so often has had this season.
With underdog Columbia jumping out to an 11-0 lead in the opening minutes, the lack of energy quickly spread to the crowd.
The Wildcats never did manage to find their fastball, but Trey Lyles was the player who came the closest to getting them there.
"Great motor," Calipari said of the 6-foot-10 freshman. "Great motor."
Lyles' numbers as No. 1 UK overcame two 11-point first-half deficits to move to 10-0 against the visiting Lions with a 56-46 win don't exactly jump off the box score, but his impact did. His seven points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks would have looked better had he made a couple more shots from in close, but his approach was the game-changer.
"I just went out there and played with energy and tried to help the team in any way I could," Lyles said.
With Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker out on Wednesday due to injury, UK's two-platoon system couldn't work quite as intended. Coach Cal said that contributed to the Cats' inability to move from the malaise, but a second-half shake-up helped them take control after trailing by two at halftime.
Lyles started the second half in place of Alex Poythress, his first-platoon counterpart, the latest proof of Calipari's "it's not communism" tenet with the system.
"Boom, out," Calipari said. "Trey, go. I mean, it's not real hard. The way we're doing this, the only thing I'm asking is, play with a high motor, really play with energy, clap, be enthusiastic, play."
Lyles, even with his McDonald's All-American pedigree and months into his college career, has come to grasp exactly that.
"That's just what I need to do and what he wants from me," said Lyles, who played a season-high 30 minutes. "I have to do that for the team, it's what the team needs. I'm not the only guy. Marcus Lee does the same thing. Alex does the same thing. We all just have to contribute in some way."
Lyles' biggest contributions on Wednesday came on the glass.
With shots not falling - particularly not from 3, where UK hit just 2 of 17 - there were ample opportunities for offensive rebounds, but the Cats weren't capitalizing as often as they normally do in the first half. At halftime, UK had just a 17-15 edge on the boards in spite of a significant size advantage.
To turn it around, Calipari turned to a group that's rarely played together this season, if ever.
"Trey Lyles went after the ball," Calipari said. "I went to a different lineup. Dakari (Johnson) and Karl(-Anthony Towns) weren't getting balls, so I went with Willie and Marcus Lee and we started getting rebounds. You know, this was one of those games where Marcus and Willie were the two that broke the game open. With Trey and, you know, the two guards with Derek Willis. Those seven broke the game open playing that way."
The stretch in which they did it came from the 16:18 mark of the second half to 1:39 left in the game. The Cats outscored Columbia 25-7 in that time, turning a three-point deficit into a 15-point lead. In the process, they paved the way for a 24-13 second-half rebounding edge.
Lyles, of course, had a lot to do with that, though he'd also tell you he has plenty to work on.
"I'm doing all right," Lyles said. "I'm missing too many shots, but that's on me to get in the gym and keep working on it. When shots aren't falling I have to do other things such as rebound and play with energy."
From her success in the pool to the classroom and her commitment to the community, senior swimmer Abby Myers' impact on the Kentucky swimming and diving team and the University of Kentucky is hard not to notice.
A team captain who has excelled both in the pool and in the classroom, Myers' leadership is a key reason for the Wildcats' success in 2014. Combined with her commitment to community service, and she is the perfect representation of what it means to be a student-athlete at Kentucky.
Myers, along with softball player Griffin Joiner, has been named one of UK's two nominees for the NCAA's Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship.
Established by the NCAA in 1988, the program honors one male and one female student-athlete annually by awarding a postgraduate scholarship in recognition of outstanding academic achievement and potential for success in postgraduate study.
"It means a lot to me. It is an honor to be chosen by the coaching staff and athletic department," Myers said of her nomination. "It means a lot that they would think so highly of me and choose me to be a candidate for this award."
The recipient of the Walter Byers Scholarship, announced in the spring, will be recognized as one who has combined the best elements of mind and body to achieve national distinction for his or her achievements, and promises to be a future leader in his or her chosen field of career service.
For UK head coach Lars Jorgensen, Myers fits the bill perfectly.
"Abby represents everything that's great about UK and our team," Jorgensen said. "There couldn't be a more deserving person, who's a great student, a great athlete and a great leader. She does wonderful things in the community and we're proud that she is nominated for this honor.
"Our women's team has made great strides the last two years, and much of that is because of Abby. Her work ethic in the pool, she holds her teammates accountable, she's tough as nails and she is well respected by her peers. She is a great person too. There's no shortage of good things to say about her. As far as her leadership, she is an outstanding leader and Abby has been huge in terms of our overall progress as a team."
