The season-turning meeting that Kentucky's seniors called on Tuesday night has been well documented.
The four veterans asked to come to Matthew Mitchell's house to talk about the state of their team entering the final week of the regular season. They told their coach he needed to turn up the discipline and accountability with the Wildcats in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Five days and two wins later - including an upset of No. 2 South Carolina on Sunday - it's clearly worked.
"All of them said, 'Listen, this thing's going to go off the cliff if we don't stop it. But if we stop it, we've got great things we can accomplish,' " Mitchell said. "As you saw something like beating South Carolina today and we were heavy underdogs."
Mitchell had spoken emotionally and at length about the power of the message prior to handing the Gamecocks (27-2, 15-1 Southeastern Conference) their first SEC loss, 67-56, but he had never revealed which senior had actually initiated the meeting. After No. 15/13 UK (21-8, 10-6 SEC) celebrated Senior Day with a signature win, he did.
It wasn't the most likely suspect. In spite of remaining the consistent vocal presence she's been throughout her four years, it wasn't Bria Goss who placed that phone call. It was Jennifer O'Neill, the soft-spoken fifth-year guard, which made it all the more meaningful.
"I was so happy that they called the meeting," Mitchell said. "And that Jen called the meeting - Jen was the person that called me - because Bria's been a rock her entire career and she's just done everything she can do. She's really worked hard. And I'd really been after Jennifer to step up and accept her importance to this team."
O'Neill has always been a potent scorer, capable of outbursts like the program-record 43 points she poured in against Baylor a season ago. She's always been a gifted player who can take over a game at a moment's notice, but she's still shied away from the spotlight at times.
"Her importance to the program is something that she has not always embraced," Mitchell said. "And I just could hear in her voice for the first time it kind of hit her. Like, 'This thing is winding down and I need to meet with you. All of us need to meet with you.' "
O'Neill, motivated by mounting losses and the on-rushing end of her college career, stepped up. Her willingness to do so is already paying off.
"When we had the three-game losing streak, it was just miserable," O'Neill said. "I hate losing and just to get this win meant a lot."
In both the win on Sunday and Thursday's potentially even more important victory at Arkansas, O'Neill proved it wasn't just talk either. She scored a team-high 15 points and added a career-high-tying eight rebounds, but her defense was even more important.
"She was all over the place," Mitchell said. "She really understood the game plan. She was really terrific defensively and I think that's what this team needs her to do. The offense will be there. It'll come. But we need her to be a lockdown defender."
Once again, O'Neill stepping up meant a great deal.
"Thursday night, her defense changed the game," Mitchell said. "I've always wanted her to value defense. When we've been good this year, she's cranked it up on defense. And she did it again today. She was the energy defensively that changed it. Bria's always there. Bria's always there. And so sometimes when you're always there, you're taken for granted."
The only time O'Neill wasn't there to provide a defensive spark was when she was on the bench saddled with foul trouble.
With 11:35 left, O'Neill picked up her fourth foul and went to the bench. At the time, UK had a commanding 48-29 lead on the strength of stifling defense spearheaded by O'Neill. Over the next six minutes, South Carolina outscored Kentucky 17-5 to trim the deficit to seven. It was then that Mitchell reinserted her as part of offense-defense substitutions with Linnae Harper.
"I was thinking I need to get back in," O'Neill said. "And once I got back in, I was just like, 'I have to play smart.' "
O'Neill promptly earned and hit two free-throw attempts to steady the ship. The Gamecocks would get no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
"It was a great performance and we need her to do that down the stretch," Mitchell said. "We might can do something special."
With UK set to open the SEC Tournament as the No. 6 seed on Thursday night at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET against either Vanderbilt or Alabama, O'Neill feels the same way.
"I just think we have to focus on what we're doing right now that makes us such a great team, constantly communicating with each other and showing up for practice and not taking any days off," O'Neill said.
When No. 2 South Carolina makes its way to Lexington on March 1, the stakes will be much higher for No. 13 Kentucky than a typical rematch with the toughest opponent on the Wildcats' schedule.
Sunday's game marks the last time seniors Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, and Jelleah Sidney will ever take the floor at Memorial Coliseum. However, because of their accomplishments off the court, as well as on it, head coach Matthew Mitchell believes their legacy will live in UK lore forever.
"The seniors have had a great week, and in my mind, have really solidified their standing in this program, and how they'll be remembered for the job they did this week," Mitchell said. "Not just winning the game (Thursday at Arkansas), but the responsibility that they took on, and the passion that they have for the program, and the insight that they gave me to help coach the team better."
After rattling off three straight wins, the Cats dropped three in a row at the hands of No. 6 Tennessee (in Knoxville), at home versus No. 15 Texas A&M and on the road at Ole Miss. Before Kentucky's latest contest with the Razorbacks, UK's four seniors organized a private meeting with their head coach to discuss the state of the program and the prospect of administering adjustments before the season comes to an end.
