UK will host Alabama State for Homecoming at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops sees signs.
Whether it's an impressive defensive stop or a methodical drive, he can't miss the progress Kentucky has made seven games into the season. With each passing week -- save for a blip against Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team -- UK gets closer to putting together a total team effort, but wins continue to elude the Wildcats.
"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations."
Looking at the offensive side of the ball alone, Neal Brown sees the same thing.
"You know, I think we've had bits and pieces of success along the way," Brown said. "We just haven't been able to sustain it. That's the thing that's been frustrating is, we've done some really good things."
With a reprieve from the SEC grind awaiting them on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET for Homecoming vs. Alabama State (CSS), the Cats are looking to string together four quarters of "really good things." More importantly, they're looking to string together four quarters that will end in a victory.
"We gotta take advantage of each one that we can get," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So this week the focus is like it has been all year: come out and try to get a win."
The Cats knew as soon as the schedule came out that the five-game stretch they just wrapped up would be tough, and it proved to be just that. UK went winless against Louisville and four conference foes, so the Cats are without a victory since Miami (Ohio) came to town on Sept. 7.
UK, however, has been consistently competitive. Only against Alabama were the Cats completely out of contention in the second half and UK's last two road games against South Carolina and Mississippi State came down to the final possession.
"I think if you've noticed us as a program each week, no matter who we're playing, I think we gave ourselves a real chance to go out there and compete and win that game, and that's what we're looking for," Stoops said. "The preparation, the effort, and go out and play and give yourself a chance to win. We're never going to concede anything."
Nor will Alabama State concede anything.
The Hornets, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, are winners of six straight. They have scored at least 31 points each of those victories and figure to come to Lexington confident and ready to play.
"They should be feeling good about themselves," Stoops said.
On offense, Alabama State averages 261.8 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per carry. The Hornets have two runners with at least 740 yards through eight games and a sound passing offense to go with them.
"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well. But again, they've got great balance."
For all that balance, running back Isaiah Crowell still sticks out. The junior ran for 850 yards as a freshman at Georgia in 2011 before transferring to Alabama State. In less than two full seasons there, he has 27 touchdowns.
"They do have some talented guys," Williamson said. "Isaiah Crowell, he's a real good running back. He was there my sophomore year at Georgia, so I remember him. But he's a real good player so really gotta tackle him well. He's fast and he's a good kid."
Defensively, Alabama State is defined by its aggressiveness. The Hornets have 80 tackles for loss and 38 sacks by 16 different players.
"They will zero blitz probably more than a lot of people we play, so we've got to be prepared for that," Brown said. "The quarterbacks have got to be ready to get the ball out of their hands."
Sophomore Jalen Whitlow will get the call at quarterback on Saturday after being limited to second-half spot duty last week with an ankle injury. He added the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder to his list of ailing body parts against Mississippi State, but will play.
"It will just be trying to play through pain," Whitlow said. "It hurts. I'm not going to lie. It hurts a little bit. But I'm just going to try to play through it."
Whitlow was one of a handful of Cats who did just that last week. Bud Dupree, coping with a strained pectoral muscle, was the headliner after he tallied 13 tackles and a sack while playing through pain.
"Everyone appreciates it when you go out there and play," Dupree said. "Guys with casts on, everyone appreciates those guys too. Guys playing through nicks and bruises, it just means a lot to the team and to the coaches that they know you're going out there and playing for them and not just only for yourself."
Stoops started this week by talking extensively about the toughness it takes to play through the bumps inevitable during the course of a college football season. With yet another chance at a win ahead this weekend, he wants his team to take another step ahead in that area, as well as others.
"I think we're learning as we go and getting tougher and getting tougher mentally, and we need to keep on progressing," Stoops said.
If officials call games the way they are being directed to -- most notably by calling hand-checks and giving the benefit of the doubt to drivers -- Calipari knows college basketball is going to change drastically this season.
After Kentucky's first chance to play in front of a crowd in game-like scenario at Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage, it seems the Cats could thrive under the new guidelines.
"I like the fact that we defended without fouling," Calipari said. "The officials came up, and especially the SEC official (John Hampton), and told me that this is the best I've seen. You've got your hands up, your body in. We don't try to foul anyway. That's not how we play."
In the Blue team's 99-71 victory, referees called just 20 fouls. Eleven players were on the floor for 25 minutes or more, but only Dakari Johnson was whistled for more than three fouls. Nine of those players who played major minutes committed two fouls or fewer.
