True freshman Kyle Cody allowed just two earned runs in 6.1 innings in UK's 5-4 win at Louisville on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky., -- For the first time since at least 2002, archrivals Kentucky and Louisville were set to meet as top-10 teams. Based on the environment at Jim Patterson Stadium, the matchup would be a big one.
But as fans of UK baseball know, the priority is Southeastern Conference play. The priority is the weekend. For that reason, Wildcat aces A.J. Reed, Jerad Grundy and Cory Littrell rested their arms and Gary Henderson turned to Kyle Cody.
It was a stage the likes of which Cody - a native of Chippewa Falls, Wis. - has never seen, let alone played on.
"This is the most people I've ever pitched in front of before," Cody said. "Coming from a small town, I've never been to a stadium this big before."
Based on the way he performed, Cody will be looking forward to another such chance.
He didn't factor in the decision, but the result would have been much different if not for Cody's quality start. Had he not stepped up with the UK pitching staff depleted by injury and illness, the No. 7 Cats (22-6) don't get anywhere close to posting a 5-4 extra-inning win over No. 9 Louisville (22-6) after Kyle Barrett's sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th to score J.T. Riddle against hard-throwing U of L closer Nick Burdi.
"I'm really proud of our kids," Henderson said. "I thought we brought it all night. I thought it was a really well-competed game on both sides. A lot of good pitching. Tough to get a hit tonight."
Cody figured prominently into that.
He had flashed his potential in his first seven outings - with his fastball sitting in the mid-90s and an impressive curve - but he had also had his share of freshman moments. Maybe all he needed was a taste of the battle of the Bluegrass.
Whatever the case, Cody grew up on Tuesday night, though there was a moment when it appeared the opposite might happen. Louisville scored an unearned run in the first when Zac Zellers misplayed a ball in left field and it all nearly fell apart two innings later.
Cody hit back-to-back batters to begin the third, then had back-to-back balks to score a run and move a runner to third with no outs. After a sacrifice fly by Ty Young, Louisville had a 3-2 lead.
"An absolute disaster there at the beginning of the third inning and we just flat out handed them two runs," Henderson said. "I was really interested in keeping him in the game at the point. I wanted to get him through that."
In response, Cody turned in his best extended stretch of his young career. He allowed just three base runners over his final 3.1 innings to finish with a line of 6.1 innings pitched - the longest outing of his career - and three runs (two earned), four hits and one walk allowed.
"I had to calm myself down before the game," Cody said. "The main thing when I was on the mound: I had to breathe. That was the biggest thing. When you start getting base runners on, you just gotta breathe and relax and throw the ball where you want it."
Cody didn't find out until the night before the game he would be making the start. Henderson didn't spend much time talking to his freshman starter about what to expect and Cody took his coach's cue. He didn't treat Tuesday night like anything more than a regular start.
"I just took it one stage at a time," Cody said. "I tried to get good rest. Coming up to the game, I tried not to think about it too much and then I just tried to do my normal routine before every start."
Cody's ultimate aim is to pitch his way into a role in the postseason and Henderson has been trying to develop trust in his young arms. But after a step forward on Tuesday, Cody and Henderson have a start on April 16 at Cliff Hagan Stadium against these same Cardinals on their minds.
"This is my first time playing these guys, but it was a lot of fun," Cody said. "I've never had such a strong rivalry between two teams. I like the competition. It was a lot of fun. It was good to get a win."
Vince Marrow is in his first season coaching tight ends at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Vince Marrow arrived at Kentucky to coach tight ends, he wasn't sure what to expect.
He knew the position he was taking over had multiple veterans with playing experience, but how they would fit in with the new offensive scheme being installed by Mark Stoops and Neal Brown remained to be seen.
Eight practices into the spring, much of that mystery is gone.
"The surprise to me is Jordan Aumiller," Marrow said. "He looks like a guy that you can really line up with and do some things with. He's a big 6(-foot-)5, 6-6 guy that can run with soft hands."
After seeing his playing time dwindle since an impressive freshman season, Aumiller - a senior - began the spring playing on the third string. Now, he's played his way onto the first string.
And Aumiller isn't the only one who has impressed.
"(Aumiller) and Tyler Robinson (who has dropped 15 pounds this offseason) were supposed to just be blockers," Marrow said. "Those guys have established themselves as some good pass-receiving tight ends."
UK's tight ends combined for just 18 catches for 165 yards last season, but the arrival of a new offense meant that production was likely to increase significantly. After all, Texas Tech's top tight end in 2012 - Jace Amaro - caught 25 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns in just seven games. However, it's not as if UK's tight ends will be completely eschewing their roles in the running game.
"I evaluate my guys like I was coaching pro guys," Marrow said. "I want a guy that can do both. You want to start off making him a blocker, but in this offense you want a guy who can catch."
The need for UK's tight ends to be threats in the passing lane has only grown this spring as it's become clear just how much work the wide receivers have ahead of them. For that reason and the nature of Brown's offense, a few players listed as tight ends are playing hybrid roles in practice. Returning junior Ronnie Shields and junior-college transfer Steven Borden have the size and versatility needed to create matchup problems no matter where they line up. Senior Anthony Kendrick could do the same when he returns from injury.
"Ronnie Shields has done a good job," Brown said. "We are playing him a little more standing up. Steven Borden has done a nice job. He has a good skillset that will match well with what we want to do."
Borden was the first player of the Stoops era to commit to UK, so it makes sense that he fits so well in Brown's system. The Waxahachie, Texas native has played anywhere from tight end to the slot to fullback, but the two seasons he spent at Kilgore College helped him prepare for that.