"As a coach, you're trying to give your players the ability to grow up and be adults, and do what they need to do and learn," said Mitchell. "You don't want to be such a taskmaster all of the time, but that's what this particular group needed right now. (They were) kind of down in a funk and on a downward spiral."
Mitchell's seniors realized the team was on a negative trajectory, so they made sure their concerns were vocalized.
"They basically said, 'Hey, listen. If you don't step in here and really shake this thing up, and let people know this is a serious deal, I don't think it's going to change,'" Mitchell said. "Nobody was acting up, nobody was acting ugly, nobody was out late at night partying. It was just young kids lacking focus. We need to mature as a basketball team, and I needed to take a greater role of how the structure of the day has unfolded."
It wasn't the content of Tuesday's impromptu meeting that had Mitchell so taken aback with the leadership of his four seniors, but rather the initiative the group showed by calling the meeting in the first place.
"It's not anything earth-shattering," said Mitchell. "I just think it's more powerful. At this point of the season, they could have just said, 'Hey, I'm out the door here in 30 days, and I've had a good run. We've won the SEC, and we've been a championship-caliber program,' and just rolled off into the sunset. But, they care enough to say, 'Hey, Coach, we need a little bit more structure. We need to get focused.' "
Kentucky's top three contributing seniors -- O'Neill, Goss and Bishop -- combined for 34 of UK's 56 points in the Cats' win over the Hogs following Tuesday's consultation. The remarkability of one of the all-time most accomplished senior classes in school history has continued to shine throughout each season over the past four years.
O'Neill came to Kentucky as a consensus top-30 high school prospect and the first McDonald's All-American in program history. After missing her entire sophomore season in 2011-12 with a right foot stress fracture, O'Neill emerged as a full-time starter in 2012-13 and led the Wildcats to a 27-5 (13-3 SEC) record and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
As a redshirt junior, O'Neill led Kentucky in scoring off the bench (with 12.6 PPG) en route to being named SEC Co-6th Player of the Year and All-SEC Second Team. This year, the 5-foot-6 Bronx native is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 PPG, and leads the Cats in 3-point field goals by a large margin.
Named the state of Indiana's Miss Basketball in 2011, Goss made her presence known upon her first season in Lexington as a freshman in 2011-12. After starting every game, the 5-foot-10 defensive specialist was named SEC Freshman of the Year on the Wildcats' road to the Elite Eight. S
tarting in 56 of UK's 71 games over the next two seasons, Goss entered 2014-15 as the one of five former McDonald's All-Americans on the Kentucky roster. The Indianapolis native averages 8.9 PPG and 3.6 RPG on the year.
As a freshman, Bishop led the team in blocked shots with 31, good for fifth most by a freshman in school history. As a junior, she recorded a career-high five blocks in one contest, tied for UK's sixth most in one game by any player. At 6-foot-3, the Toledo native is the tallest player on Kentucky's roster. Bishop averages 6.4 PPG and 5.6 RPG on the season, accounting for 48 blocks in 2014-15.
Unlike her three senior colleagues, Sidney is in only her third season in a Kentucky uniform. The former high school teammate of O'Neill began her collegiate career at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where she averaged 11.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG in 2011-12.
Appearing in 57 games as a sophomore and junior, Sidney sealed her Wildcat legacy in the 2013 NCAA Tournament with an outstanding defensive effort on eventual No. 2 overall WNBA Draft selection Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. The 6-foot-2 post player averages two points and 3.4 rebounds in 10.8 minutes per game this season.
When Sunday afternoon's monstrous matchup with South Carolina is all said and done, Mitchell will remember his latest group of seniors for much more than baskets and rebounds.
"I'll just remember Tuesday night when they came to my house and let me know what I needed to do," Mitchell said. "They also let me know what the program has meant to them, and you couldn't have tripled my bank account, or bought me a new car, or sent me on a vacation, or anything that would have been worth what Tuesday night was. No matter what happens going forward, what happened in that meeting... that solidified their legacy to me."
Kentucky (20-8, 9-6 SEC) will face South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) March 1 at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gamecocks defeated the Wildcats 68-60 in Columbia, S.C. earlier this season.
"They've accomplished a lot on the court, but what they did on Tuesday night was more valuable than anything they could have ever done," Mitchell said. "They were not only concerned about this season and how we finished, but they were concerned about us going forward and what our young players needed to learn right now so a year from now, they would know what to do and how we needed to be. To me, that summed it up for them. So now we are really motivated to try and finish strong, and I think we are capable of that."
Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 84-67 win over Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
From the opening moments, you could sense Andrew Harrison was about to have a big game.
The way he dribbled screamed confidence. The way he was attacking, he seemed certain no one would stop him.
Not surprisingly, his coach took notice too.
"It's a spirit," John Calipari said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play."
No one felt it more acutely than the Arkansas players who had the unfortunate task of trying to shadow him on Saturday.