As one of UK's captains this season, Myers has taken on an expanded role as a leader. With a large core of freshman and sophomores, those leadership responsibilities increase.
From workouts and competition to life outside the pool, Myers does not take the role lightly.
"I'm just trying to set the team into the right direction and set a good example," Myers said. "I want to give everyone an opportunity to be the best that they can be. I think the team has really taken that and run with it this year. I have seen the team grow a lot over the past two years and this is the best team I have been a part of."
In the classroom, Myers has been recognized several times for her academic success. Last spring, she was named to the Academic All-District Team, and helped the women's team earn the nation's best grade-point-average among all Division I men's and women's swimming and diving teams.
With a 3.94 GPA last year and majoring in Exercise Science, Myers has been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll on three occasions.
Outside of team activities, Myers still can't get far away from the pool. Twice a week, she volunteers with a Special Olympics swim team in Lexington.
Myers was UK's representative on the 2014 SEC Community Service Team.
"My favorite part about community service is that I am part of a Special Olympics swim team downtown called the Fintastics," Myers said. "I have been doing that since my freshman year and they are kind of like my Lexington family. I see them twice a week, coach them and even swim with the kids a little bit. They are so much fun to be with. It's a nice thing to do to get off of campus to see some of the local Lexington people and get to know some people outside of UK."
From Cranberry Township, Pa., Myers is far from home, but her team -- both at UK and with the Fintastics -- have become part of a second family.
As Myers competes in her final season with the Wildcats, the All-American will continue to take UK to new heights. For Myers, this is just the beginning.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and nine rebounds in UK's win over EKU on Sunday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By any reasonable measure, Karl-Anthony Towns' college career started well.
Starting on the No. 1 team in the land, Towns was among the nation's top shot-blockers and even won Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors after big games against UT Arlington and Providence. He followed that up with 10 more points in Kentucky's second top-10 win of the season against Texas.
But the Saturday after the victory, Towns had a reaction you might not expect.
"I woke up in the morning, brushed my teeth - good hygiene, that's the biggest thing - and I looked in the mirror and I wanted to be better," Towns said. "I wanted to do something a little different than what I'm used to."
For Towns, there's no bigger departure from the norm than abandoning the toothy grin that he's come to be known for around the Joe Craft Center.
"He's got a very nice smile," assistant coach Barry Rohrssen said. "He really does."
Fear not, Coach Rohrssen, the smile isn't going away all the time.
Towns, seeking to find an edge to take his game to the next level, decided stash his smile in favor of a scowl during UK's matchup with Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. Towns' theory is that he plays his best when he's mad, so why not take that mentality to tipoff?
His logic, it seems, was sound.
The freshman was dominant against the Colonels, posting 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks. Just as importantly, the performance drew rave reviews from his toughest critic, Karl Sr., which means Junior plans to try the same approach for UK's next game, a matchup with Columbia (5-2) at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
"My father liked it," Towns said. "He said it's a different person (than) he's ever seen, so I like it too. I looked at a little bit of tape and I thought it kept me a little bit more focused on the game. I like it. I'm going to keep experimenting with it."
Considering Towns had already established himself among the top NBA Draft prospects in the nation, it's somewhat of a scary thought if the experiment works. Towns, after that EKU performance that again won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, is averaging 9.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 18.8 minutes.
"You're always looking for that next step to give your team another help," Towns said. "I'm just trying to help my team at all causes, at all times."
What Towns has going for him, other than his talent and 6-foot-11 frame, is he's on a team deep and experienced enough that he can experiment with the best ways to do that without having to worry about carrying the load on his own.
"For me it's been great knowing that I have a security blanket, I guess," Towns said. "Not everything's always going to be on my shoulders like it was in high school. The best thing about it is that I put pressure on myself. I want to be the best player I can possibly be. I want to be the best I can be for this team, so I'm putting a lot of pressure just on myself."
Towns' ultimate goal is to forget the freshman label he's carrying and play like his veteran teammates, namely Willie Cauley-Stein, who dominated in the win over Texas that prompted his mini-reinvention.
"The biggest thing is just don't be timid," Towns said. "Go out there and have a ball playing, but also we're getting to that part of the season now. Games are going to be a lot harder. We gotta do what we gotta do to make sure that we're the best possible. If this mentality helps me and the team then so be it. I'll do it every game."
Rohrssen feels the same way, though he still wants Karl to remain Karl off the court.
"His priorities always seem in order," Rohrssen said. "Again, he isn't just a good player. He's a wonderful person. He's so well-liked in this building, among his teammates, on campus, in the community here. Throughout many of the events that we've done, Karl has always gone above and beyond even what you ask him to do."
