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By Connor Link, UK Athletics
When the Kentucky took the field Friday night, the Wildcats weren't thinking about the heartbreak they felt last week in back-to-back overtime losses to Pepperdine and Arkansas.
All that mattered now was bouncing back and taking care of business. The Cats were intently focused on the one thing head coach Jon Lipsitz preached to his team all week in practice.
"We've just sort of gone back to the basics, talking about details," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz's team took the message to heart, evidenced by a 3-0 victory over conference foe Mississippi State at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. For Kentucky senior Arin Gilliland, straying away from the basics was exactly what caused the Wildcats to go winless in their previous two matches in spite of mostly solid play in both..
"We're keeping people hanging in the game, we're not doing the details, we're not getting there pressing the ball, and we're not finishing goals that we should be finishing," Gilliland said. "Those are details--those are little things. Today, we came out, we did the basics. To play soccer, you have to do the basics first, and soccer will come. We did that today. (Lipsitz) was right, once again."
Once Gilliland and her teammates implemented Lipsitz's game plan, results quickly followed. Gilliland, a Lexington native, scored her fifth goal of the season off of a perfectly placed cross by Cara Ledman at the match's 52-minute mark.
"It was a great cross by Cara Ledman," Gilliland said. "Every time she crosses the ball, I know exactly where it's going. So, I got to position myself perfectly. That finishing is what we did all week. I did the basics. I stayed over the ball, finished through the goal, and results happened."
After controlling possession for the majority of Friday's game, Kentucky was able to stay composed on the way to its sixth win of the season. Wildcat junior Courtney Raetzman, who scored two of UK's three goals, echoed Lipsitz's back-to-basics mantra.
"What we really focus on is details and doing little things that a lot of other teams don't focus on as much," Raetzman said. "Going back to the basics, we need to keep that simple, and not try to do all these fancy things--like trying to get that game-winning pass or that amazing shot off. More like, we need to play and do the basics. From that, great things will happen."
The Wildcats (6-3-0, 1-1-0 SEC) hope to carry their momentum into Sunday's annual Kick Cancer Match with the Tigers of Auburn University.
"(Auburn is) a great team--very dynamic, very exciting, and very athletic," Lipsitz said. "They're young... and doing great. I'm not surprised that Coach (Karen) Hoppa has them playing well. It'll be a fantastic game, a great challenge and a great event. Obviously, it's a fundraiser for us (to raise money) for pediatric cancer research. We need all of Big Blue Nation here--number one, for a great cause, and as a secondary reason, to root us on."
With a bye week following a triple-overtime loss at Florida, Kentucky has had ample time to suffer a lapse in focus.
Just two days before a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have shown no signs of any such lapse.
"So far, so good," head coach Mark Stoops said. "It's been a good week of practice. We had a good Thursday today. Guys seemed to be pretty locked in, energetic. So, looking forward to a good game here this weekend."
If anything, the Cats have gone the other way and ramped up the intensity before the Commodores come to town.
"Our coaches have been adamant about just handling our business and doing more this week, being more locked in, spending some extra time around here studying film and doing the little things," Stoops said. "So it seems like they've been very good around here. I hope they are when they leave. We have no reason but to be locked in and hungry for this game."
UK's practice on Thursday was a light one, continuing the coaching staff's new game-week plan of holding a walkthrough and meetings two days before game day and turning up the speed again on Friday. The change was designed to position the Cats to play faster on game day and to this point Stoops has been pleased with the results.
"It seemed to work so far, it really has," Stoops said. "We'll see. Each week is a different test, but I've been pleased. I've felt like we played fast and that was the objective. I felt like we were fresh and played fast in each game. In particular, going down to the Swamp with a big SEC test and playing in the three overtimes. I feel like it's given us what we want."
UK reached the midpoint of its preparations for a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
The Wildcats haven't played a game in more than a week with an open date over the weekend, but their energy isn't suffering because of it.
"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around, communicating, playing fast. It was a good, physical full-padded practice, so we were pleased with the work ethic today."
