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Big test awaits UK Hoops at Duke

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Matthew Mitchell, with a week to prepare, has watched his share of tape on Duke.

He's come to a clear conclusion.

"We have quite a mountain to climb literally and figuratively," Mitchell said, not quite able to suppress a smile at the turn of phrase.

The Blue Devils you see, are likely the biggest team UK will face all season. The No. 8 Wildcats (10-1) have two players on their roster standing 6-foot-3. No. 13 Duke (6-3) has two such players as well, but also four coming in at 6-4 and another standing 6-5 with Kentucky coming to Cameron Indoor Stadium at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday for a showdown televised on ESPN2.

"The biggest team in Duke history is what they're saying," Mitchell said. "They just have massive size, so it will be a very interesting game. We are not the biggest Kentucky team history, but we do have some speed and quickness so we will have to try and see which style will win out."

More often than not, UK's style has been the one to get the better of its opponents this season.

The Cats already boast a pair of top-10 wins over Baylor and Louisville, both coming after double-digit comebacks. In the two games, UK overcame any deficits in size with that speed and quickness, but Duke is at another level in the post.

Duke, playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, is outrebounding opponents by 22.1 per game. Elizabeth Williams is one of five players averaging 4.8 or more rebounds per game, posting 11 to go with her 14.4 points per game.

UK's post players will be in for a challenge, particularly first-year contributors Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alex Jennings. The trio, along with Azia Bishop, has improved of late thanks to a lot of work.

"We had a good session after practice (Wednesday) with just Alyssa, Azia, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou and myself were just down there for about a half-hour after practice and there was some really good stuff happening," Mitchell said. "You just want to see it show up on the court at some point in time, and I think it will."

But just as importantly, Mitchell needs his perimeter players to set the tone with ball pressure. If they don't, all that work on the part of the post players likely won't matter much.

"We're really going to have to play with tremendous intensity on the perimeter because they're just so big," Mitchell said. "I mean, really, if you give them any chance at all, they'll just lob it up to (Azura) Stevens or Williams and it's almost like a jump ball. So who can jump the highest? They're probably going to jump higher than us. The guards are critical for us defensively in this game for us and without Bria, it's a big challenge."

Mitchell, of course, is referring to the absence of Bria Goss. The senior guard and UK's top defensive player will miss four to six weeks with a broken thumb suffered on Sunday before a win over Belmont. The injury will force the Cats to adjust on a couple fronts.

First, UK's smaller lineup is less of an option with Goss out.

"In some of the tight games that we've been in, I've sort of bailed them out by putting Makayla (Epps) at the four and I think for us long term in a game like this, we're probably going to have to have some size on the floor as you look at some of the bigger teams in the SEC, it's going to be necessary for our young post players to come along and contribute this season," Mitchell said. "It's a big test for them, on the road, at Duke, against a really big front line and so I think they're getting better."

And of course, someone will need to fill Goss' defensive void. Mitchell mentioned Jennifer O'Neill, Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps as candidates.

"Well, it's another great opportunity," Mitchell said. "Who is really going to step up and be a defensive stopper now? Who is going to step up?"

If someone does, the Cats could benefit in the long term.

"I think that you have to find the silver lining in these kinds of things," Mitchell said. "You must. And really, if we respond correctly, maybe we can be stronger in a month when Bria comes back and I told Bria it could be something greater for you. Maybe this gets us deeper into the tournament and makes us stronger."

Video: Coach Cal's pre-UCLA press conference

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Video: UK football's biggest moments in 2014

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Video: Matthew Mitchell Show -- Episode 3

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Azia Bishop had a double-double in UK's 71-55 win over Belmont on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Azia Bishop had a double-double in UK's 71-55 win over Belmont on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A minute and 56 seconds into Kentucky's game against Belmont, Matthew Mitchell turned to his bench and sent five new players into the game.

For a brief moment, Belmont's Cameron Newbauer thought he might have been coaching in Rupp Arena instead of Memorial Coliseum.

"I thought you guys were starting to be like the men. Blue and White or something," Newbauer said, referencing John Calipari's platoon system. "I looked at the bench and I said, 'Have he and Cal been hanging out?' "

Mitchell and Calipari do speak often, but that wasn't the reason for UK's line-change substitution so early in Sunday's game. Mitchell was simply unwilling to accept what he was seeing from his team.

"That was not my plan at the start of the game," Mitchell said. "I just was very disappointed with how our first unit came out and played."

And so in came the second unit in a game tied at the time, 3-3. The effort the second wave of Wildcats gave wasn't perfect, but it was enough to propel No. 8 UK (10-1) to a 71-55 win over Belmont (2-7). In fact, it was one player - Azia Bishop - who largely responsible for the improved energy.

Bishop, coming off the bench for the second game in a row after making eight starts to begin the season, did it all for UK. She had season highs in points (15), rebounds (12), blocks (four) and steals (three).

"Before the game, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou told me I just needed to come in and work ahead and attack the board and just give it my all," Bishop said. "I think doing that, it produced what I had today."

Returning to the reserve role she filled in her first three seasons in Lexington may have had something to do with it too.

"If you think about, she's done it for three years, come off the bench," Mitchell said. "We just need production from her and I loved her fight today. I thought she had some really great moments of fight. And really there for the first portion of the game, at the time she was the only one."

"Starting, it really doesn't affect me like that, but just coming off the bench is more comfortable for me just because I get to see the flow of the game and know what I have to come in and do," Bishop said. "And I think that's given me the extra push and the extra oomph to go out there and play harder."

Bishop's numbers, in Mitchell's mind, were great, but it's her effort that matters most. That effort shows up in three areas.

The first, says Mitchell, is on the offensive glass. On Sunday, Bishop tied for the team high with five offensive rebounds.

The next is on defense, where Mitchell says Bishop must be focused and in a stance for her and her team to be at their best. She was against Belmont, and those seven combined blocks and steals prove it.

Last, Mitchell wants Bishop running the floor. Her speed has the ability to change the game by creating transition opportunities and, just as importantly, affecting the opponent. Bishop sprinted constantly against the Bruins, helping the Cats turn a three-point lead with less than 15 minutes left into a 16-point win.

"I thought Belmont did a great job, but you saw it started to wear them down," Mitchell said.

Whether Bishop continues to come off the bench or returns to the starting lineup, she's going to need to duplicate that going forward. Over the next month, UK will face bruising frontcourts against the likes of No. 13 Duke and top-ranked South Carolina.

The Cats won't be outmuscling those teams, but they can outrun them with Bishop pacing them.

"We can't just go toe to toe," Mitchell said. "We've gotta get the thing going up and down and that one for Azia, just running the floor and making people run back and making people expend energy to get back and guard us, it's very important."

Video: Coach Cal's post-UNC press conference

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Video: Cauley-Stein, Ulis, Booker on UNC win

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