Harrison was in control from tip to buzzer as top-ranked Kentucky (29-0, 16-0 Southeastern Conference) led by as many as 31 in a victory over No. 18/16 Arkansas (23-6, 13-5 SEC) more dominant than the final score of 84-67 suggests. He had 18 points, three rebounds and three assists as UK clinched its 46th SEC regular-season title outright and moved to within two wins of a perfect regular season.
"I felt like I could get into the lane and find my teammates and score if they give me that," said Harrison, who made 2-of-4 3-point tries and 8 of 8 at the line. "I was just taking things given to me today."
Harrison also gave very little back.
The sophomore point guard committed just two turnovers in steadying UK against Arkansas' patented pressure. The Wildcats had nine turnovers as a team in 70 possessions, putting their turnover percentage at .129, well below the 22.9 percent Razorback opponents are averaging on the season.
By contrast, Harrison committed eight of UK's 35 turnovers in a pair of losses to Arkansas during his freshman season.
"We just remember last year," Harrison said. "We lost to them twice and didn't want that to happen again. We knew what they were capable of and we worked hard and came out with a win."
Harrison may have gleaned an added edge from the memory of those two losses, but it wasn't as if the spirit Coach Cal noticed in him appeared out of nowhere. In eight February games, Harrison is averaging 10.6 points, 4.5 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game, marked improvements in all three categories compared to his season totals.
"He doesn't stop on the court," Calipari said. "There's nothing. 'I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled.' "
Harrison has shown that kind of attitude in spurts over the course of his two Kentucky seasons, but never more consistently than this recent stretch.
"I had it when I got here," Harrison said. "It's just--you have to be ready to bring it every night. That's what you have to be prepared to do. That comes with maturity and stuff like that, I guess."
Improved conditioning doesn't hurt either.
"It's hard (to play the way Calipari asks me to play)," Harrison said. "You have to be in good shape. Not only do you have to push the ball on offense, but you have to pressure the ball on defense as well."
As much progress as Harrison has made, Calipari still thinks he can reach another level.
"I still want him to get to the rim more," Calipari said. "I thought he had two or three or four other opportunities to drive the ball, which I'm telling his brother the same thing. Don't settle, man. We threw it to him on the wing. It was him and no other defenders except the guy on him. Don't pass it to anybody. Drive the ball. You're 6(-foot-)6, you're a moose. Get the ball by the guy, get in the lane, shoot the layup."
If anyone understands what Coach Cal is asking, it's Tyler Ulis, Harrison's fellow point guard. Ulis also understands what Harrison means to Kentucky when he delivers.
"Andrew's playing great," said Ulis, who had 14 points himself. "When he's aggressive and pushes the ball he's one of the best players, one of the best point guards in the country. When he's doing that he's a great player and I feel like if he understands that and does it all the time then we're just going to be a great team."
Devin Booker leads Kentucky into a top-25 matchup with Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As much as John Calipari tells them to avoid it, the Wildcats can't help but hear.
They don't seek it out, but they hear the talk about their unbeaten run and pursuit of perfection. They hear how many fans throughout the country want them to lose and how Arkansas, Kentucky's next opponent, could be the team to finally make it happen.
They hear and they respond.
"When we hear that a team is going to challenge us, you know, could beat us, in some aspects we take it personally," Trey Lyles said. "We want to go out there and show those people who said that differently and just go out there and compete."
The top-ranked Cats (28-0, 15-0 Southeastern Conference) can be sure the No. 18/16 Razorbacks (23-5, 12-3 SEC) will do the same on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. Needing a win to prevent Kentucky from clinching the conference regular-season title outright, Arkansas - UK's first ranked opponent in two months - will be ready.
"They will not be in awe of us," associate head coach Kenny Payne said. "They won't be intimidated. They'll come in with some confidence. But we will, too. We'll come in knowing that we're a different team, that we're going to get after them just like they're going to get after us."
Payne felt it necessary to point out UK is a different team because the previous edition of the Cats lost twice to Arkansas a season ago. Kentucky has dropped three straight to the Razorbacks overall, meaning no member of the regular rotation has won a game against Arkansas, a team led by Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, combining to average 32.7 points per game.
"I just think that they have a competitive edge about them," Payne said. "They know that this team has beaten us twice, and they'll go out and compete."
UK's returners haven't been vocal about wanting to even the score against Arkansas, but their younger teammates are pretty sure the feeling is bubbling beneath the surface.
"I think they definitely remember," Lyles said. "They talk about it quite a lot now since the game is coming up, so I think they're going to have a little bit more energy and passion going out there tomorrow night."
Energy and passion will be at a premium against Arkansas, a team known for its up-tempo, high-pressure brand of basketball. The Razorbacks rank 15th nationally in defensive turnover percentage and sixth in adjusted tempo according to kenpom.com.