"At my last junior college, I moved around a bunch too," Borden said. "So I knew in this offense the tight end and slot receivers can be similar sometimes. I knew coming in there was a chance I was going to be flopping around a little bit. I didn't know I was going to be in at fullback."
Considering he's only just learning a brand new offense, moving around so much has put a lot on Borden's plate this spring. He doesn't mind.
"I like it," Borden said. "I like being challenged."
Borden hasn't even played a Division I down yet, but he might already be the most high-profile tight end on UK's roster. His visit to campus and eventual commitment generated interest among fans because of his father and namesake, Steve Borden. Borden is better known as his professional wrestling persona - Sting.
"I always tell people he's been a wrestler since I was born, so I don't know anything different," Borden said. "To me, I feel like I had a fairly normal childhood. He came and watched me play football and went to school, did things that pretty much every other kid does. I don't know anything different."
For many offspring in the wrestling community, it becomes a family business, but not for the UK tight end. Borden has always been encouraged to make his own name.
"For me, I want to do my own thing," Borden said. "I'm proud of my dad and I think he supports me in what I do."
What Borden is doing now is going to school and competing for playing time at tight end. Along with quarterback, Brown said the position was the most crowded on the offense. The good news, however, is that there's nothing in the rulebook that says only one can play at a time.
"We are going to figure out - and I am in the process and it might take until we get into fall camp a week or two in - but we have to figure out who we are, who are our best 11 and then who are next best skill guys are," Brown said. "It is a work in progress. Right now, I would say, you may see one or more of those guys on the field a lot."
A'dia Mathies finishes her career with 2,014 points, second most in school history. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky women's basketball will never be the same. It may get better, or it might get worse, but Matthew Mitchell's UK team will never again have A'dia Mathies.
The No. 2 seeded Wildcats fell to the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight Monday night, 83-53, in a game that never really went as planned.
It certainly wasn't the way that Matthew Mitchell hoped to see his senior and the two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year walk off the court for the final time.
"I just hate we performed the way we did tonight and sent her out this way," said Mitchell of Mathies. "I have to make sure that the contribution that she made and the tremendous impact she made doesn't get lost on a real tough 40 minutes for us."
The contributions are countless.
Mathies was the 2013 AP SEC Player of the Year and Co-Player of the Year as voted by the coaches as the first player to earn the honor in back-to-back seasons in the conference since 2006. She is the first UK basketball player (men or women) to accumulate 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, 300 steals and 300 assists in a career. She is the program's all-time leader in steals with 317. She ranks in the top 10 on 13 different UK career lists.
Her arrival at Kentucky marked the beginning of a monumental turnaround of the program. After being picked last in the SEC before her freshman season, the Wildcats have gone 111-30 (.730), including a 64-3 mark at home, during her time wearing UK blue. She helped lead the Wildcats to their first SEC regular-season championships in 30 years, advanced to the Wildcats to a school-record four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and along with fellow senior Brittany Henderson is part of the winningest class in program history.
Those are just the highlights. The list goes on much longer.
To make a long story short, Kentucky is not the Kentucky of today without her.
"Just for Kentucky women's basketball, we have an opportunity to be disappointed on a night like tonight," said Mitchell of Mathies. "Not too very long ago we wouldn't even have had a chance to be in a game like this. The disappointment is great and we're really, really upset to have played this way and to have been beaten this way, but A'dia's been a major factor in the resurgence of our program, so we're grateful to her."
Mitchell's gratitude to Mathies can probably never properly be fully expressed.
Since Mathies came to Kentucky, Mitchell has seen his program rise to national prominence as UK reached three Elite Eights in Mathies' four years. During that time, Mitchell has received a contract extension that has brought great financial security to him and his family and great support to his program.
Mathies has deeply affected Mitchell's life and his program for years to come.
"Being able to coach her clearly changed my wife Jenna's and my life," said Mitchell. "We've been real successful at Kentucky from the standpoint of having some stability and having a chance coach there, and you only get to do that if you win games. A'dia's helped us win a bunch of games, so I'm grateful to her."
Mathies fought hard to fight back emotion, and as usual, being the tough competitor that she is, she was stone-faced after her last game as a Wildcat. Though the loss and the taste of defeat was fresh in her mind, she still was able to sense her pride in all that she's been able to accomplish while wearing the Blue and White.
She also knows that she helped change the program into a better place than when she first arrived.
"I feel like it's been a great turnaround," said Mathies. "I'm glad that I can leave here and look back that Kentucky is a national powerhouse now. You know, we've got McDonald's All-Americans coming in left and right and just great people who care about you. I'm just glad that I came here and I'm glad that I didn't go anywhere else."
Mathies didn't go down quietly in her final game, although she saw fewer minutes than she would have liked. Early foul trouble gave her fewer opportunities on the floor and limited her ability to be aggressive on the offensive end. Yet she rallied to finish with 14 points - 11 after halftime - to lead her team as she has done so many times throughout her career.
Now, Mathies looks forward to a career in the WNBA where she will likely be a first-round draft pick. Whatever she chooses to do for the rest of her life, Mitchell just wants her to be happy.
"I hope she has much success like my hope is for everyone," said Mitchell. "I hope she's very successful in whatever she chooses to do, and at some point all of these players will not be able to play basketball and it be very meaningful in their lives as far as how they are defined as basketball players. A lot of times, we look at these kids as what their value is as a player.
"I hope she has a very good career as long as she wants to play basketball, but I really hope she's benefited from her time at Kentucky. I hope she is able to have a really successful life in whatever she chooses to do."