Whether it's in basketball or in life, going above and beyond is what Towns does. It's just who he is.
"Karl is a bit different, in a good way," Rohrssen said. "In a very good way."
Larry Warford returned to active duty for the Detroit Lions this weekend after an absence due to injury. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
This week in the NFL, Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford returned to the playing field after spending the last three weeks on the sideline with a sprained left knee. In a rematch with First Team All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy--of whom Warford got the better in their one-on-one matchup as a rookie last season--the former Wildcat emerged victorious. The Lions defeated McCoy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 34-17.
In addition to Warford's successful return from the first injury of his entire football career, Week 14 marked former Kentucky wide receiver Chris Matthews' first official game as an active NFL player. The 6-foot-5 Los Angeles native was promoted from the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad on Saturday after two seasons in the Canadian Football League (where he was named most outstanding rookie in 2012). The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-14.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (10-3) In a tight 43-37 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Cobb caught four passes for 58 yards. With Cobb held without a touchdown for the past four weeks, Kentucky's all-time total TD leader has seen his 2014 receiving touchdown total stagnate at 10 (tying him for fourth in the NFL).
Jacob Tamme | #84 TE | Denver Broncos (10-3) Despite a rib injury that left Tamme questionable for Sunday's game with the Buffalo Bills, the Danville, Ky. native caught one pass for 10 yards. However, Tamme also lost a fumble in the Broncos' 24-17 win over Buffalo. Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-11) In yet another loss by the Titans, Williamson totaled six total tackles (three solo, three assisted) against the New York Giants. Tennessee fell to New York, 36-7.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-11) Kentucky's veteran half of its Titans linebacker duo outshone its rookie half by a two-tackle margin on Sunday. Woodyard combined for four solo tackles and four assists in Tennessee's blowout loss to the Giants.
Former UK guards Eric Bledsoe and John Wall posted big games in the NBA this week. (UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
Through games on Sunday, Dec. 7
A trio of former Kentucky guards highlighted week six in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe, John Wall and Rajon Rondo have been on top of their games to this point in the season, but the three floor generals handed in consecutive spectacular performances this past week.
Bledsoe collected averages of 23 points, six assists and three rebounds while logging over 38 minutes per game as the Phoenix Suns posted a 2-1 record for the week. Even as the fourth year guard carried the scoring load for his team, Bledsoe still let his presence be known on the defensive end of the floor, including this spectacular chase-down block against the Rockets on Sunday.
UPDATE: Bledsoe had another huge game on Monday, posting 27 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in a 121-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Bledsoe's triple-double against his former team was the first of his career and the first for a Suns player since 2006.
Rajon Rondo was back to his stat-stuffing ways with several eye-popping box score performances. First, Rondo recorded a season-high 19 assists and 12 rebounds last Tuesday, marking his sixth career double-double with assists and rebounds. No other guard in the league currently has more than one.
Rondo continued his passing display on Friday when he out-assisted the entire Los Angeles Lakers team 16 to 14 in a convincing 113-96 win for the Celtics. He capped off the week by posting a triple-double against John Wall and the Washington Wizards. Rondo was good for 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in another Celtics victory, who have put together three straight wins for the first time this season.
Even with the greatness from Rondo, former Wildcat John Wall pieced together an impressive night himself. Wall finished the game with 17 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks in what was truly a heavyweight matchup between two of the league's best point guards.
76ers get first win
The Philadelphia 76ers opened the 2014-15 NBA season with a 17-game losing streak, just one game away from tying the NBA's worst start in league history. On Wednesday, though, Philly defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves as rookie Nerlens Noel chipped in eight points, three rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes of action.
Noel followed up the first encouraging night of basketball in his young career with an 11-point, 10-rebound performance, recording his third double-double of the season.
Week seven TV schedule
Tuesday: Dallas @ Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) 8:00 p.m. on NBA TV Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) @ L.A. Lakers 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis) @ Dallas 8:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) 10:30 p.m. on TNT Friday: Portland @ Chicago (Nazr Mohammed) 7:00 p.m. on ESPN
Marcus Lee had 10 points, all on dunks, in UK's 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Marcus Lee was the first UK player to find out firsthand what John Calipari meant when he said the platoon system is "not communism."
With Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee's first-platoon counterpart, dominating in a top-10 matchup with Texas, Lee was informed in the locker room he would move into a backup role in the second half.
It would have been understandable had Lee been a little down playing just one minute after halftime. Instead, he sat back and enjoyed the show.