As a point of reference, the 20 fouls were the fewest called in a Blue-White Scrimmage under Calipari, tying the 2009 mark when officials still called the game more liberally. Thirty-one fouls were called in 2012, 27 in 2011 and 32 in 2010.
"I like the fact that we did not foul, and we're driving on every possession, folks," Calipari said. "It's not like we're running patterns. We're driving. So in that game, if that was a 40-minute game there were about 60, 80 drive attempts, and to have 20 fouls between your teams is pretty incredible."
It's not happenstance either.
Calipari has been coaching to the new guidelines since the first practice of the fall and the Cats are already accustomed to having real referees on the floor.
"We do that when we scrimmage," Calipari said. "We'll come in and we'll bring officials. We try to get college officials to do our scrimmages, and then the whole time they're calling--every time a hand goes down they call it. They call a foul. If you stop a guy from cutting where he wants to go, they call a foul."
Having already played a season at the college level, Willie Cauley-Stein has had to adjust to the changes. That work began in practice, but he said the scrimmage was somewhat of a light-bulb moment.
"We're trying to work on not fouling so you just kind of put your hands up," Cauley-Stein said. "With the people we got, everybody can score so it's just bucket after bucket after bucket. But to see them in a live setting, I get it now. It makes more sense."
But as many weapons as were on display Tuesday -- nine Cats scored in double figures -- Calipari couldn't help but be encouraged by his team's defense. UK's guards, and even Cauley-Stein at times, pressured in the backcourt much of the time, contributing to the 38 combined turnovers.
"I like picking up the ball, Dominique (Hawkins) picking up the ball, Aaron and Andrew (Harrison) picking up the ball and then playing off that," Calipari said.
The Cats had 27 steals, including 16 by the Blue team that featured many of UK's projected starters. With no player under 6-foot-6 on the floor for most of the night, the length and athleticism of the Blue team proved to be quite disruptive.
"We defended a lot better today, but we've got a lot of stuff we've got to work on," Julius Randle said. "It's just the beginning of the season. We've got to keep getting better, get better defensively, and we'll get there."
Leading the way on defense (as well as offense) was James Young, who was a terror in both passing lanes and defending on the ball. He tallied seven steals in victimizing the smaller guards on the White team and showed the form that led Coach Cal to mention him as a potential defensive stopper.
"I definitely wasn't a defender in high school," Young said. "Ever since I got here they've been on me about my defense and how it wasn't so good. I've just been trying to work as hard as I can like everybody else has been. I guess it just showed tonight that we can all play defense."
For both Young and the team as a whole, much work still lies ahead. Team defense is still coming along and Johnson's play in the post before Calipari began calling for double teams showed UK remains susceptible to a solid back-to-the basket scorer.
By no means, however, should that worry UK fans. The Cats have been working intensively on defense for all of a week and a half.
"If we're going to be what we want to be, we've got to be a better defensive team, and I'm starting to zero in on defense," Calipari said. "I'm telling you, from the 18th until this date, we've just started defense."
Willie Cauley-Stein blocks a Derek Willis dunk attempt during Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The record-setting 15,035 fans who attended Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage entered Rupp Arena buzzing about Julius Randle. They couldn't wait to watch the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. They were eager to see what all the James Young hype was about.
But as they left the building, just as many were talking about the two-handed dunk freshman walk-on EJ Floreal threw down on Randle in the second half.
The same went for the Wildcats themselves, who immediately reacted with smiles and plenty of friendly jabs at the all-world freshman forward that don't figure to stop anytime soon.
"E.J. put a helmet on him, so that will be a picture in the hallway," John Calipari said, referencing UK's tradition of making dunked-on Cats pose for a picture in a football helmet.
"That was crazy," Young said. "Nobody expected it. For EJ to do that, I think it was mind-blowing."
Randle has been on the giving end of a number of those kinds of dunks, and was on a couple of them en route to a 21-point, eight-rebound performance in leading the Blue team to a 99-71 victory. But turnabout, especially in the eyes of his teammates, is fair play.
"That's exactly what 'Drew said," Randle said. "He said basically karma. He said, 'It's about time the tables turned on you.' "
With this team, table-turning is a regular occurrence.
Derek Willis might have the misfortune of guarding Randle most days, but the Kentucky native "with no conscience whatsoever," according to his coach, won't hesitate to pull up for a 3 in Randle's face on the other end of the floor. He did on Tuesday, matching Randle point for point with 21 on five made deep balls.
Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins might be victimized from time to time by the physicality and size of their opposites on the Blue team, the Harrison twins, but they won't back down either.
The result is a team with talent at every spot.
"It just means everybody can play," said Young, who poured in a game-high 25 points to go with seven steals. "Coach Cal did a great job recruiting everybody and everybody can play. Coming from the bench and the starters, our whole team can play."
On the heels of a season in which a lack of depth had a lot to do with a disappointing NIT finish, Calipari set out to build a team that would have no such issues. He ended up with an eight-player freshman class many already talk about as among the best all time to go with four experienced scholarship returnees.
Now he has an entirely new set of problems, but it's one he hardly minds having to deal with.
"We've got to figure out how we're going to do this," Calipari said. "We've got to have a little plan about it, and then everybody has got to buy into what we're doing and their roles on the team."
The 12 players who saw double-figure minutes during the Blue-White Scrimmage all, to borrow a phrase from Calipari, "belong." All seemed more than capable of playing a significant role on a team that advances deep into March.
"When you looked at what we did, you kind of got a picture of while you've got this guy, this guy, that guy, but what about Derek Willis?" Calipari said, wheels seeming to turn. "Where does he fit in here? I mean, and then you look at, well, what about Marcus Lee; he's pretty good too, now. And then you look at Dominique and say, wow, I'm not going to play 11 guys. So there's a little bit of a dogfight."
Calipari is already beginning to figure out the best way to coach his way through that dogfight, and it begins with letting it play out it game-like scenarios. The Cats have already scrimmaged more than any team Calipari has had, but now he'll begin throwing some wrenches at his team.
The idea behind it all is to define winning and losing and, just as importantly, the consequences that follow.
"So I may give one unit a 12-point lead, and we're playing for real," Calipari said. "Now, you're down 12, do you want to win or lose? You're up 12, do you want to win or lose? What are you doing? Whoever loses runs. We're going to do that from here on in. I need that competitive spirit."
Competitiveness may define UK's practices, but it's tempered by a quickly developing closeness. The Cats may go head to head daily with eventual playing time on the line, but malice is completely absent.
"Most people think we're just a selfish team, but that's not it at all," Young said. "We look for other people before we can score ourselves. Coach Cal really drills that into us and we've just been working on it every day."
That was plain to see on Tuesday night.
Young attempted a scrimmage-high 16 shots, but seven of his teammates joined him in taking 10 or more shots. All told, nine Cats scored in double figures.
"It's just saying that we're coming together as a family," said Aaron Harrison, who had 19 points and six assists in spending extended time at point guard as Andrew sat out the second half with a knee contusion. "If you're around guys so much, you get to know how they play and stuff. So we just want to win and we just feed each other on each other's strong suits and we're starting to mesh."
That bond will be tested as UK begins to face actual opponents, which will happen for the first time on Friday in an exhibition vs. Transylvania.
Calipari has said throughout the preseason that he has a team full of players capable of going off on any given night. He reiterated that following the Blue-Shite Scrimmage, saying as many as eight Cats could put up 30-point games. With that kind of talent, each player will have games in which he takes a backseat as a teammate fills it up. How the Cats cope with that will go a long way toward determining their success.
"They really like each other, but we've got a whole season," Calipari said. "We've got to get dinged up a little bit. Like I said, you can't compare how you're playing to somebody else. Just be the best version of yourself."
Mark Stoops took multiple signs of encouragement from his team's Tuesday practice after he had shown lingering frustration from last Thursday's loss at Mississippi State during his Monday press conference.
"I feel good today because I got it all off my chest yesterday," the UK coach said in reference to his first full-team meeting since last week's game. "We had a good meeting, and the guys responded. They understand. They know there are a lot of things we can do better. That's the bottom line. Like I said over and over again they care and think it's important, but we need to do it for 60 minutes, every play."
Stoops and his staff emphasize consistency because there's no way of knowing when the opportunity to make a play might arise.
The first-year head coach was perhaps most frustrated by his team's missed opportunities in last Thursday's Mississippi State game. Going forward being ready to make a play at any and every point in the game will take precedence within the Kentucky football team's focus.
"You don't know what play's going to change the game," Stoops said. "It's not just the obvious play all the time. There are a lot of plays in there that could change the game. And that's the message, so take them all (as) very important and do the details on all plays. And that's where we're working to get better."