The night was tough all the way around on Monday, and there wasn't much success to be found. Mitchell said the UConn whipped Kentucky in every way imaginable in the Elite Eight, and the score suggests that was true. He also said that he wouldn't let one loss define his program and that going forward the future is still bright, though the Cats will have to fill a major void.
"We will not be deterred because of one tough, tough game that we played tonight and didn't do well in," said Mitchell. "We will march forward and we have some good kids right now and we'll keep working at it and keep showing up. I believe at some point it will happen, or I don't need to be sitting up here if I don't."
But Mathies never will again.
She finishes her career with 2,014 points, giving her the second most in program history. She is just the second player in the history of the program to reach the 2,000-point plateau. But in terms of impact on Kentucky women's basketball and the team that she'll walk away from with her head held high, her contributions are second to none.
Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein will both return to UK next season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In 2012-13, Kentucky had arguable as little depth as any season during the John Calipari era, and there is no argument about the Wildcats of last year being his least experienced team to date. Those two areas created challenges all year.
It's already clear those two areas won't present nearly the same problems in 2013-14.
On Monday, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer announced they will return next season. Their decisions mean that Coach Cal will have two players who started games the previous year and played meaningful minutes all season, something he lacked as the Cats missed the NCAA Tournament just weeks ago.
"I'm excited that Willie and Kyle have decided to return for next season," Calipari said. "When we talk about a players-first program, our goal is for each player to reach his dreams. Willie and Kyle believe it is in their best interest to return to Kentucky next season to achieve those dreams, and I fully support their decisions."
Cauley-Stein impressed in his first season and was named to the All-Southeastern Conference freshman team after averaging 8.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and blocking 57 shots. He started 14 games, most of which came after a season-ending injury to frontcourt mate Nerlens Noel. Wiltjer was named SEC Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13, averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
In discussing their decisions, Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer expressed similar sentiments and a common theme was a desire to pursue a title.
"I'm looking forward to continuing to develop as an all-around player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm also excited for the opportunity to try and win a national championship."
Wiltjer was a part of UK's championship team in 2011-12, averaging 5.0 points in 11.6 minutes of reserve duty, so he has an idea of the work it takes to win at the highest level. He also remembers the veteran presence provided by Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who all played in the Final Four the previous season. Just like when UK won number eight, the nation's top-ranked recruiting class will join the team in the offseason.
"I'm so excited about the possibilities of next season," Wiltjer said. "I
love Coach Cal and the staff, the University of Kentucky and the Big
Blue Nation. After talking with Coach and the staff, I understand what I
need to do. I want to be a part of another championship. This summer
I'm going to work the hardest I've ever worked to come back next season
better and stronger to help my team fight for number nine."
With Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer, UK already returns 17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 44.5 minutes per game (adjusted for the four games Cauley-Stein missed due to injury). Last season, UK returned just 5.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 15.0 minutes per game.
Not returning next year will be freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who opted to enter the NBA Draft. He has not yet hired an agent.
"This is something I've dreamed about my entire life and I feel like the opportunity is there for me to play at the next level," Goodwin said. "I will stay in Lexington to finish my schoolwork this semester before continuing to pursue my dream. I've loved my time at UK and want to thank Coach Cal, the staff and my teammates for helping me get where I am. I especially want to thank the Big Blue Nation for all their support."
Excluded from Monday's announcement were Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson. According to a release from UK, additional announcements about remaining players will be made at a later date.
Kentucky looks to advance to its first Final Four in an Elite Eight rematch with Connecticut on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It would already be an intriguing matchup for Kentucky, the Bridgeport Regional's No. 2 seed, to face the region's No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Huskies' home state.
Kentucky just defeated the fifth all-time leading scorer in women's college basketball history in Delaware's Elena Delle Donne while snapping the Blue Hens' 27-game win streak. Meanwhile, Geno Auriemma's UConn squad just dismantled Maryland 76-50 in its regional semifinal.
A one vs. two matchup in the Elite Eight is about as exciting as it gets when it comes down to the top teams in the regional battling for the right to earn a Final Four berth.
For Connecticut, it would be its sixth straight trip to a national semifinal. For the Wildcats, it would be the first in program history.
Intriguing enough... but it gets better.
Samarie Walker, a junior forward for the Wildcats who transferred from Connecticut to be closer to home and play for Matthew Mitchell at Kentucky, will get a chance to compete against her former program.
Jam-packed with storylines, this matchup has one more important one that just might pique your interest: This is the second straight season that UConn and UK have tangled in a regional final as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
Mind blown? Hopefully not because you'll need to tune into this one Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN as Kentucky looks to accomplish something the Huskies have made seem routine. Since the beginning of the season, Mitchell and his team have been focused on taking the necessary steps to making this a Final Four-caliber team by adopting their "40 Minutes" mantra which has led to program record 30 victories.
Ironically, and as fate would have it, all that stands between Kentucky and that goal is another 40 minutes of basketball. And UConn. Again.
Understanding that much could be learned from last year's matchup with the Huskies even before Kentucky learned its NCAA fate, Mitchell showed his team game film from last year's Elite Eight game. He showed the Cats two crucial four-minute clips where the game got away. He didn't want to see that that same type of collapse happen again.
"It was a three-point game coming out of the under-16 media (timeout) in the second half, and they really went on a big run," said Mitchell. "When you go back and look at that film, they did a lot of good things, but the thing they did better than us during that eight-minute period was to rebound."
Mitchell said that Connecticut also played with a much greater competitive spirit in the second half, which allowed the Huskies to pull away when Kentucky had pushed the Huskies to the brink in the first half.