"It was great the other game just watching him go off," Lee said. "That's the greatest I've seen Willie and that's just the kind of team we are."
Lee, in spite of having to take a step back, didn't disengage. Knowing how the platoons work and that his time would come, the sophomore was secure enough being the biggest cheerleader for the player who was getting his minutes as he posted 21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
"When someone ahead of you is doing really well, you're just like, 'Hey Coach, keep him in,' and you're totally fine with it and you know you have the next game," Lee said. "So I wasn't worried about it at all. I knew today would just be a new game and everything would be different."
He was right.
Lee, jumping right back into the rotation, had his best game of the season in No. 1 UK's latest dominant performance, an 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday at Rupp Arena. Lee had 10 points in the victory on five second-half dunks, his offensive specialty.
"It makes the game fun," Lee said. "Any kind of lob is fun. But playing this fast tempo is just something that I've always loved to do. It's just my kind of game and the lobs just kind of came naturally in this game."
Considering Lee had been quiet through much of UK's undefeated start, scoring no more than four points in any game before EKU, his emergence was encouraging. Much more encouraging is the fact that the Cats are responding to the way playing time is being divvied up just as the coaching staff hoped they would.
"These guys genuinely really like each other," assistant coach John Robic said.
Those feelings were proven by the way Lee handled Cauley-Stein's career night on Friday and again Sunday by Cauley-Stein. Forty-eight hours removed from a performance that had NBA scouts and analysts buzzing, Cauley-Stein was eager to see Lee succeed just as Lee had been for him.
So eager, in fact, that Cauley-Stein told John Calipari to leave Lee in at one point rather than check back in himself.
"It was Willie's turn to go in, and Willie told Coach, 'Keep Marcus in,' " Robic said.
Watching the moment live, Robic was reminded of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament title game when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gave up his starting spot for a struggling Darius Miller. UK would lose the game to Vanderbilt, but Miller regained his form and the Cats would of course go on to win their eighth national championship.
"It was one of those things that if you think back what Gilchrist did for Darius Miller, that's a sign of maturity, that's a sign of a leader, that's a sign of being a good teammate," Robic said. "They appreciate that."
It remains to be seen whether similarly selfless acts by this year's team will lead to No. 9, but it's certainly not a bad sign.
"That totally puts trust and comfort in your other players knowing that I'd be able to do it for him and he's also capable of doing the same for me," Lee said. "It kind of just shows how much we care for each other and we're not just there for ourselves."
Janee Thompson might want to consider campaigning for UK to play more games in the KFC Yum! Center.
She seems to do pretty well there.
After leading a comeback from 14 points down and hitting the game-winning two years ago at Louisville, Thompson put on another second-half show against UK's archival on Saturday. The junior point guard poured in 16 of her 19 points after halftime, headlining a rally from 15 points down with just 18:01 left as No. 7 UK (8-1) topped the Cardinals (8-1), 77-68.
Thompson was clutch throughout, hitting the free throw that gave UK its first lead at 59-58 and the game-tying 3 with 3:03 left after the Cardinals had reclaimed a three-point lead to start a decisive 14-2 run to close the game.
She didn't miss a shot in the second half, deftly (and speedily) running UK's offense in the second half. The Cats shot just 36.4 percent from the field in the first half as a team, but 55.6 percent in the second to race past the previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked Cardinals.
Thompson was also at the top of UK's swarming pressure defense and snagged four steals. UK forced Louisville into 15 second-half turnovers and 28 for the game. Even when the Cardinals did manage to initiate their half-court offense, they found little room to operate, shooting 24.1 percent from the field after halftime.
The victory was UK's fourth in a row over Louisville, meaning fourth-year seniors Azia Bishop and Bria Goss, who scored 11 points in a team-high 35 minutes, have never lost to the Cardinals.
Matthew Mitchell has never changed his thoughts on the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but he has come to talk about it differently.
He's always seen UK-U of L as one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule, a game deserving of hype and a big-time atmosphere. The difference now that he's in his eighth season is he feels no need to try to convince anyone.
"When I was younger - and hopefully I'm wiser than I was when I started out, I was also a different person - I said some bad things about the rivalry to try and get it spiced up and everything," Mitchell said. "Over the years, you don't have to do that anymore."
You see, UK and U of L have established themselves among the nation's elite. The Wildcats and Cardinals are fixtures in the top 15, and that will be the case again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET when the two teams face off at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
"The players understand that it's a big game on our side," Mitchell said. "It's a big game. I think that's great that it's a rivalry game and people get excited about it and I'm sure there is going to be a large crowd there, and so I think the games have been pretty tough."