"I think Arkansas is the type of team that creates a lot of turnovers," Payne said. "They play well against us. It will be a great game tomorrow. We have to handle their pressure."
Payne compared Arkansas' pressure to Louisville's, which forced UK to commit a season-high-tying 18 turnovers. The Razorbacks, however, play at a different pace than the Cardinals, though Devin Booker has no reason to think the Cats won't be able to handle it.
"I feel like we can slow it down or we can play fast paced," Booker said. "With so many weapons that we have, we can just adjust to any type of game play. I think it will be a good challenge for us because we haven't really played an up-tempo game like they play in a while."
Most opponents have chosen to attack the deep, talented Wildcats by slowing the pace. UK, to this point, has passed every such test. Arkansas now presents a different kind of challenge.
"What it does is, defensively their style is making you play basketball," Payne said. "So if you think you're going to just catch the basketball, hold the ball, run offense, set offensive plays, it's not happening. They will force you to attack and hopefully teams that handle it have success; teams that don't, they struggle."
Whether Arkansas' style is the way to topple the last unbeaten team in the nation remains to be seen, but the Cats don't mind the chance to toss the shackles of a plodding, half-court game aside.
"I feel like we have good enough players to play basketball, so it'll be a good time," Booker said.
Trey Lyles scored a career-high 18 points in UK's win at Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Trey Lyles had just played arguably his best college game.
The freshman forward scored a career high at Mississippi State on Wednesday, showing the kind of versatility 6-foot-10 players aren't supposed to have.
But afterward, John Calipari was thinking bigger.
"He should have had 25 today," Calipari said, with a caveat. "But I thought he played well."
Lyles would have to settle for 18 points and six rebounds as top-ranked Kentucky moved to 28-0 (15-0 Southeastern Conference) with a 74-56 win in snowy Starkville, Miss. The Indianapolis native got off to a quick start, scoring the Wildcats' first basket on a lob dunk and 13 points within the first 15 minutes to make the illness that forced him to miss three games a not-so-distant memory.
"He's just getting healthy," Calipari said. "He's getting back to being who he is. You're talking two-three weeks, I don't know exactly how long he was out, but he was out awhile."
During the time Lyles spent away from his team, part of his treatment was to eat as much possible to avoid dropping pounds. He managed to stay near his listed weight of 235 pounds and now he's working to reach his pre-sickness fitness level.
"Lifting weights and doing extra stuff to try and get back to where I was, and I feel like I'm very close to that," Lyles said.
With Lyles on his way in that regard, Coach Cal is asking him to pick it up in terms of aggressiveness as well. Lyles is sixth among Wildcats in scoring, attempting barely six field goals per game, and Calipari doesn't think that's enough.
"My thing to him is, dominate," Calipari said. "Dominate rebounding around the rim. One-dribble pull-ups. Guard. Block shots. Do everything. You're capable of doing it."
It's the everything that makes Lyles so unique.
While Willie Cauley-Stein might create the most highlights with his high-flying dunks and Karl-Anthony Towns the most NBA Draft buzz with his potential and production, Lyles has a quieter game. Splitting time between the perimeter and the post, Lyles does what's asked of him and does it well.
"Maybe by (the media), but no one that evaluates basketball (overlooks Lyles)," Calipari said. "They know how good he is. They know what he's preparing for. I mean, he's being trained as a three. He's a 6-10, three-four and he's being trained as a three. All I want him to do is shoot more balls."
For the coach of a team playing one of the deepest rotations in the country, that's somewhat of an odd thing to have to tell a player to shoot more. Calipari, however, has good reason for doing so.
"I still think at the end of the day he'll be the X-factor for us," Calipari said. "He'll be the guy that they struggle to guard, that has offensive skills, that can still give us great size and rebounding ability."
Lyles has made an immediate difference since his return to the lineup. With him in the fold, UK has won the rebounding battle in four of five games after being outrebounded in three of the previous five.
Now Coach Cal is hoping Lyles can use his performance against Mississippi State as a springboard to being a spark in other areas.
"Let's say this is the start, maybe, of something," Calipari said.
In the midst of a historic NBA trade deadline that saw a record 39 players shuffled around the league, three former Cats were traded on February 19. Brandon Knight, fresh off a second-place finish in last weekend's All-Star Skills Challenge, was traded for the second time in his three-and-a-half-year career. Knight was moved from the Milwaukee Bucks (where he averaged 17.8 points and 5.4 assists per game) to the Phoenix Suns, where he will join Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin in the backcourt. Knight's college teammate Enes Kanter was dealt from the Utah Jazz (where he was selected third overall in the 2011 NBA Draft) to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lastly, former 2001 SEC Player of the Year Tayshaun Prince was traded for the second time this season. The four-time NBA All-Defensive Second Team performer was moved from the Boston Celtics (after a five-week stint with the team) back to the Detroit Pistons, where he spent the first 10 and a half seasons of his career and won his only NBA championship in 2003-04. Performance of the Week
DeMarcus Cousins | Sacramento Kings: 109, Boston Celtics: 103 In Sacramento's first game since February 11, Cousins scored 31 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a six-point win at home on February 20. The 6-foot-11 former Wildcat averages 23.9 PPG and 12.3 RPG on the season.