Stoops was also quick to point out that despite its Football Championship Subdivision status, Alabama State will pose plenty of challenges for a Wildcat team looking to get back to winning ways.
"I'm sure they'll be very jacked up," Stoops said of his team's next opponent. "They're going to play on TV against an SEC school, and they want to prove to everybody that they're not just one of the better teams in the SWAC; they want to be recognized as a very good team. And they (have) won six in a row, so they should be optimistic and confident.
"They're a good team, and I think they're well-coached. We're worried about continuing to get better as a program. And I say that, I don't care who we're playing. We need to put it together and execute and play with great passion, great energy and let's play a little bit smarter."
Even five days removed from last Thursday's game, the Nutter Football Training Center was still buzzing on Tuesday about Alvin "Bud" Dupree's career-best game at Mississippi State. Dupree's 13 tackles - in his first outing since missing the majority of the two previous games with injuries - were the most for a Kentucky defensive lineman since such stats began being recorded in 1992.
"Bud played fantastic, made a lot of plays in the run game, but also had great pass rush, was there when we needed him and played through pain," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He had two things that were ailing him and he just toughed it out and played every single snap and we're very proud of his efforts."
Indeed the vibe all around Tuesday's Kentucky football practice was upbeat. The positive energy permeating UK's practice couldn't have been hurt by the fact that all the coaches families were in attendance, as they are almost every Tuesday, with the staff-members' children decked out in Halloween costumes.
Two days into game week preparations for Alabama State, Stoops and his staff had plenty of reason to be encouraged that despite its record, UK is taking the necessary steps to improve.
"We got better today," Stoops said. "We had good energy today, guys were moving around. Good practice on both sides of the ball. I thought we were as physical at practice as we have been in a few weeks. It was good overall work."
Bud Dupree had a career-high 13 tackles in UK's game at Mississippi State last Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Playing in front of a national-television audience and through injury, Bud Dupree had his coming-out party.
The junior defensive end/linebacker tallied a career-high 13 tackles, two half-sacks and two tackles for loss. Dupree was in the backfield throughout Kentucky's Thursday-night game at Mississippi State and nearly led the Wildcats to a comeback win.
Viewers needed only to watch Dupree to realize he was one of the best players on the field that night, but a deeper dive into play-by-play data reveals exactly how impactful his presence was. Here's a look at the plays on which he made each of his tackles.
Dak Prescott run (Gain of three yards)
LaDarius Perkins run (Gain of three yards)
Perkins run (Gain of four yards)
Josh Robinson run (Gain of five yards)
Robinson run (Gain of three yards)
Prescott pass to Jameon Lewis (No gain)
Prescott sacked (Loss of 18 yards)
Perkins run (Gain of three yards)
Nick Griffin run (Gain of three yards)
Perkins run (Gain of six yards, first down)
Prescott run (No gain)
Perkins run (Loss of two yards)
Prescott sacked (Loss of nine yards)
13 tackles for a total gain of one yard
So, Mississippi State gained an average of 0.077 yards on the 13 tackles Dupree made. None of those plays went for longer than six yards and only one resulted in a first down.
Offering a little perspective, Dupree's game against Mississippi State is one of seven double-digit tackle efforts by a UK defender this season (four by Avery Williamson and one each by Eric Dixon and Khalid Henderson). The smallest yards-per-tackle average in any of those games was when Louisville averaged 5.5 yards on Williamson's 15 tackles. Granted, Dupree plays a different position, but the difference is notable nonetheless.
Going back to the Mississippi State game, let's see how the UK defense performed when Dupree was not involved in the play.
Discounting the plays in which Dupree was involved, the Bulldogs gained 446 yards on 66 plays, an average of 6.8 yards per play. Not counting the one first down Mississippi State gained on a penalty, the Bulldogs gained first downs on exactly one-third of the plays that did not end in a Dupree tackle.
As impressive as all those numbers may be, those who have watched Dupree all season know his game against Mississippi State didn't come out of nowhere.
Dupree now has been involved in 40 tackles (32 on runs, two on passes and six on full or partial sacks) on plays from scrimmage this season (for the purposes of this post, we'll ignore the one special-teams stop he made against WKU). Opponents have gained an average of just 1.5 yards on those plays. On the 382 plays on which anyone other than Dupree makes a tackle, opponents have averaged 7.88 yards. Taking it a step further, opponents have gained just five first downs when Dupree makes a tackle (or 12.5 percent of those plays) and 142 when anyone else does (37.2 percent).
