Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper combined for 22 points in UK's SEC semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Before each game, Matthew Mitchell writes his three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline on Kentucky's locker-room white board.
At least for one day, Mitchell added a fourth.
"Dang near everything he wrote on the board had 'attack' by it and that's what we had to do," Makayla Epps said.
With Kentucky set for a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal showdown with top-seeded and fifth-ranked South Carolina on Saturday, Mitchell didn't want two previous defeats at the hands of the Gamecocks on the Wildcats' minds. He didn't want his team to be overwhelmed by the stage.
He only wanted them to go, go, go.
"That was the word that we wanted to rule the day for us," Mitchell said. "Don't worry about the outcome, the result, just get in attack mentality and stay there."
Based on Saturday's performance, Mitchell may want to make attack a white-board fixture.
UK blitzed South Carolina, using a 12-0 run to take an early 10-point lead. In spite of being throttled by the Gamecocks (27-5) at home barely two weeks ago, the Cats (24-7) led by no fewer than six from that point forward in a 68-58 win, their fourth over a top-10 opponent this season.
"I thought you saw a heavy dose of that early in the game," Mitchell said. "We were able to sustain it for 40 minutes. It was really impressive. I'm extremely proud of the players. This is a great effort."
A great effort headlined by two players who didn't need to be told twice to attack.
A month ago, Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps weren't sure from game to game what their roles would be. The two McDonald's All-Americans would play single-digit minutes one game, then score double-digit points the next.
Now, with UK using more zone defense and less full-court press to adjust for their strengths and weaknesses at this early point of their career, Harper and Epps are featured pieces in the UK backcourt in their first postseason.
"Some freshmen don't get the opportunity to play at all," Epps said. "Some freshmen have to wait 'til their sophomore year to even go out there and touch the court. But me and Linnae getting the opportunity to go out there and play is real encouraging to us."
They are taking full advantage.
Harper scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a career-high 27 minutes, adding five rebounds, two assists and a block. She was confident both shooting from mid-range and driving to the basket. She got to the line repeatedly, though she missed four of her six attempts.
"You know, I thought she was sort of a great example of the entire team," Mitchell said. "We played with a tremendous amount of poise and toughness. We got down to the last seconds of shot clocks a few times and made buckets."
Had UK not coupled that poise with the attacking mentality Mitchell was demanding, Saturday's win likely doesn't happen at all. Facing a South Carolina defense undisputedly among the best in the nation, the Cats didn't concede any possessions.
When chances early in the shot clock were there, UK took them. When they weren't, UK was content to run its offense in locking up a place in Sunday's SEC Tournament final at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN against third-seeded Tennessee (26-5).
"We were very patient and we used the clock to our advantage," Harper said. "So we just took our time, ran our sets, stayed focus and had poise."
Most often, it was Epps' setting the tone at point guard. She played the position throughout her 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and dishing out two assists. Epps has come a long way since the eight-game stretch in SEC play during which she didn't score a point as she bounced between the post and the perimeter.
"Whenever he had me at three, four -- especially the four -- I was really out of sync," Epps said. "But I was doing what the team needed me to do and now he's got trust in me to play the point guard like I did in high school."
In a happy -- though not celebratory, at least not yet -- postgame locker room, Epps was told UK had just five turnovers as a team. At first, she misunderstood and thought five was her individual total before pausing to clarify. Told the amount -- fewest of the Mitchell era -- was for the whole team, Epps was slightly astonished.
"Whoa, now that's something," Epps said.
When you consider UK played two freshmen a combined 52 minutes in the backcourt, it's something indeed. It also has a lot to do with the bond Epps and Harper have built in short order.
"The connection we have already is just crazy," Epps said. "I basically just met her in August and then at (the) McDonald's (All-American game), but the way we click now is crazy. I feel I've been playing with her for years."
"Our chemistry is just there," Harper said. "So it was fun. But at the same time, it was business too. We had to take care of business, do what we were supposed to do and we came out on top."