UK is focusing more time than normal preparing for a physical Commodore ground attack, particularly considering the 237 yards the Cats allowed at Florida. Vanderbilt will put that work to the test with sets featuring as many as three tight ends and an extra offensive lineman.
"It used to be that spread offenses were unique and now it's kind of the other way," Eliot said. "You just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we gotta make sure that we're playing sound."
With only three scholarship tight ends on the roster, UK's scout team has had to adjust.
"We've just had to do it (to) the best of our ability with guys that maybe play running back, guys that maybe play big wide outs and the tight ends that we do have," Eliot said. "Try to simulate that pro-style offense."
Facing Florida on the road, Kentucky embraced its role as the underdog.
Even though few predicted they would hang with the Gators, the Wildcats played well in the Swamp and came within one play of scoring the upset in a triple-overtime defeat.
Two weeks later, it will be UK that's expected to take care of business on its home field against Vanderbilt. In spite of the role reversal in the minds of the experts, Mark Stoops wants his team's attitude to stay the same.
"I don't pay much attention to it," Stoops said. "But certainly need to be a team that's very hungry. I think our team has played that way this year. We need to stay that way."
If last week is any indication, staying hungry won't be an issue.
With an open date over the weekend, UK (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) combined early preparations for Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 SEC) with plenty of fundamental work. On Monday, the Cats will return to the practice field ahead of Saturday's noon matchup on the SEC Network.
"We were very good all week," Stoops said. "We had a good, solid week, good energy. We talked about it last Monday, really all week, just to do more, prepare better, be more effective in what we're doing, get things cleaned up. So we'll see where we're at this week. They had the weekend off. I'll be anxious to get with them here this afternoon and start our preparation for a game week."
Vandy, playing its best game of the season over the weekend, gave UK plenty to prepare for. The Commodores built an early lead on No. 14 South Carolina before falling at home, 48-34.
"I thought they played with great energy this past week," Stoops said. "You could see the excitement. They played hard. They're getting better and better, playing more confident."
Vandy struggled out of the gate, dropping its first two games against Temple and Ole Miss in blowout fashion and falling behind 14-0 against UMass. The Commodores would come back to beat the Minutemen before going toe to toe with the Gamecocks behind true freshman Wade Freebeck.
Freebeck was slated to play on Saturday in a quarterback time share, but took over on a full-time basis when Patton Robinette suffered an injury. Freebeck is one of a nation-leading 31 freshmen who has played for Vandy so far this season.
"It will be interesting to see who goes for them," Stoops said. "I think you could see some real talent in the freshmen. A guy that we knew from St. Thomas High School (in Davie, Fla.), a very good football player, a great program. He's going to be a special player. Their older guys are good players, too. ... It doesn't matter, their offense doesn't change much."
Derek Mason is in his first season as head coach at Vanderbilt, but the offense the Commodores run is similar to the one Stanford used during his time as defensive coordinator at Stanford.
"It's a challenge," Stoops said. "I go back to my time at Arizona. Just the great respect I had for the Stanford program. Very fundamentally sound. Very tough at the core of who they are."
That toughness manifested itself in the running game on Saturday, as Vandy averaged better than five yards per carry.
"They do a lot of creative things with big sets," Stoops said. "That was helpful for them against South Carolina. You could see they're starting to build more and more into their package. They create some big problems from the run and pass with big sets."
Regardless how Vandy chooses to attack UK, Stoops believes his team will be prepared.
"It's the next game on the schedule, so it's the most important one," Stoops said. "We'll be excited to play."
UK 'close to 100 percent' after bye
Few teams reach week five of the season close to full strength, but UK is close thanks to an early bye week.
Running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue played through ankle injuries at Florida, but both are expected to be healthy for Vandy. Zach West, nursing a neck injury, is expected to practice on Monday. He joins wide receiver Jeff Badet as "question marks" for Saturday, while wide out Alex Montgomery is "close" as he builds muscle strength in his recovery from knee surgery.