While Kentucky seeks its first Final Four appearance and sees Monday as a great opportunity, the players still look back to last season's game as one that got away.
"We watched (the tape) as a team and it was more so a missed opportunity," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "We were there in the first half. A mental lapse and like a couple four-minute segments where it wasn't like they just poured on points. It was little by little.
"We believe that if we stay focused that can definitely happen this year."
The Wildcats have been focused on Kentucky, and that's exactly what Mitchell wants. While they will prepare for Connecticut just like every other team they've met so far in the NCAA Tournament, UK needs to continue to do what's brought it this far. Kentucky's 40-minute style has helped the Cats wear down teams and outlast them.
At this point, even though Kentucky's next opponent is Connecticut, Mitchell just wants his team to be its best self.
"I think the opponent in the NCAA Tournament for us has been for us to try to play our best," said Mitchell. "That's who we've been trying to measure it against.
"Now, our opponent is outstanding and excellent and you should be playing someone like that to go to the Final Four. I think anybody we would play in this round was going to be really good and have our respect."
With last season's experience in their back pocket, the Wildcats feel more prepared this time around with a stronger supporting cast.
"We got very close. Last year is last year, but we realize we have another opportunity to take it to the next level," said Mathies. "We got great players in addition to our team last year such as DeNesha Stallworth, Janee Thompson and Jelleah Sidney. We're just looking forward to playing the game tomorrow."
And Jennifer O'Neill - who sat out last season while recovering from a foot injury - has taken over the role of starting point guard to help solidify Kentucky's dynamic back court along with Mathies.
Though Kentucky is completely confident in its ability to beat the Huskies and finally "punch through" to the Final Four, to borrow a phrase from Mitchell maybe not everyone else is. Maybe not everyone else ever cares.
The networks and media have made a big deal covering Kentucky's last opponent Delaware because of Delle Donne's success over the past four years. After the game, much of the discussion was about her career and the game that she played.
After Connecticut's win, the discussion shifted to the Huskies moving on to yet another Elite Eight for the opportunity to advance to yet another Final Four. Very little was Kentucky mentioned the major media outlets.
But for Kentucky, that's just fine with them. It's been that way most of the season.
"I think we are under the radar," said O'Neill. "I think a lot of people don't expect us to beat UConn. I was watching ESPN and they weren't really talking about us or anything like that, but that's fine. We don't mind playing under the radar because we know what we're capable of. We know that if we come out to play and play our best that it's hard to for people to stay with us and stop us."
Kentucky is battle-tested as well. Already this season Kentucky has faced No. 1 Baylor and four other teams that reached the Sweet 16. So when Connecticut brings its style of play, one similar to the one that the Wildcats use themselves, they should be well prepared.
"Because of the way that we play, that's something that we face during practice as well," said O'Neill. "You talk about them putting pressure on people, but we play the same way. We play with a lot of ball pressure and are in the passing lanes. I don't really think it's going to be a challenge because it's something we face every day in practice. A lot of us have grown as players because of the way that we practice."
A while back, Kentucky may not have been ready to handle this pressure and the atmosphere they will see at Webster Bank Arena in front of roughly 8,000 UConn fans. Mitchell has no doubt that Monday his team will be ready, not scared, to take Kentucky to the next step.
"We just keep showing up. We keep having these experiences," said Mitchell. "If scared is in our team's mind, it's not happening tomorrow. I don't think that's where we are at all. I think this team has competed well against some really tough teams. If our team's lacking confidence, then that's just been a failure on my part to get us ready for this point in time.
"I don't think that's really as big of an issue as maybe it would have been four years ago and so I think we're making progress in the area of feeling like we belong and we're a team that has a chance to punch through to the Final Four."
Kentucky celebrates its 69-62 Sweet 16 win over Delaware. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Of the 69 points that Kentucky used to defeat Delaware in the Sweet 16, 69-62, none were bigger than the three Kastine Evans provided with 2:21 left.
With the Wildcats clinging to a two-point lead after Delaware had fought all the way back from 16 points down, UK head coach Matthew Mitchell called a play to try and get the ball in the hands of star senior A'dia Mathies' somewhere near the basket. It was well-defended, and the player guarding Evans doubled down on Mathies leaving Evans wide open at the top of the key.
As Evans broke free off the stagger screen, only two things went through her mind.
"I just had to catch and shoot and then after that, I just got back on defense because there was still plenty of time on the clock," said Evans. "We had to keep playing still only up by five."
The basket provided Kentucky with a huge lift, but it also served as the final haymaker that spelled the end of Delaware's comeback bid.
"I thought Kastine hit the biggest shot of the game in that 3-pointer," said Delaware head coach Tina Martin. "That really, to be honest with you, broke our back from the standpoint of giving them enough cushion at the end of the game that that were able to sustain it and finish the game off."
Though it was only a five-point lead, it felt like much more after Elena Delle Donne had willed her Blue Hens into a one-possession game at 62-60. It was a shot that not only hurt Delaware's chances, but gave UK a much-needed boost to overcome the late Delaware rally.
Evans had struggled throughout most of the game finding her shot. She was just 2 for 8 from the field with five points before the big shot, but her assistant coaches continued to will her on from the bench to give her confidence the rest of the way.
When she hit it, not one person on the Kentucky bench was surprised.
"When Kastine came off the stagger at the top, I thought, 'I've seen this before,' " said Mitchell. "I felt really good about it because she's unbelievable in those moments. She's made so many of those in her three years, so I was not for one second surprised."