(Note: Incomplete passes are not included in the above calculations.)
It's also worth pointing out just how much Dupree is thriving in his first season playing in UK's new defense. A season ago, Dupree had 88 tackles from scrimmage on which opponents gained 21 first downs (23.9 percent) and an average of 3.5 yards per play. He has improved significantly in both measures in a more settled role this season, which makes sense given Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot's history of developing pass rushers.
Regardless why it's happening, Dupree's emergence, whether you're using statistics or the eye test to gauge it, is unmistakable.
Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Homecoming matchup with Alabama State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
More than halfway into Mark Stoops' first season as head coach, effort is no issue for Kentucky. The Wildcats have continued to show up at practice and in games, no matter the circumstances.
But even though UK has shown improvement through that consistent effort, wins have been difficult to come by. The Cats have lost five games in a row, most recently at Mississippi State when their comeback bid fell just short.
Four days removed from the 28-22 defeat, Stoops is still stewing over it. Having watched the tape -- and probably more than once -- he still sees the hard work that has defined his team, but far too many mistakes as well.
"After going back and watching the Mississippi State game, I thought we did some very good things in that game, gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game," Stoops said. "Felt like our players competed extremely hard. We need to be a smarter football team."
From day one, Stoops didn't hide from the enormity of the rebuilding task facing him and his program. He recognizes the strides that have already been made, but he also sees players reverting at inopportune moments.
"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you're under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface."
Stoops had specific plays in mind in saying that, namely a handful of the 10 third downs Mississippi State converted and the successful onside kick UK had nullified by an offsides penalty. His frustration bubbled to the surface as he described them to the media assembled for his weekly press conference on Monday.
That also won't be the last time he brings them up.
"We'll watch those critical mistakes as a team," Stoops said, "not just an offense and not just a defense like we normally do, but the whole team will watch critical mistakes and plays that are not very smart. We need to play better."
Stoops acknowledged that confidence could be playing a role in the miscues that continue to cost UK so dearly. Unfortunately for the Cats, the success that it takes to build confidence is difficult to come by in the SEC.
"There's no gimmes in this league," Stoops said. "So anybody that's trying to rebuild a program will tell you that the best way to rebuild and get that confidence is get some wins. Well, they don't exactly give those out in the SEC."
This weekend, UK will step outside the SEC for its final nonconference game of the season. The Cats will host Alabama State (6-2) for their annual Homecoming Game at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, but the Hornets -- who play in the FCS's Southwestern Athletic Conference -- will present plenty of challenges of their own.
"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well."
Alabama State has won six straight games after starting 0-2, largely on the strength of that running game. The Hornets feature two backs who have 740 or more rushing yards, including former Georgia standout Isaiah Crowell. Crowell has rushed for 833 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second season at Alabama State.
"We recruited him quite hard during my time at Florida State," Stoops said. "I remember him. He was a fantastic player, one of the top players in the country coming out of high school, fantastic player, just very hard runner, elusive. For his size and strength, he's elusive."
Because of Alabama State's talent and Stoops' approach, UK won't treat Saturday's game any differently than the ones it just played against four consecutive conference opponents.
"This is the next game for us, therefore it's extremely important," Stoops said. "I think anybody that thinks that we can just roll out there because we're an SEC team and think you're going to roll out there and win this game, you're sadly mistaken."
Stoops has no reason to think his players will feel that way.
"I wouldn't think our players would feel overconfident about anybody we're playing I wouldn't think, and we'll address that," Stoops said. "But no, we've taken the approach, we're worried about ourselves. I can see our players doing that. I think we're trying to get better as a program."
Whitlow to start at QB
After coming on only for second-half spot duty against Mississippi State due to an ankle injury, Jalen Whitlow is back at the No. 1 spot on the depth chart UK released on Monday. Stoops said Whitlow also sustained an injury to his AC joint in his shoulder, but "should be fine" to play.
As long as Whitlow is cleared to play by the medical staff, Stoops wants his sophomore quarterback to take a lead from Connor Shaw and Johnny Manziel, who played through pain last weekend and led South Carolina and Texas A&M to victories.
"I see it as a guy that's leading the program in the SEC and I see other SEC players banged up and leading their team to victory, don't you?" Stoops said. "That's what we need to do."
Game vs. Missouri set for noon kickoff
The SEC released kickoff times and television information for conference games on Nov. 9. Kentucky's home game against Missouri will start at noon ET and will be televised on either ESPNU or FSN.
