Janee Thompson might want to consider campaigning for UK to play more games in the KFC Yum! Center.
She seems to do pretty well there.
After leading a comeback from 14 points down and hitting the game-winning two years ago at Louisville, Thompson put on another second-half show against UK's archival on Saturday. The junior point guard poured in 16 of her 19 points after halftime, headlining a rally from 15 points down with just 18:01 left as No. 7 UK (8-1) topped the Cardinals (8-1), 77-68.
Thompson was clutch throughout, hitting the free throw that gave UK its first lead at 59-58 and the game-tying 3 with 3:03 left after the Cardinals had reclaimed a three-point lead to start a decisive 14-2 run to close the game.
She didn't miss a shot in the second half, deftly (and speedily) running UK's offense in the second half. The Cats shot just 36.4 percent from the field in the first half as a team, but 55.6 percent in the second to race past the previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked Cardinals.
Thompson was also at the top of UK's swarming pressure defense and snagged four steals. UK forced Louisville into 15 second-half turnovers and 28 for the game. Even when the Cardinals did manage to initiate their half-court offense, they found little room to operate, shooting 24.1 percent from the field after halftime.
The victory was UK's fourth in a row over Louisville, meaning fourth-year seniors Azia Bishop and Bria Goss, who scored 11 points in a team-high 35 minutes, have never lost to the Cardinals.
Matthew Mitchell has never changed his thoughts on the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but he has come to talk about it differently.
He's always seen UK-U of L as one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule, a game deserving of hype and a big-time atmosphere. The difference now that he's in his eighth season is he feels no need to try to convince anyone.
"When I was younger - and hopefully I'm wiser than I was when I started out, I was also a different person - I said some bad things about the rivalry to try and get it spiced up and everything," Mitchell said. "Over the years, you don't have to do that anymore."
You see, UK and U of L have established themselves among the nation's elite. The Wildcats and Cardinals are fixtures in the top 15, and that will be the case again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET when the two teams face off at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
"The players understand that it's a big game on our side," Mitchell said. "It's a big game. I think that's great that it's a rivalry game and people get excited about it and I'm sure there is going to be a large crowd there, and so I think the games have been pretty tough."
There's no reason to think that will change as UK (7-1) enters the latest matchup ranked No. 13, while U of L (7-0) is No. 7. The Cats have won the last three games played between the two teams.
"I think it's going to be an outstanding game," Mitchell said. "I just want us to go over there, have our minds right and play real, real hard against what looks like a real fine basketball team that U of L has."
Louisville seemed likely to take a step back last season without star Shoni Schimmel, who graduated after a decorated career. Watching tape on the Cardinals, that's not what Mitchell sees.
"It's a very, very strong basketball team with some great players that as usual, are very well coached," Mitchell said. "Their performance last night vs. Iowa was extremely impressive."
Louisville dispatched the No. 22 Hawkeyes unceremoniously, taking a 23-point lead by halftime and finishing off an 86-52 win on Thursday. Senior Sara Hammond scored 19 points, while standout freshman and leading scorer Myisha Hines-Allen added 16 points.
"This is nothing against Shoni, but after watching them (Thursday) night, that was one of the most impressive performances that I've seen from them in now eight years," Mitchell said. "I was really impressed with how they played. They have a lot of different weapons."
Nine Cardinals play at least 13.5 minutes per game and four average double figures in scoring, including Hines-Allen, Hammond and freshman Mariya Moore, whom Mitchell called "legit."
"They're just really big and athletic and they played so aggressive," Mitchell said. "They looked so cohesive and it was a very impressive performance to watch on tape this morning. It looked like they are really playing together. They are extremely explosive in transition, very disruptive on defense. They played a lot of man-to-man (Thursday) night and gave Iowa a tremendous amount of problems."
The Cats, of course, are perfectly capable of causing problems too.
UK remains a work in progress, particularly in the post where Mitchell relies on three players who are playing their first college season, but the Cats have already taken down one top-10 opponent this season, Baylor. To duplicate the feat, Mitchell believes there's a clear path for his team to follow.
"I think intensity is going to be the main thing for us," Mitchell said. "We can't do a whole lot in two days as far as sharpening some of the things that we need to sharpen. There are some things that we're doing well. We are running the floor well, and we have some speed and can get up and down the court and try and stress a team by tempo and pace. We are capable of that, and we are sure going to try to see if we can get that done and play to our strengths until we can really get sharp."
Not all teams enter the NCAA Tournament carrying confidence and momentum.
That won't be an issue for the Kentucky Wildcats.