Cats in the Spotlight
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (19-35) In addition to Friday's monster double-double outing, Cousins scored 21 points the very next day in a 126-99 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The two games were the Kings' first under new head coach George Karl. Archie Goodwin | #20 SG | Phoenix Suns (29-27) After trading away the lion's share of Phoenix's distributable backcourt minutes in Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Suns opened playing time for second-year player Archie Goodwin. The Arkansas native twice matched a season-high 12 points in two games this weekend. Goodwin averaged 19.0 minutes per game in the two Phoenix losses.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (22-31) In his first game back since suffering a right hamstring injury that kept him out of two Hornets contests, Kidd-Gilchrist scored 20 points (on 4-for-4 free-throw shooting), grabbed four rebounds, and recorded three steals on February 21. Charlotte lost to the Thunder, 110-103.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (12-42) With a stat line that Sixers head coach Brett Brown called "fantastic," Noel went down in Philadelphia basketball history on February 20. After blocking five shots in the game's first 10 minutes, Noel finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, nine blocks, and four steals on the day. The 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year became the first NBA rookie to record such a stat line since steals and blocks were initially tracked in 1973-74. John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (33-22) Despite a 127-89 blowout loss at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wall logged 18 points, nine assists, and five rebounds on February 20. Wall made what many considered to be the Wizards' play of the game in a firsthand showcase of his nonstop competitive motor.
Matthew Mitchell and Kentucky will look to snap a two-game losing streak at Ole Miss on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Three weeks of games don't get much more difficult than the one UK Hoops just went through.
"All schedules aren't created equal in the Southeastern Conference," Matthew Mitchell said, "and we've had a real, real rough stretch."
Five of the Wildcats' last six games have come against ranked opponents, most recently including a stretch of three straight against top-15 teams. No. 11/10 UK (19-7, 8-5 SEC) has survived it with three wins, but lost back-to-back games to close it out, both by double digits.
On Thursday, the Cats fell behind by as many as 23 points in an 81-69 defeat at the hands of Texas A&M. In the loss, the Aggies got to the rim at will and didn't even need to attempt a 3-pointer to top the 80-point mark.
"Well, there's two things and one's on me," Mitchell said. "I really need to get our half-court defense shored up. And that's my responsibility from a schematic standpoint I need to get a couple things taken care of there and then the energy is on them and we had a good discussion about that (Friday)."
UK's first opportunity to address that energy comes on Monday at Ole Miss (15-11, 5-8 SEC). The Cats will have their regular Thursday-Sunday schedule interrupted by the SEC Network's Monday Night Showcase, but Mitchell doesn't see that as a bad thing.
"(Ole Miss head coach) Matt (Insell) has them playing extremely hard and he's just done an amazing job with their turnaround," Mitchell said. "So tough game for us and we're going to really put a poor performance behind us last night and focus on getting better defensively today. So actually is good we have an extra day to do that."
The game will be a rematch between the Cats and Rebels, with UK winning a tough one on Jan. 4, 64-58. It wasn't a work of art, but the win does offer a lesson.
"So we watched the A&M game, and then we popped the Ole Miss game in and our energy level - we didn't do everything right that day, and we weren't just fantastic on offense, but we played much more energetic than we did (Thursday) night," Mitchell said. "That was good for the players to see. That's how you need to play."
A two-game losing streak has made the big wins the Cats have notched this season a distant memory, but Mitchell is working to remind them what they're capable of.
"You know, over the course of a 35-game season it's a long season and I just don't think you can get too weighed down when you sort of hit a little trough like it seems like we're in," Mitchell said. "We've always found some way to bounce back from that and we have to stay real positive and real encouraging."
He's convinced they'll bounce back again.
"I won't stop believing in this team," Mitchell said. "What's great about basketball is that if you can get it right at the end of the year, that's the best time to get it right. I am very optimistic that we can help our players do a better job defensively and we are going to work at that today."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in a 110-75 win over Auburn. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl knew all about Kentucky's post play even before he brought his Auburn team to Rupp Arena.
On Saturday, he witnessed it up close and in person.
"They are very physical defensively," Pearl said. "And it's nothing like anything we've seen all year long. What they do offensively as far as pounding it inside, there's nobody in the league who's even close to that."
And by the Wildcats' high standards, they even turned things up a notch for the Tigers.
No. 1 UK, in moving to 27-0 (14-0 Southeastern Conference), was dominant in a 110-75 win. The Cats overwhelmed with their strength and length, outscoring the Tigers 62-24 in the paint and outrebounding them by a margin of 44-22.