Early in the second half of Sunday's UK women's soccer game, it looked as though Senior Day would end on a sour note, but apparently Caitlin Landis and the rest of the seniors didn't want their final regular season home match to end in a loss.
Down a goal 51 minutes in, being forced to endure yet another injury to a key player -- this time attacking play-maker Stuart Pope -- continuing to be frustrated by LSU's physical defensive tactics and having spurned countless scoring chances for a second straight game, Jon Lipsitz finally vocalized his frustrations from the touch line on the hour mark.
"Grit is something we've been talking about a lot," Lipsitz said. "The only clips of the Missouri game I showed the team yesterday were our missed chances and our lack of toughness. That was it, that's all I cared about. I thought the first half was very difficult because we had so many special chances. We had a lot of chances where we had actually pulled the goalie outside the frame of the goal, and we still missed the open goal.
"Of course the challenge at halftime was are we going to continue to play well or are we going to get our heads down? We got scored on, and I thought scoring pretty soon after was huge because it helped us relax, and get back into our play."
Less than five minutes after Lipsitz loudly voiced his concerns, and 13 minutes after LSU's goal, Landis created another goal-scoring chance, and finally someone tucked it home.
From there the Wildcats took control of the game, but as 3-1 score lines go, Sunday's result was a gritty as they come. Even with the plethora of first-half chances the Wildcats struggled to find their comfortable possession-based playing rhythm. Still UK found a way to produce a positive outcome when the pressure of two straight losses and all that would go along with another bad result was beginning to mount.
"We talk a lot here about wanting pressure," Lipsitz said. "You want pressure. If you lose all your games, you don't have any pressure. We're in a situation now where we're fighting for an NCAA bid and a place in the SEC Tournament. There is pressure on us. That's what we want. We want players that love that."
The Wildcats have dealt well with such pressure all season, having won the game following a loss three times this season and drawn after the only other loss.
Landis's assist on the equalizer continued a strong weekend as she scored a game-tying goal in Friday's double-overtime match, but her goals and ability to create chances meant more to UK than just affecting the score sheet.
Landis and the rest of UK's seniors' ability to respond to the team falling behind or facing other forms of adversity has led the team by example, embodying exactly what Lipsitz asks of his leaders: grit.
"They have to be our leaders, and they have been," Lipsitz said of the players honored as part of Senior Day festivities. "Each one of them has a special story. Each one of them has different trials and tribulations that they've gone through to get to this point. I'm so proud of them. Every time I felt like I was going to get a little choked up I just kept looking at them and going, 'This is fantastic. I shouldn't be upset; I should be happy.' I just kept reminding myself how much I enjoy coaching them."
Sunday's comeback had to be all the more enjoyable for Lipsitz due to his teams response, led in part by seniors like Landis.
"Cat Landis has learned so much in her career," Lipsitz said. "She is playing her best soccer, by far her best soccer at the end. It's not just getting a great goal on Friday for example. She's scored some really good goals. The way she sees the field and her ability to play other players in now is something she didn't have before.
"She was not starting early in the year, and we made some adjustments. I said, 'Hey Cat, it's your time.' It was the next person up. She has put a stranglehold on it ever since. I hope she feels like I was totally wrong when I wasn't starting her early. I hope she looks at me every day and thinks, 'You are an idiot,' because I want my players to want to be on the field and think they deserve to be. She was ready when her number was called and she's been ready ever since."
UK defeated Alabama in four sets on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney McItnosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky could have wilted, and it seemed for a moment the Wildcats might.
After UK charged to a 2-0 lead, Alabama responded with a 25-18 third-set victory. The Crimson Tide sustained the momentum in the fourth, grabbing a 16-14 advantage in the and appearing poised to even the match.
The Cats responded.
"I thought we went soft in set three and Alabama played well," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "To completely reverse that and play as tough as we did at the end says something about the character of this group."
UK went on a 4-0 run and took 11 of the match's final 15 points to seal the victory. During the decisive spurt, the Cats were especially exuberant after a number of highlight-reel kills and blocks. Even the normally stoic Skinner got involved with a couple emphatic fist pumps.
"Well, Alabama's a good team and they're tough and they keep coming at you," Skinner said. "They got us on our heels set three and at the beginning of set four, so we needed to dig down and produce. When you're able to do that and able to execute and get kills when you needed it, it is an emotional sport."