Though the play was designed for Mathies, she was glad that it was her teammate Evans taking the shot in a clutch situation.
"Kastine makes big plays. She hustles every second that she's out on the court," said Mathies. "You can just tell how confident she is in herself. We're glad that she made that 3 and took the 3."
While Evans was huge in that moment, Mathies came up big all day long along with fellow guard Jennifer O'Neill. Mathies become the fifth player in program history to reach the 2,000-point plateau with her 16 points, adding nine rebounds.
Mathies got most of her buckets in the interior and in transition, but O'Neill was getting her buckets on the perimeter. She knocked down four 3-pointers in the game on her way to a team-high 19 points.
The win, however, took a total team effort. Going up against a player like Delle Donne, the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Year who averaged 25.9 points per game going into Saturday's matchup, it was going to take a collective effort to get the job done.
Throughout the course of the game, Samarie Walker, DeNesha Stallworth, Jelleah Sidney, Azia Bishop and for even Mathies for a few possessions could be found guarding the Blue Hens' do-it-all forward.
The task was made even more difficult as Stallworth picked up two early fouls and found herself in foul trouble throughout the entire game, pressing Sidney and Brittany Henderson into important minutes. While Delle Donne led all scorers with 33 points, she was just 11 for 23 from the field and turned the ball over five times after averaging less than one per game for the entire season.
"She's a great player, so we just wanted to keep fresh bodies on her," said Mathies. "Just getting her out of her comfort zones and just trying to put as much pressure on her because we know as she goes, her team goes. We did a great job, I feel like, of just making her shoot tough shots and not just getting easy baskets."
With Stallworth out of the game so early, the pressure of guarding Delle Donne and providing an offensive post presence shifted to Walker. It was tough to see her teammate on the bench, but Walker knew it was up to her to carry the load.
"I was a little heartbroken because that's like my other half on the court," said Walker of Stallworth. "I definitely felt I had to step up on defense and get some rebounds."
Walker committed just one foul in 34 minutes while scoring eight points and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds while making life difficult for Delle Donne on both ends of the floor.
The Wildcats struggled mightily to grab rebounds in the second half, affording the Blue Hens the opportunity to get back into the game. Early in the second half, Delaware outrebounded the Wildcats 14-0 as the Hens tore into the lead.
Mitchell could be spotted on the sideline displaying his disgust with his team as Delaware outscrapped his Wildcats. In timeouts, he stressed the importance of rebounding to his players. The light bulb finally went off late in the second half, and just in time.
After Evans' big shot, Delaware had multiple opportunities to cut the lead back to one possession. They had three offensive rebounds in one sequence before Mathies pulled down consecutive defensive rebounds. She would then go to the line, hit both free throws, and put the game out of reach.
It wasn't easy, but Kentucky did just enough to pull out the win and overcome Delaware's best. That's all Mitchell could as for of his team as they head back to their second straight Elite Eight date with No. 1 seed Connecticut on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
"You want to win. You want to keep going," said Mitchell. "I just thought we did a pretty good job of finally at the end getting some pretty important boards that were hard to get. It was really tough though because you want it so bad. I really credit the players for doing what was necessary to get the victory."
A.J. Reed got a no decision after throwing 8.1 innings of one-run ball on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed has a lot on his plate.
Just a sophomore, Reed has batted third or fourth in every Kentucky game this season. And oh yeah, he starts on the mound every Friday night in the nation's best conference.
"It's not easy, but I try to deal with it the best that I can," Reed said.
It's safe to say Reed is handling it all just fine.
Through 25 games, Reed is leading the Wildcats in home runs (six), runs batted in (28) and slugging percentage (.611). In six starts on the mound, Reed has an earned-run average of 2.57.
"I just kind of try to separate," Reed said. "When I'm pitching up there on the mound, that's all I think about. When I'm at the plate, that's what I'm thinking about."
On Friday night against Georgia, he had to put that balancing act to the test once again and once again he succeeded. Reed tossed 8.1 innings of one-run ball, allowing just six hits and striking out four. After retiring the first batter of the ninth inning on his 113th pitch, Reed gave way to closer Trevor Gott. For the first time this season and first since his first chance of 2012, Gott blew the save opportunity, costing Reed his third victory of the season.
Fortunately for the Cats, Gott prevented the go-ahead run from scoring in the ninth and 10th innings. In the bottom of the 10th, UK (21-5, 6-2 SEC) won its fourth game in a row when Max Kuhn walked with the bases loaded against Georgia closer Jared Walsh. It was the second time in less than a week the Cats won in walk-off fashion and the third they had won in a game they scored four runs or fewer.
"You have to win games like that because you're going to play them," head coach Gary Henderson said. "You're going to play low-scoring games."
A workhorse like Reed gives UK a good chance at winning more of those kinds of games.
With Reed's pitch count sitting at 97 through seven innings, Henderson opted to send the 6-foot-4, 245-pound lefthander out for another inning. And with a lefty due up for Georgia in the top of the ninth, Henderson asked Reed for one more out. He delivered.
"The debate's probably going on up there in the press box," Henderson said of his decision to leave Reed in the game. "There wasn't too much debate going on in the dugout."
Reed has a theory about why Henderson has so much faith in him, why his coach has sent him out for another inning with his pitch count hovering around triple digits each of his last two starts.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the regional game from last year," Reed said. "I went nine innings in relief, so that kind of proved to him that I could do a good job throwing in the later innings."
In that game against Kent State, Reed battled through cramps and exhaustion to pitch nine frames in extra innings, allowing just two runs. Even though it came in a losing effort, Reed believes he earned his coach's trust.