The Cats came in waves with Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson leading the way. Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, while Johnson had 13 points and six rebounds in just 16 minutes.
"I thought Karl and Dakari were outstanding today," John Calipari said. "The other guys all played pretty well but those two stood out."
Towns' performance continued a run of recent strong play, with Saturday being his fifth double-digit scoring performance in seven games and third double-double of the stretch. Johnson, on the other hand, had a breakout game of sorts.
The 7-foot sophomore has struggled at times to score in the post this season, but experienced no such issues against Auburn. He made 6 of 7 from the field and made quick, decisive moves in doing so.
"It's about getting deeper position," Johnson said. "That's what Coach has been telling me, so I won't have to take as many dribbles and stuff. I can take one or two dribbles then go right up. That's what we've been trying to focus on the last couple of games."
Johnson's worthiest opposition on Saturday wasn't the opposition at all. It was Marcus Lee.
Midway through the second half, Johnson found himself in prime offensive-rebounding position when Devin Booker missed a short jumper. But instead of Johnson grabbing the rebound and putting it in for an easy two points, Lee streaked in trailing the play and dunked over his teammate.
"I tried to get the offensive rebound and then somebody just came over the back," Johnson said. "I was like--I was mad at first because it was my offensive rebound, then I saw Marcus. So it was crazy."
Johnson went sprawling and Lee tripped over him.
"We were very confused, because we both ended up on the floor, and he was like, 'You jumped over me and fell on me,' " said Lee, who had six points and eight rebounds on the night when Tony Delk, who preceded Lee in wearing number 00, had his jersey retired. "I was like, 'Sorry.' It was kind of like a big awkwardness."
Awkwardness aside, the play gave a little insight into what it looks like when the Cats go at each other on the practice floor at the Joe Craft Center.
"It's either, us going at each other and ending up fighting each other," Lee said. "... I think that's how we honestly get better is we always go at each other, even though we're on the same team. I'm always going at Willie, and Dakari and Karl are always going at each other and they're not stopping at any point. Cal has to stop because he thinks we're getting too rough. That's how our practices make us better."
For a brief time, Coach Cal backed off in practice anticipating the stretch run. The result, however, was a step back in games, most notably in the post. But in recent weeks, he's turned the heat back on. UK's smothering of Auburn is proof it's working.
"That's something we've really been focusing on lately," Lee said. "We've been doing that for a while - for the past, I guess, four or five games - because for a while, as a big team, we knew we were struggling getting stuff done."
There was no such struggle on Saturday.
Their inside presence reestablished and Johnson and Towns scoring at will on post-up opportunities, the Cats forced Auburn into a series of impossible defensive choices in scoring a season-high 110 points.
"So are they going to try to front the post?" Calipari said. "Are they going to try to trap? If they do trap, are they trapping from a big guy? Are they trapping from a guard? Are they just going to dig? And then we had to play off of it, and we played well off of it. We kicked it out for 3s. We kicked it out for drives. We posted the ball when the court was spread."
UK converted 6-of-17 3-point tries, just below UK's shooting percentage of .362 in SEC play, making the Tigers pay for sending bodies at UK's bigs.
"They hunt shots," Pearl said. "They want them. If anybody goes zone now, their eyes get big, you know? That's a good thing. They throw it down in the post. They hardly wait for it to get kicked back out. And the deal is, they're so much more dominant on the inside, because those guys can score down there."
With Kentucky's interior play rounding into form and the rest falling into place behind it, the Cats appear well positioned to peak come March.
"I mean, I call it baby steps," Lee said. "Every time you kind of just get better each time until you actually start walking. That's how we're getting it. We're taking our time knowing that we know where we have to be when March hits. So, we're just trying to get there at some point. We're not really in a rush."
Former UK gymnast Jenny Hansen is the only woman to win three straight NCAA all-around title (1993-95). She also captures NCAA titles on the balance beam (1994, 1995), vault (1994, 1995) and floor exercise (1995). (UK Athletics)
During a 7 p.m. meet vs. Arkansas in Memorial Coliseum, Jenny Hansen -- the greatest gymnast in Kentucky history -- will be honored with a jersey retirement ceremony. Jersey retirement is considered the highest honor UK Athletics can bestow, and it's a deserving one for Hansen, who won eight national championships during pretty much the most decorated career a college gymnast can have.
Ahead of Hansen's big night, we are republishing this story, which originally ran in the summer of 2011.
To call Jenny Hansen's career as a gymnast at the University of Kentucky "decorated" would be a gross understatement. Running down a list of her achievements is mind-boggling in and of itself.
Eight NCAA gymnastics championship titles. A record three straight all-around titles from 1993 to 1995. Thirteen All-America honors. Kentucky Sportsman of the Year in 1995. Most outstanding gymnast of the past 25 years as recognized by the NCAA.
Simply put, she's still the greatest gymnast in program history and one of the best student-athletes to don UK's colors.