Alexandra Morgan had just one kill and one block during the run, but the senior's fingerprints were all over the rest of the match. She led the way with 14 kills and added six blocks, hitting .619 and committing only a single error in the process.
"I saw a little extra in her today," Skinner said. "With her aggressiveness in attacking and aggressiveness blocking, that's the Zan we need to see day in day out. But she's such a presence, such a factor over there every team has to pay attention to her. When she produces like that, it makes us all better."
Kentucky (15-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) will need Morgan to be at her best once again next weekend. The Cats face a tough road trip and will take on Arkansas and SEC-leading Missouri on Friday and Sunday.
"Arkansas is having a good year and Missouri's at the top of the league," Skinner said. "So going on the road in this conference is never easy and we'll need a good week of practice so we can execute down at those two places next weekend."
UK is now halfway through its conference slate and sits in third place, but the Missouri match will offer a chance to make up ground. Skinner isn't thinking that way.
"It's so early," Skinner said. "There's still nine matches left and so many things can happen. Coach speak: The most important match of the year is the next one. So that's really all we're focused on."
For the only time this season, the Kentucky volleyball team faced a two-day turnaround following a midweek match in Southeastern Conference play on Friday.
UK played a 6 p.m. ET match at Georgia on Wednesday, traveled home late that night and practiced the next day ahead of two more matches on Friday and Sunday.
The schedule, without question, was demanding. But given the circumstances, it was exactly what the Wildcats wanted.
The Cats lost that match against Georgia in heartbreaking fashion, dropping the final two sets in a five-match defeat. That meant they wanted no part of a long break before their next chance to take the floor.
"One of the best things that could have happened for us after not performing the way we wanted to on Wednesday is get back on the court quickly on Friday," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "I'm glad we were able to get back in the win column."
No. 15 UK (14-5, 6-2 SEC) bounced back with a 3-0 sweep of Mississippi State (11-10, 2-5 SEC), helping to erase the sting of the Georgia loss. Senior All-American Whitney Billings led the way once again, posting 15 kills to lead a UK attack that hit .367.
The difference between Wednesday and Friday was the Cats' mentality.
"I think our energy was a lot better," said freshman Anni Thomasson, who had 12 kills of her own. "We just had fun out there and we were making errors, but they were aggressive. At Georgia, they weren't so aggressive."
That aggressiveness was on display from the first serve, as UK rolled to a 25-13 win in the opening set. Mississippi State, however, would battle in the second set and even earn two set-point opportunities. UK was unfazed, as the Cats took the final four points and the set.
"The thing that we're continuing to learn is that every team in this league is capable of winning," Skinner said. "Mississippi State struggled last year but they have a much-improved team this year, swept last week (against South Carolina and Tennessee). And I thought we relaxed a little bit after we got the win in the first set and Mississippi State's an athletic team."
In the third set, UK grabbed a lead and wouldn't let go to clinch the sweep.
After the match, the Cats participated in a ceremony that put the victory in perspective. Friday was DanceBlue Night at Memorial Coliseum, as UK joined the fight against pediatric cancer. The Cats wore gold warm-ups and Skinner a gold tie that will be auctioned off on UKathletics.com beginning on Monday, with all proceeds going to DanceBlue, which raises money for the Golden Matrix Fund of UK's Pediatric Oncology Unit.
"We're community strong, so it's really important to us to give back to the community," Thomasson said. "We are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play at Kentucky, so it means a lot to give back to the Lexington community."
The women's soccer team held its Kick Cancer Match earlier this fall and Skinner has a friendly wager going with fellow head coach Jon Lipsitz. If volleyball raises more money, Lipsitz has to shave his head. If women's soccer wins, Skinner will wear a wig for UK's first match next season.
"That'll be one heck of a bet," Skinner said. "I hope it's a tie."
Come kickoff that night and after giving it a test run during warm ups, Matsoso was in the starting 11 for UK's crucial conference clash with ODU. He played every second of UK's overtime victory over the league-leading Monarchs, with the Wildcats winning it in the 98th minute on Brad Doliner's golden goal.
Matsoso, a native of Louisville, Ky., who originally hails from Lesotho, a small landlocked country in the middle of South Africa, attended St. Francis High School in Louisville, where he earned first-team all-state honors, amassing a total of 72 goals in four years.