"I just have a lot of faith in him, as I do a lot of our kids," Henderson said. "We've got good kids, good players."
It's that same faith that leads Henderson to pencil Reed in the No. 3 spot even when he's on the mound. Other coaches might opt to allow other two-way players to focus solely on pitching, but Henderson believes Reed can handle both.
The statistics prove him right.
Entering Friday, Reed was batting 13-for-26 (.500) with 12 RBI, two home runs, a triple and a double in games he's pitched. Those gaudy numbers have come in spite of a realization on Reed's part of how vital his work on the mound is.
"I don't want to say in the games that I pitch I'm more focused on pitching, because I'm not, but it's more important at the time," Reed said.
Reed singled and reached on a hit by pitch in five plate appearances on Friday.
Pretty much the only skill missing from Reed's repertoire is speed. He's one of just two UK regulars without a stolen base. That doesn't mean he's not going to lay it all on the line on the base paths, even when he's pitching.
"I'm not very fast anyway, so I'm not going to be legging out anything in the hole or something like that," Reed said. "But I'm going to give it my all all the time. I'm going to be giving a hundred percent, but it may not be very fast."
UK held its first scrimmage of the Mark Stoops era on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As an assistant, Mark Stoops was accustomed to getting his hands dirty. Having led defenses for the last nine seasons, Stoops knew where he was going to be on the practice field.
"I'm usually as a defensive coordinator, right in the middle of it," Stoops said. "I like being right in the middle of the huddle and in the middle of the play."
But for Stoops, the last five months have been a series of reminders of just how different his life is now having taken over as Kentucky head coach. On Friday, as UK held its first scrimmage, Stoops got another such reminder.
"In a critical situation today, a third down where the offense was about to get a first down and dropped it, I'm mad at the offense," Stoops said. "Normally, I'd be mad (at the defense) because they were open."
Rather than focusing on just one side of the ball, Stoops has shifted his priorities. He now must take a broader view. He now must think about all phases of the game and how they fit together. Nearly halfway through spring practice, Stoops sees a situation that would please his former defense-oriented self.
"Just like you would expect, the defense is further along," Stoops said. "If the defense just gets lined up right and makes them execute, the offense... It's always a little bit harder for them to get started."
Running approximately 140 plays in a morning session outside at the Nutter Training Facility, Stoops saw a UK defense that consistently had the upper hand over an offensive group still very much in a learning mode as Neal Brown installs his system.
"The defense got some takeaways and got some big stops," Stoops said. "I think that's probably the best thing of the day. Offensively, they moved the ball, did some good things at times. Critical turnovers, penalties, things like that. Just typical things you would expect for the first time out."
As has been the case throughout the spring, tempo defined much of the action. Defensive and offensive players alike are adjusting to the speed with which they're being asked to play.
"For only doing it for half a spring, we're doing well," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "But we're not where we need to be to handle that tempo. We had guys that weren't lined up at times and those were free plays for the offense if you don't get lined up."
Though spread offenses haven't permeated the Southeastern Conference quite like in other leagues, having to defend this UK attack - which cornerback Cody Quinn has dubbed "NASCAR" - is the best preparation the defense could ask for. Not only are the Cats having to learn a new base 4-3 defense on the fly, they're also having to do it with minimal time to think.
"That's pretty fast what they were doing and a lot of teams in the SEC aren't going to go as fast as that," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So when we go against the different teams, other fast-paced spread teams, it'll be a lot easier and we'll be in a lot better shape than the other defense."
As for the offense, Brown sees a unit that is quickly taking to the pace of the new system, though mistakes - most notably in the form of dropped passes and fumbles - are inevitable.
"I was really pleased with our tempo. I thought we moved around pretty fast," Brown said. "Our operations were good, had very few penalties. Ball security, not where it needed to be. And it's the first time we tackled, so not surprised by that."
At quarterback, contenders Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow rotated with the first and second teams, while freshman Reese Phillips worked with the third team. Brown refrained from talking in depth about how the quarterbacks performed, opting to save his evaluations for after the spring. Even then, there's a good chance Stoops and Brown will not name a starter until fall camp.
Because of that, it's difficult to predict how UK's offense will look. Each of the three potential starters has different strengths, strengths Brown will be looking to accentuate as he adds nuance. The same goes for every position on the field.
"We'll give a little different presentation with whoever wins the job," Brown said. "I'm just trying to figure out what our best personnel is, who our best 11 are, and then once I figure out who our best 11 are, who is our next best skill guys? Then let's kind of form the package around them."
If the first two weeks of spring are any indication, it's likely running back Raymond Sanders will be included in that group. The 5-foot-8 senior has taken immediately to the new system, showing himself to be a good runner, consistent pass catcher and capable blocker.
"I knew it was an offense that would definitely get me in space and let me challenge some guys in space and set up some blocks in space," Sanders said. "Looking for a lot of home runs this year. The line is doing a great job. The wide receivers are on the outside blocking. I was very excited to find out it was going to open up some things."
The scrimmage was closed to reporters, but they heard plenty about an on-field encounter between Sanders and Williamson, UK's top tackler from a season ago.
"He's a handful back there," Williamson said. "He got me one time today, shook me up a little bit."
On a stretch run play, Sanders was carrying the ball and Williamson shot through the gap and came barreling toward him. Sanders used a stutter step move to evade the tackle and Williamson went to the ground.
"I had to do something, so he wouldn't run through me," Sanders said. "Avery is a great player, so I knew all the rest of the scrimmage he was going to be after me. I just had to keep running and keep making sure I tried to make him miss."