Not long ago, the thought of UK taking down the SEC champion and advancing to the league tournament final would have seemed as farfetched as the idea of Epps and Harper playing such important roles. Now, the Cats are making their share of March Madness noise and intent on making more.
"It shows a lot about our character on and off the court," Harper said. "We don't really dwell on the past. We just focus on now and we still have a month left of basketball to play, so we're just worried about us now and just still practicing every day to get better."
UK, Tennessee set to face off in final
Immediately after UK's upset of South Carolina, Tennessee closed its semifinal matchup with Texas A&M on an 11-2 run en route to an 86-77 win over the Aggies. Isabelle Harrison had 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead the way.
"It was a battle and it was a grind," Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said.
UK claimed the lone regular-season matchup between the two rivals on Feb. 16, 75-71, the Cats' first win in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985.
"That was our goal, to get to the finals," Warlick said. "And then get an opportunity to play Kentucky, who beat us on our home floor..
Kentucky and Tennessee last matchup in the postseason in 2011, when the Lady Volunteers claimed the SEC Tournament championship with a 90-65 win over Kentucky.
DeNesha Stallworth scored all 13 of her points in the second half of UK's 75-70 win over Florida on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Time is running out on DeNesha Stallworth's decorated Kentucky career.
In fact, heading into UK's Southeastern Conference Tournament opener on Friday, Stallworth was guaranteed to play just two more games as a collegian.
That made the moment when she picked up her second foul early in the first half against Florida and the nearly 18 minutes on the bench that followed particularly painful.
"It was very frustrating, but my assistant coaches and Coach (Matthew) Mitchell just did a great job of just helping me to stay in the game and I think that really helped me in the second half," Stallworth said.
With Stallworth unable to play due to foul trouble, UK appeared on the verge of a third defeat at the hands of the Gators and an early SEC Tournament exit. The Cats were down 36-29 headed to the locker room and could not be certain of how ready Stallworth would be to contribute in the second half after being out for so long.
Stallworth -- in spite of being adversely affected in similar circumstances in the past -- was sure she'd be alright.
"In the past I would probably get frustrated and check out but I knew my team needed me," Stallworth said.
She was anything but checked out when she checked back in.
Within 45 seconds, she hit her first shot of the game, a layup. In the next two minutes, she had a pair of steals as UK rallied to within one point of the Gators by the first media timeout of the second half.
All told, Stallworth scored all 13 of her points after the break, hitting 5-of-7 shots and adding four second-half rebounds, but she was hardly the only Wildcat to step it up as UK (23-7) rallied to a 75-70 victory over Florida (19-12). With the win, the Cats set up a semifinal matchup against top-seeded South Carolina at noon ET.
Florida built its halftime lead on the strength of inside play, leading Mitchell to issue a challenge to his post players.
"I thought we sort of stepped back from the challenge in the first half," Mitchell said. "We didn't have a lot of toughness in the post in the second half of the first half. I just didn't think we were competing very hard in the paint. I thought Florida was much tougher in the first half."
The next time he was in front of his team in the locker room postgame, there's no way he could have said the same.
UK had 22-16 rebounding edge in the second half and 42-29 for the game en route to outscoring Florida in second-chance points, 16-6. The Cats also had 20 of their 34 points in the paint after the break.
"I thought our play on the interior really stepped up and battled there and played tougher in the second half," Mitchell said. "We made some real tough buckets."
UK would need every basket it could get because the Gators simply refused to wilt.
When the Cats took their first lead of the second half on a Linnae Harper free throw, Lily Svete answered with one of Florida's 10 3-pointers to put the Gators back in front at 53-51 with 9:30 left.
Two freshmen orchestrated UK's response, scoring or assisting on each of the Cats' next four baskets. Makayla Epps started the stretch with a pretty pass to DeNesha Stallworth for a layup before Linnae Harper grabbed a defensive rebound and hit a step-back jumper. Epps took back over from there, feeding Stallworth for another layup, then taking a pass from Stallworth for a layup of her own.
"Their result today was because they've been working so hard and they're extremely talented," Mitchell said.