For Hansen, though, the honors that meant the most were her inductions into the hall of fames for both UK and the state of Kentucky. Being recognized alongside fellow inductees like Pat Riley, Allan Houston, Tim Couch and Hillerich & Bradsby (the makers of Louisville Slugger baseball bats) was an experience that stopped Hansen in her tracks.
"It's kind of surreal," Hansen said. "I think of myself as Jenny Hansen. I'm Jen. I'm Hansen. I'm just me. I've been given this amazing gift and this incredible talent to be able to do what I can do. For the University of Kentucky and the state of Kentucky to recognize me and put me in their hall of fame, I was just blown away. There are no words really to explain it."
Humility and self-awareness are traits that we look for in athletes, but finding them in genuine form is often a tall task. With Hansen, they are unmistakable. She recognizes that the natural talent that she has been blessed with is a gift; a gift that has taken her places she could not possibly have foreseen; a gift that she believes she is responsible for stewarding and continuing to share with others.
It's that kind of attitude that has brought Hansen back to the place that made her a hall of famer: the gym. Her return started out as a foray into the world of television when a friend called her while Hansen was living and working in North Dakota.
"Two years ago, one of my best friends is a stunt woman, she called me up when I was living in North Dakota and she said, 'You need to train again, there's a show,' " Hansen said.
The cable television channel ABC Family was beginning filming on a new show that needed skilled gymnasts. Hansen picked up and moved to Simi Valley, Calif., for the new gig.
"I started training for this show called 'Make It or Break It,' " Hansen said. "It's an ABC Family show and it's about four girls that are trying to make the Olympics in gymnastics. They needed gymnasts and I ended up being a gymnastics double on the show and then I did background work and things like that."
Hansen had not seriously trained for a while, but the competitive fire that still burned inside of her responded in a way that she didn't foresee. She took her workouts "to the highest level" and found that her substantial talents had not yet been lost to the hands of time. Production on the second season of the show wrapped in December, but Hansen was not willing to end things there.
In fact, she has even higher aspirations. More than 15 years removed from her final season at UK, Hansen is trying to re-enter the elite level of gymnastics competition.
"That was for two years and at the end of December, we just finished up season two and during that time I guess I just started feeling like I wanted to continue on and keep working on it," Hansen said. "My ultimate goal would be to get to the Olympics but my current goal is just to try to get on the national team."
Of all sports, gymnastics is one that perhaps belongs most to the young. The roster of the United States national team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics included three 16-year-old gymnasts, one 18-year-old and two 20-year-olds. For perspective, Hansen was in college in the mid 1990s.
Hansen recognizes the challenge in front of her and embraces it. She is just a couple weeks away from the next milestone in her comeback. She will be participating in an elite qualifier on July 2 in Houston and there are two more meets on the horizon if things go according to plan.
"If I get the qualifying score, I'll get to go to the Cover Girl Classic and that's in Chicago," Hansen said. "In Chicago, hopefully I'll get the qualifying score to go to the Visa Championships in St. Paul (Minn.). This year that's my ultimate goal."
Hansen has learned the hard way that there is a reason why youth is favored in gymnastics, but the journey has been enjoyable nonetheless.
"There are a few little injuries that pop up, so I've had to back off my training a little bit, then I go back to it," Hansen said. "It's frustrating, but at the same time it's so much fun."
Naturally, Hansen is the type of athlete that will push herself to the brink in her preparation, even if the odds tell her that her chances of succeeding are extremely slim. Being more advanced in age than the last time she competed, Hansen has learned how to listen to what her own body is saying.
"It's taken a bit for me to listen to my body and what it needs," Hansen said. "I just can't stop and not work and everything is going to start piling up. It's my responsibility, as an adult, to keep myself afloat."
Also helping in her efforts is her sister, who serves as her coach for meets.
"I was talking to my middle sister who was on the national team in 1986 or 1987," Hansen said, "and I said, 'I don't know what to do. I don't have a coach and I have to go to this meet.' And she said, 'I'll be your coach.' She registered with USA Gymnastics. She got her coaching registration, she got all of this stuff and at the meets, she's my coach. It's really great."
While Hansen calls training her "full-time job," she still spends time as a personal trainer for a few clients and as a coach at her gym in California.
"I do a little personal training on the side, since out here you have to do everything," Hansen said. "I do a little personal training; I just have three clients. They're so much fun and I love working with them. I incorporate the gymnastics that I know and the things that I'm learning now. It's fun. I like encouraging these women. I also coach at the gym that I train at, only two days a week."
Once her gymnastics career reaches a conclusion, Hansen isn't willing to restrict herself to a single profession. Rest assured, though, she'll be using her talents and background as a gymnast, whether as a stunt woman, a trainer or a coach.