Sanders said Williamson got him back with a good hit, but it was "not as clean as I got him."
That back-and-forth is exactly what Stoops wants more of this spring: good football players fulfilling their assignments getting after one another. Sometimes the defense will come out on top and other times it will be the offense.
"We have a long way to go," Stoops said. "We're getting a better sense of urgency each and every day. Offensively, I like the positions the coaches are putting them in. I like the tempo and things. Defensively, the same things. We're coaching them hard. I like what we're doing."
Rumph undergoing shoulder surgery Friday, expected back in fall
The Cats were dealt a blow this week as Donte Rumph went down on Monday with a potentially significant injury. On Friday, Stoops revealed that the injury is to the senior defensive tackle's shoulder and that Rumph would undergo surgery to repair the damage on Friday afternoon. In a bit of good news, Rumph is expected to make a full recovery and return to the team for fall camp.
Matthew Mitchell goes through the game plan at UK's first practice at the Bridgeport Regional host site. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- No one in the country plays the same style of basketball as the Kentucky women's basketball team. That comes with advantages and disadvantages.
When preparing for Sweet 16 opponent No. 6 seed Delware (32-3) and the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Year, Elena Delle Donne, the Wildcats know their primary concern.
It's not Delle Donne.
While Kentucky undoubtedly has watched hours of tape on Delaware since the Wildcats advanced past Dayton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday, it can only show them so much. The Cats can't prepare for how Delaware will handle a team like them, specifically because there isn't another team like Kentucky.
"We're going to go out there and play the way we play regardless, but as far as scouting against who they've played that they plays like us, I haven't seen it yet," said sophomore guard Jennifer O'Neill. "We mostly scout them on their stuff."
That's why Mitchell has demanded Kentucky not change anything in this tournament. With so little time to prepare in between games, it's impossible to thoroughly scout each individual team. So Mitchell tells his team to focus on itself and for players to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.
That should be more than enough to win.
"We really just want to focus on us and how we can play at our best," said sophomore guard Bria Goss. "As far as wrinkles, nothing too specific, just doing what we do that got us here is the main focus.
"Of course Elena Delle Donne is a great player, but one player shouldn't be able to beat our team, so we have to go into the game with the mindset and mentality of what we can do as Kentucky."
That's easier said than done.
While Kentucky has been able use its "40 Minutes" style of play to its advantage all season long, the intensity and energy that Mitchell demands out of his players isn't easy to endure day in and day out. A lot of players might want to play basketball at Kentucky because of its success, but it's not for everyone.
"Some of our workouts aren't easy either, like the way we play," said O'Neill. "It's tough. I won't lie and say it's easy. Not everybody can play like this. That's why he recruits the players he recruits, so that we can come out and play the way he wants us to play."
Despite the demands that come along with playing in-your-face defense for a full 40 minutes, Kentucky players have grown accustomed to the rigors and the daily grind. It's part of the gig. It's also what sets them apart from other programs across the country.
"It's not the easiest, but we do take pride in it because if you think the men's and the women's side, who else does our style of play, which is all up in your face all 40 minutes?" said Goss. "There's not another team in the nation that does that."
The Wildcats have developed a sense of pride in their identity and unique style. As they advance deeper and deeper into the tournament, they see the fruits of their labor as the hard work continues to pay off.
That labor starts all the way back in the summer months as UK prepares their bodies for everyday stress that comes with playing Mitchell's style. The motivation that keeps them going in the summer months are moments like this weekend and beyond.
"Knowing that it's going to pay off at this point in the season," said O'Neill of how UK stays focused during summer workouts. "Just having goals like going to the Final Four and winning the national championship, knowing what you want to do beforehand so that you have motivation going into those workouts."
Now, those moments are rapidly approaching, and to be able to advance, Kentucky is going to have to continue to be the team it has been all season long. That will be no easy task when it comes to the Blue Hens.
Mitchell says he's looking to force 25 turnovers and score 25 points off of those Delaware miscues. He wants his team to score one point per turnover forced. So far, that's been the M.O. of his team. In Kentucky's 34 contests, they've forced 816 turnovers while scoring 851 points off takeaways.
Kentucky will have the tough task of creating those opportunities against a team that averages just 11.7 turnovers per game - third fewest in the nation. Meanwhile, Kentucky has forced opponents into 24 turnovers per game going into Saturday's Sweet 16 matchup with the second-best turnover margin in the country (+8.5).
Something's got to give.
"We're going to try to change that the best we can," said Mitchell. "The thing that you have to try to figure out is that we've maybe played more teams like them then they've played teams like us is what you hope is an advantage here. It will be interesting."
Delaware has been able to take care of the ball all season long for two reasons. The first is that the Blue Hens haven't faced many teams like Kentucky that rely defensive intensity and turnovers to win. The second is that they have one of the most versatile players in the nation in Delle Donne.
When the Blue Hens fine themselves in trouble against pressure, what do they do?
"They throw it to Delle Donne a lot," said a laughing Mitchell.
Delle Donne has the ability to help break the press and also catch, turn and shoot to alleviate defensive pressure. That will be Kentucky's toughest test Saturday as Delle Donne brings in her 25-points-per-game average to Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn.
Yes, Delle Donne is likely to be the difference in the game if Delaware is to prevail over Kentucky in the Sweet 16, but Mitchell isn't looking to change anything now. He's going to stick with his guns and dance with the girls who brought him this far for the third time in four seasons.
"Just because of his faith and belief in us," said Goss. "He has the opportunity to coach a great team with a lot of talent. Talent doesn't always get you far, but our work ethic might get us to that next level, so that's really what he wants us to focus on."