Epps and Harper combined to help UK build a five-point lead, but there were no signs of the Cats pulling away, at least not until Stallworth hit a layup with 2:15 to go to give UK a six-point advantage. But those in The Arena at Gwinnett Center who thought the outcome was no longer in doubt quickly learned otherwise.
Cassie Peoples, who tied for the game high with 18 points, hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute sandwiched around a Stallworth turnover. The game, all of a sudden, was tied at 70-all with 1:29 to go.
This time, UK turned to more veteran players.
Janee Thompson (10 points, five assists) hit a jumper to give the Cats a lead, Samarie Walker had a clutch tip-in and Stallworth hit a free throw as UK came up with defensive stops on Florida's final three possessions to close it out.
"Florida played really, really hard," Mitchell said. "They have a very good basketball team. Beat us twice this year. Our players have worked really hard to improve since the last time we played them. So it was very gratifying to win this game and also to shake off a very poor first half."
The Cats couldn't help but go back to what happened during the 15 minutes that followed the first half in explaining why they were able to do that.
"The way we responded in the second half shows how much poise we really had going into the locker room," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored eight of her 11 points in the second half.
That poise manifested itself in a unique scene.
The Cats always spend halftime discussing what they did well in the first half and what they need to improve in the second, but usually only a select few voices are heard.
Not this time.
"That was the first time I heard everybody say something," O'Neill said. "From that moment, you could just tell that people were listening to what Matthew was saying about having poise, about coming out and playing for the first four minutes."
South Carolina another third-time challenge for Cats
Florida was responsible for two of UK's losses in SEC play, but the Cats got a measure of revenge on Friday.
In a Saturday semifinal, UK will look to do the same against South Carolina.
The Gamecocks have taken down Kentucky twice this season, most recently in a dominant 81-58 performance in Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 20.
"We have to play better defense than we did in Lexington," Mitchell said. "We didn't have a good defensive night at all. South Carolina really took it to us that night. We're going to have to battle a lot harder."
The Gamecocks shot 52.6 percent from the field in that game and 57.1 percent in a 67-48 quarterfinal win over Georgia on Friday. South Carolina certainly looks like the SEC champion and a potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed, but UK is not without reason for optimism.
"I think this team has worked really hard since that game as well," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a really tough game, and we just have to get our minds ready to battle for 40 minutes."
UK Hoops will open the SEC Tournament on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
College basketball teams, by and large, are judged by how they perform in the postseason.
Take Wichita State's men's team as an example. If the Shockers are bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, their unbeaten regular season will be viewed in a different light.
But when Matthew Mitchell considers how he'll remember his current Kentucky team, he doesn't need March to measure its worth.
"They've already shown me that they're a team," Mitchell said. "You can't do what they've done and you'll never be able to convince me that these kids aren't a team."
UK has had more successful regular seasons under Mitchell. In fact, the Wildcats' 22-7 record entering the postseason ties their worst in the last five years.
However, the way his team closed the regular season told Mitchell everything he needs to know.
A little more than three weeks ago, UK was 17-6 with losses in five of its previous nine games. The Cats were 5-5 in Southeastern Conference play with star senior DeNesha Stallworth still trying to rediscover her pre-injury form.
Since then, Kentucky has won five of six to earn the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The stretch includes road wins over top-25 opponents Tennessee and Texas A&M and the only loss was at the hands of league champion South Carolina.
"We've learned a lot, but I think that would be the biggest thing is it would have been very easy for us to say, 'Hey, we've had injuries, the ball is not going in the basket or we're suffering bad breaks,' and play the excuse game," Mitchell said.
Rather than play that excuse game, the Cats took a hard look in the mirror.
Adjusting to a new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play, Kentucky saw the full-court pressure defense that had lifted its program to unprecedented heights take a step back in 2013-14. There would be games where the Cats would look like their former selves, but consistency escaped them.
"I couldn't get figured out things on the floor," Mitchell said. "You can't touch the offense, but the offense can touch you. And so, we've had a struggle at guarding legally and that's my part for not figuring that out beforehand."