"That's my ultimate goal, to stay in the stunt world," Hansen said. "I would really like to do personal training and motivate people and maybe even motivate kids just to have fun in the sports that they do. There's so many things that I love doing and I want to stay in everything. I don't want to have just one occupation."
Whatever the future holds, much of Hansen's foundation was established during her time at the University of Kentucky. Though it was two decades ago, Hansen still looks back at her college experience fondly, from competition to academics to social life.
"An amazing experience," Hansen said. "I can't say enough about (then-UK head coach) Leah Little and (assistant coach) Tim Myers. I loved UK. I loved the college experience, I loved my roommates."
Hansen was especially full of praise for the athletic training staff during her time at UK, as well as her professors and classmates that she got to know as she worked toward her degree in animal science equine. Hansen had to cope with dyslexia as a student and said that without the support and tutoring at Kentucky's Center for Academic and Tutorial Services, her success in school would not have been possible.
"The CATS program was amazing," Hansen said. "Mike Haley, he was my adviser and he was the best. I would ask Mike what classes I should take and he was like, 'OK, Hansen, this is what you're going to do.' Being a student-athlete, you're so focused on (sports) that it was nice to have that CATS program to help you through so many difficulties, especially because I am dyslexic. That was a big help in my school."
Hansen has had the chance to briefly introduce herself to UK's newly-minted gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison and had a very positive impression about where he will take the program. She said that she was impressed by the work Garrison did with a gymnastics team in California close to Hansen's home.
"He was really great," Hansen said. "It's crazy that he's only the third coach at UK. I wish him success. I saw that he coached out here and he got a couple girls to nationals and things."
Little, Hansen's coach at UK, was largely responsible for the founding of the gymnastics program at the school. If there is one thing about Little that Hansen hopes Garrison can duplicate, it is the infusion of a spirit of fun into training and competition.
"I hope he keeps it fun for the girls," Hansen said. "That's what Leah was so wonderful at. She pushed us, but she let us enjoy our college experience. If we had problems, she would talk to us. There were times when I would just need a hug and she said OK and it was always such a heartfelt hug. She was right there with us. When we were crying, she would try to console us."
Finding perspective isn't always an easy thing for a coach.
Since the goal is constant improvement, Matthew Mitchell can't always separate himself from that.
"You just kind of view your team differently," Mitchell said. "You know all of the deficiencies your team has and you know what you feel like they're capable of doing and what they're not doing and all those things kind of roll into you maybe being a little more critical of your team than anyone else's."
But when he takes a step back, Mitchell can remember that Kentucky is in a good place. The No. 11/10 Wildcats (19-6, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) are well-positioned for the postseason. UK is in the top 10 of the RPI and currently projected to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games, an impressive fact considering the Cats have dealt with a month-long injury to senior defensive stopper Bria Goss and a season-ending one suffered by point guard Janee Thompson.
"I think all in all it could a lot different right now," Mitchell said. "So I'm really, really proud of the position they've put themselves in. We just need to finish. We need to finish and keep getting better. I think if we can do that we can do some special things here down the stretch."
The stretch run for Kentucky begins with a Thursday matchup with No. 15 Texas A&M (20-6, 8-4 SEC) that will go on as scheduled in spite of winter weather in Lexington. The Aggies are led by dynamic juniors Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker, who are averaging a combined 29.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
"Texas A&M is a very good team," Mitchell said. "Some of the best players in the conference are on their team. It will be a difficult challenge. Our team is upbeat and excited for the game, and we are going to work hard and see if we can earn a very, very important victory for our team."
The victory is important because the Cats and Aggies are competing not only in the SEC but for NCAA Tournament seeding. The two teams are currently knotted in conference standings in pursuit of a bye in the SEC Tournament and separated by a single seed line in ESPN.com's latest Bracketology. UK is a No. 3 and Texas A&M No. 4.
"It would be a significant victory," Mitchell said. "We're right there with them in competition for some positioning in the SEC and probably the NCAA, too. So, it's a big game. Big game tomorrow night. The thing I tell the team is that we still have an opportunity to get it together and really play some good basketball and see how good we can be."
As has been the case most of the season, Mitchell is targeting improvement first in the post. With a group now made up of two seniors and three freshmen with the return of veteran Jelleah Sidney, inconsistency has been an issue, including in a loss on Sunday at Tennessee.
UK was outrebounded 46-36 in the loss, a far cry from the 39-38 advantage the Cats enjoyed in a previous matchup with the Lady Volunteers.
"That was just a real rough game," Mitchell said. "It was a real rough game and if you didn't stick your nose in there and really play tough you weren't going to be successful. That's what I was disappointed in. I just thought we were out-toughed in the post a lot of times."
The Aggies are capable of inflicting damage similar to what Tennessee did if they Cats don't come ready.
"They look like an A&M team: Big and physical in the post, a good power game and if you don't play real, real tough they can make some plays and have great size," Mitchell said. "It's a very good A&M team and really tough in the post. We'll have to play well."