He has been a sparkplug for the Wildcats as a freshman, starting all 13 games in the midfield and leading the team in minutes played. He is one of only three players to start each game, joining fifth-year seniors Doliner and Steven Perinovic.
"Everything is going well, even though we haven't had the best results, we're having fun and we just have to keep it up," Matsoso said. "Coming from a different country, this is my second home. Everyone on the team is there for me whenever I get homesick. They are always there to pick me up and tell me to keep my head up."
After coming to the United States from Lesotho, Matsoso was adopted by Marc and Pam Maguire and he quickly joined a family legacy of soccer stars. He has five brothers, James Maguire (22), Setho Moshoeshoe (18), Lepe Seetane (21), Sunny Jane (21) and Marc.
Like one would imagine, there was an adjustment period when he first arrived in the United States.
"At first I was scared because I didn't know how to speak English but I adjusted a little quicker because I have four brothers that were also adopted in my family," Matsoso said. "They were always there to help teach me English and get me used to the environment."
James played at Mt. St. Joseph's College in Ohio, Setho is in his first year with Northern Kentucky, Lepe stars for Northwestern, Sunny is one of the nation's top talents at Maryland and Marc is currently working on his undergraduate degree at UK.
With three brothers also playing Division I soccer, it might be a tough task to find out who is the best among them.
"Obviously, me," Matsoso said without hesitation. "I'm the best; there are no worries about that."
But with less than a full season of collegiate soccer under his belt, Matsoso realizes there are still areas of his game that he needs to improve.
"I need to work on my strength and be more involved with the ball. So far I have only one goal and that's not the way I want it to be," Matsoso said. "That is something I'm working on, as well as shooting. I haven't had a lot of shots on goal and that's something I need to improve."
Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren echoed his young star's assessment of what he still needs to improve in order for him to become a complete player.
"We need to work a little bit on his finishing," Cedergren said. "He gets in good spots and sometimes we could ask a little more there, but his strengths outweigh his weaknesses. He just reads the game so well and his touch and his control for the ball is fantastic."
When Cedergren took the job at UK in December of 2011, he immediately started hearing things about this 5-foot-6 inch, 138-pound kid from nearby Louisville.
"I thought there was talent there but I thought his size might hinder him a little bit in college," Cedergren said. "As I kept watching him, he kept growing on me. He's always been small and I think he can handle it because he's pretty physical himself. He was someone that initially I didn't know if he was going to be able to handle Division-I soccer but the more I looked at him the more convinced I became that he would be a good fit for us."
For freshman to step in and contribute right away on the field is not common in Division I soccer. Cedergren said that it's hard to expect freshmen to have an impact immediately because there is a sizable adjustment period.
Even Matsoso said he didn't foresee himself starting instantly because of the physical nature of the college game compared to high school. But there's something special about Matsoso that is hard to ignore.
"We were looking for someone in the midfield that can have that creative role," Cedergren said about Matsoso's impact. "He battles. He is good on the ball. We knew he was definitely one of the two or three guys that would be able to start immediately for us. I knew he would have a good chance to play a lot but I didn't know he would be able to step up this quickly. Clearly, he's done a great job."
When you watch Matsoso play, it's easy to see why his head coach has such high regard for him. He is one of those players that just seem to constantly be around the ball. The ball finds him. He runs with ease and he looks like he could go for days.
He has played every minute in 11 of the 13 games this season, including two double-overtime games that ended in ties. Players like Matsoso don't come around all the time.
"It's called reading the game," Cedergren explained. "Can you be a little quicker? Can you think on your feet? He's really, really smart. He's a very intelligent player and he's really good when he starts playing with (Bryan) Celis and some of the other guys we have.
"His ability to turn a bigger defender and use the mass that he has to his advantage is great. There isn't a tight space that he can't get out of. He's someone that we aren't afraid to play the ball to in a tight space because we know he's going to get out of it. That's really important, someone that retains possession and creates attack for us."
If this season is any indication of what the next three years hold for Matsoso at Kentucky, then it looks bright.
"Gritty," Cedergren said when asked to describe Matsoso. "Because he does get kicked a lot and by now when we're 13 games into the season, every team we play from this point forward, they are more or less man-marking him, so he's got to battle with a much bigger guy for 90 minutes. Every time he's trying to get on the ball, he has a guy trying to get him off the ball and he just does not stop. He keeps going. Grit and determination are two words that are definitely on the top of my list for Napo."
Sounds like a pretty good description for a player who has only just begun to scratch the surface of his full potential.