UK held its sixth practice of the spring on Wednesday at Nutter Field House. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On Wednesday, Mark Stoops opened football practice to the media for the first time this spring. Dozens of members of the press roamed the track at the Nutter Field House as Kentucky held a practice of a little more than two hours.
Eventually, Stoops said he wants to open practice to the general public. Before then, here are a few of my observations from Wednesday to tide you over.
Without question, what sticks out above all else from the new staff's practices is pace. Whether it's during positional drills, 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, there is minimal time to rest between reps. For example, when a play is over during 11-on-11, there is a flurry activity as both the offense and defense line up. Seconds later, a new play is underway.
Just as no practice time is wasted, neither is any space on the practice field. Due to weather, UK has had to work inside for all but one practice so far this spring, but efficiency means this isn't much of a problem. As an example, during one eight-minute practice segment, I noticed the offensive line working in one end zone. From the 50-yard line in, quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers were passing and catching. On the other half of the field, the defensive line, linebackers and secondary split the field equally with special teamers working in the other end zone.
That efficiency goes for splitting up reps as well. Since there is still no depth chart in place, players rotate in and out frequently in all drills. As for the quarterbacks, they are always working. Even in 11-on-11 with just one quarterback getting actual snaps, the other four are shadowing his movements. And in many pass-and-catch drills, all five are dropping back and throwing at the same time as receivers run routes all over the field.
From players to managers to coaches, no one on the field leaves without breaking a sweat. Managers have to be on their toes and hustling as they collect balls, otherwise they will get run over. Coaches, meanwhile, are constantly in motion and lead their positional groups in running to their next station between drills.
On the subject of the coaches, they set the tone for it all. They are constantly enthusiastic and in the middle of the action. In 7-on-7 and route-running drills, you can often find Stoops standing where the offensive linemen would normally be. As for offensive coordinator Neal Brown, I could have spent the entire practice watching him alone. He doesn't rest for a second during practice, whether he's signaling in a play, shouting instruction, correcting mistakes or offering praise. The same goes for every staff member.
With Stoops serving as a head coach for the first time of his career, I was curious to see where he would spend most of his time coaching. Watching him, it's clear his background is on the defensive side - and with defensive backs specifically. He's leaving Brown and the assistants to do their jobs and handle the offense, but he's not ignoring that side of the ball. Far from it in fact. You can see the wheels turning as he absorbs the schemes and sets of UK's new offense and it won't be long before he's completely up to speed.
The most common words I head from coaches were "Finish!" and "Get upfield!" The new staff is trying to teach the Wildcats the importance of every last rep and anything other than maximum effort until each play is blown dead is unacceptable. As for the "Get upfield!" command, yards after catch are of the utmost importance in this new offense, which is why that's a constant refrain.
I said earlier that the first thing I noticed was the pace of the practice, but I'm realizing that's not true. The first thing I actually noticed was the music. During warm-ups and positional drills, speakers are constantly blaring hip-hop. The coaches want players to be energetic and have fun, and this is a way to help that along.
On to a few more specific observations, Za'Darius Smith is one large human being. At 6-foot-6, 257 pounds, he looks the part of a Southeastern Conference defensive end. Lining up at right end, Smith was opposite left tackle Darrian Miller for much of the morning and it was quite a battle. It's difficult for pass rushers to stand out when quarterbacks are wearing red jerseys, but Smith still managed to do just that on a few occasions. On one play, recognizing he was not going to be able to get to Maxwell Smith, he saw a running back flaring off into the flat and found his way into the passing lane. While maintaining contact with Miller, he jumped and effortlessly knocked the ball out of the air. If Smith and Bud Dupree continue to develop, UK's pass rush could be a strength.
At linebacker and as you might expect, Avery Williamson was the most consistent performer. He drew consistent praise from defensive coordinator/linebackers coach D.J. Eliot, with one exception. In positional drills early in practice, the linebackers had to serve as blockers and ball carriers against one another as they rotated. Williamson had a bit of trouble with this, leading Eliot to say something along the lines of "You're the worst cut blocker I've ever seen." It's a good thing playing linebacker doesn't require much blocking.
In writing about UK's running backs earlier in the week, I passed along the note that the backs would be responsible for calling protections at the line. On Wednesday, I got to see that process in action. It's a bit strange to see Raymond Sanders and the other backs pointing and shouting pre-snap instructions, but they seem to be getting the hang of it.
I spent a lot of my time focused on the quarterbacks and it's plain to see why coaches still call it an open competition between Smith, Patrick Towles and Whitlow. They are all still finding their way in the offense, but also showing off their respective strengths. Smith seems most comfortable in the offense with his experience and his ability to get the ball out so quickly. Towles looks the part and has a big arm, which he used to hit Demarco Robinson on a deep touchdown pass. Whitlow, in spite of his reputation as a runner, was throwing a beautiful ball on Wednesday. It's going to be interesting to see how this battle plays out.
It's evident that Brown is taking a hard look at the quarterback run game early this spring. When Whitlow and even Towles were in, the read option was a constant threat. I also noticed a quarterback power play that was used once or twice when the 6-foot-5, 234-pound Towles was in.
Speaking of power, don't let what you've heard about Brown's offense fool you: UK is going to be running downhill often. There were plenty of physical runs from Wildcat running backs.
In terms of formations, UK worked primarily out of shotgun and pistol sets with a lot of pre-snap action and even some jet-sweep type plays.
Next up for the Cats is the first scrimmage of the spring. Stay tuned for a report on Friday.