"I think they'll feel pretty good," UK head coach Craig Skinner said.
The Cats (26-5, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) enter the postseason with a No. 13 seed and the right to host yet again. They've won eight times in nine matches ahead of a first-round matchup with Oakland (22-9, 12-2 Horizon League) at 7:30 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The victor will advance to face either Ohio State or Lipscomb at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
"With 26 wins and beating a lot of good teams this year, playing 10 matches that are already in this tournament I think gives us an understand and appreciation of the level we need to play at to advance," Skinner said, "We've been practicing really well and I think the energy and the confidence is in a good place."
The confidence is no accident, as UK has rebounded successfully after two losses in three matches against LSU and Texas A&M. Since then, the Cats have lost just five sets in their last 30 tries to claim the best NCAA Tournament seed in school history behind SEC Libero of the Year Jackie Napper and four more all-league performers.
"It's a tribute to our players, who had a great regular season and several all-conference award winners and just to me and especially our young players the most exciting time to be participating in this sport," Skinner said. "So we're excited to have Oakland here and especially Lipscomb and Ohio State competing in the first match and with the winners competing Saturday. I just can't wait to get on the floor and get after it."
Skinner and the Cats are excited, but that doesn't mean they don't fully grasp the challenge ahead of then. Oakland has four players averaging better than 2.3 digs per set, representing a departure from the typical first-round opponent for a nationally seeded team.
"Typically a team like Oakland has a couple players that dominate," Skinner said. "Oakland's a team that has four or five players that really make an impact in the match and so we have to have a great game plan to know what they're going to do against us and how to defend their players because they are uniquely balanced I think in that regard."
Fortunately for the Cats, they'll be performing in front of their home crowd. Other coaches might prefer to hit the road and play free of the added pressure that comes from playing in front of their home fans, but Skinner is eager for the chance to host another big crowd in Memorial.
"Some people might say it's a disadvantage because you've got a lot of distractions at home," Skinner said. "I think it's a great advantage because we do have our home fans."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers had a quiet trip to the beach last week, at least offensively.
Managing just nine points on UK's three-game voyage to the Virgin Islands, including just one in her final two games combined, Goodin-Rogers had gone cold after a strong start to her college career.
She had to come home to chilly Kentucky to heat back up.
Goodin-Rogers poured in a game-high 19 points, including 16 in the first half of an 82-64 Kentucky win over Northern Kentucky. In fact, she exceeded her previous career high less than eight minutes in.
"She was aggressive to start offensively and when she gets in a rhythm and can make some 3s for us and get to the basket and play with some energy offensively in transition, she can help us out," Matthew Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers was the star in an otherwise sluggish start for the Wildcats, who moved to 7-1 on Wednesday ahead of a Sunday trip to archrival Louisville. She scored 13 of UK's first 19 points to help build an early nine-point lead, capped by the first of her two 3-pointers.
She didn't waste any time surpassing her point total from the Virgin Islands games, but she also wasn't overly concerned about her offense from last week. Facing powerful front lines against the likes of Illinois and Oklahoma, she knew her role on UK's Thanksgiving trip.
"In the Virgin Islands I was more focused on defense than I was on offense because I needed to rebound more because the girls were so big," Goodin-Rogers said. "And tonight I was able to just play instead of focusing on one little thing."
Goodin-Rogers certainly played in her return to Memorial Coliseum, but she and her fellow post players still have room for growth.
Among UK's regular interior rotation, only Azia Bishop had played a college game entering this season. As a result, Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings have suffered more than anyone from the game slippage that comes from so little early-season practice time with a packed schedule.
"We've just got to take advantage of some practice time and get better in the half-court," Mitchell said. "Our post players are seeing a lot of packed lanes and we're not reading those situations real well in the half-court."
That places an added importance on the three days of practice UK will have leading up to a matchup with No. 7 Louisville.
"I thought tonight we were a bit unfocused and we can't play our best when we play that way," Mitchell said. "We played well enough to win tonight and you can't take that victory away from us, but clearly we have to play much sharper. I think their confidence level can increase between now and then with some good practice."
The Kentucky volleyball had to wait until late in Sunday night's Selection Show to find out, but the Wildcats earned the No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Here's their reaction.
UK will host Oakland in the first round at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday with a potential second-round matchup with Lipscomb or Ohio State on Saturday at 7 p.m. All-session tickets for the weekend are on sale now and can be purchased in the following ways:
By calling the UK Ticket Office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818, Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
By visiting the UK Ticket Office in the Joe Craft Center