There's no reason to think that will change as UK (7-1) enters the latest matchup ranked No. 13, while U of L (7-0) is No. 7. The Cats have won the last three games played between the two teams.
"I think it's going to be an outstanding game," Mitchell said. "I just want us to go over there, have our minds right and play real, real hard against what looks like a real fine basketball team that U of L has."
Louisville seemed likely to take a step back last season without star Shoni Schimmel, who graduated after a decorated career. Watching tape on the Cardinals, that's not what Mitchell sees.
"It's a very, very strong basketball team with some great players that as usual, are very well coached," Mitchell said. "Their performance last night vs. Iowa was extremely impressive."
Louisville dispatched the No. 22 Hawkeyes unceremoniously, taking a 23-point lead by halftime and finishing off an 86-52 win on Thursday. Senior Sara Hammond scored 19 points, while standout freshman and leading scorer Myisha Hines-Allen added 16 points.
"This is nothing against Shoni, but after watching them (Thursday) night, that was one of the most impressive performances that I've seen from them in now eight years," Mitchell said. "I was really impressed with how they played. They have a lot of different weapons."
Nine Cardinals play at least 13.5 minutes per game and four average double figures in scoring, including Hines-Allen, Hammond and freshman Mariya Moore, whom Mitchell called "legit."
"They're just really big and athletic and they played so aggressive," Mitchell said. "They looked so cohesive and it was a very impressive performance to watch on tape this morning. It looked like they are really playing together. They are extremely explosive in transition, very disruptive on defense. They played a lot of man-to-man (Thursday) night and gave Iowa a tremendous amount of problems."
The Cats, of course, are perfectly capable of causing problems too.
UK remains a work in progress, particularly in the post where Mitchell relies on three players who are playing their first college season, but the Cats have already taken down one top-10 opponent this season, Baylor. To duplicate the feat, Mitchell believes there's a clear path for his team to follow.
"I think intensity is going to be the main thing for us," Mitchell said. "We can't do a whole lot in two days as far as sharpening some of the things that we need to sharpen. There are some things that we're doing well. We are running the floor well, and we have some speed and can get up and down the court and try and stress a team by tempo and pace. We are capable of that, and we are sure going to try to see if we can get that done and play to our strengths until we can really get sharp."
In Kentucky's 10th consecutive postseason appearance (and third hosting the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend), a pair of familiar faces forged the Wildcats' way to a win.
"As seniors, Lauren O'Conner and Jackie Napper really led us tonight in their respective responsibilities," said head coach Craig Skinner. "(That) is what you want and need out of your senior group."
In her typical dominating fashion, O'Conner recorded a game-high 14 kills, with a .452 hitting percentage. Along with teammate Kaz Brown, O'Conner also anchored a two-player defensive wall at the net, blocking three balls on her own.
"I was pleased with our effort tonight," Skinner said. "Defensively, holding (Oakland) to .107 (hitting percentage) was a big key."
In the Kentucky backcourt, Napper was responsible for 22 digs--12 more than the Wildcats' next closest player. With 519 total digs on the season, Napper's relentless effort in part earned her SEC Libero of the Year accolades in 2014. However, with less than 24 hours to prepare for their next match, the Cats aren't basking in any of 2014's successes--including Friday's three-set sweep.
"We don't play back-to-back matches, but when we are on the road, we play Friday, practice Saturday, and play on Sunday," Skinner said. "When you get the adrenaline pumping, and you're playing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, (fatigue) becomes less of a factor as execution and the desire to compete."
No. 14 Kentucky (27-5, 15-3 SEC) will face Ohio State (21-11, 12-8 Big Ten) Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET at Memorial Coliseum. Although UK has not faced a Big Ten opponent all season, the Cats are confident that game planning will not be an issue.
"I think we'll be prepared," Napper said. "Ohio State's a great team, and we've got to come out and play the best match of the season."
"Through the SEC, there are always different styles of games," said O'Conner. "I think we do a good job of adjusting throughout the games, and doing the things that we need to do, depending on that team."
With a group led by veterans, Skinner realizes the fine balance between ample preparation and over-analysis as his team heads into the tournament's second round.
"You want to be prepared, but you don't want to over-prepare, either," Skinner said. "We're going to give (the players) information that we've executed on certain teams in the past, and see where it falls."
"We just take it one match at a time," said O'Conner. "After (Friday's victory), we're going to go watch video on Ohio State. This match is past us, and it's all Ohio State now."