Mitchell's mea culpa belies the fact that he hardly ignored the new rules emphasis in the preseason.
"I just thought we were going to be at advantage because I kept hearing people say, 'Hey, you gotta back off, you gotta back off,' " Mitchell said. "And so what we did is we worked so hard. We worked harder on our footwork and harder than we ever have because we weren't going to change. We brought in officials before the year. They said, 'Gosh, you guys look great.' "
That didn't translate exactly as Mitchell hoped it would. In conference play, UK is forcing just 17.1 turnovers per game, a stark contrast to a season ago when the Cats' SEC opponents committed 21.7 turnovers per game. Meanwhile, UK has been whistled for 21.1 fours per game in SEC play this season, up from 18.6 last year.
The effect of UK's full-court press neutralized, Mitchell has had to reevaluate the way his team plays defense. UK's 81-58 loss to South Carolina was the final straw of sorts on that front.
"We have to do something different when we see a team like that, and we may see them (at the SEC Tournament) and we have to play differently than we did out here and that's totally on me and I have to get that done," Mitchell said.
"Now, I've had to change," Mitchell said on Wednesday, "and they looked really good this morning in some defenses that we wouldn't normally see a typical Kentucky team playing and so they're real good defenders, but I was slow to change there and that's totally on me and my fault."
With all the success Kentucky had had with the "40 minutes of dread" defense, it's understandable that it's taken some time for Mitchell to move away from it. It would have been also been understandable had the Cats taken a while to adjust to the shift, but they are fully on board whether UK is in full-court man-to-man press, half-court zone or anything in between.
"I think there was a lot of expectations placed on our team," Mitchell said. "We certainly embraced those at the beginning of the season, so when you go through some of the struggles that we went through, as a coach, I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to change or make the necessary changes. I think it shows a lot about our players, their character and how hard they worked and really, really proud of this group."
That won't change based on what happens in the postseason, which starts for UK on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. That doesn't mean the Cats won't be giving the SEC Tournament all they've got.
"We're going to go down there and we're going to try to be the tightest, most together team at the tournament and we're not going to worry about anybody else and we're just try to go out and have a very good game plan for Friday afternoon, whoever that is, and play our hearts out and see where that gets us," Mitchell said.
Some coaches may view conference tournaments as just another step en route to the NCAA Tournament, but not Mitchell. UK is headed to Duluth, Ga., with every intention of making it to Sunday and winning.
"It's a fantastic event," he said. "I've always said if you win this tournament, you've identified yourself as a very, very good basketball team. We'll have to play well and play hard and see if we can keep advancing in the tournament."
DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points in her final regular-season home game on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
With two players -- DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- who have transformed Kentucky's style of play celebrating their Senior Day on Sunday, Matthew Mitchell drew up an appropriate game plan.
Facing a smaller Vanderbilt team, Mitchell called for the Wildcats to throw the ball into the post early and often.
"Coach pretty much told the guards in practice -- even during the game -- that we have an advantage on the inside," Stallworth said. "So that was really our big emphasis and the high-low was very important."
Capitalizing on her opportunities, Stallworth scored a game-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting as No. 12/15 UK withstood Vandy in a 65-63 victory in Memorial Coliseum.
Walker, meanwhile, had just two points to go with her eight rebounds, but had four assists in often serving as the passer in UK's high-low attack against the Commodore zone. Three of those assists resulted in Stallworth baskets.
"I think me and Samarie, we play well together for the most part," Stallworth said. "So we were trying to take advantage of our size and get the ball inside."
UK (22-7, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) used that approached to build a first-half lead of as many as 17 points, but Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9 SEC) rallied when the two post players went to the bench with fouls. Walker picked up her second with 9:51 left and Stallworth did the same a little more than six minutes later.
"I thought when DeNesha (Stallworth) and Samarie (Walker) went to the bench that we just didn't have much inside presence, and that's where our advantage was," Mitchell said. "You really needed to get tough in there and make some decisions and get some reads against their 2-3 zone."
Vandy went on an 18-2 run and eventually trailed just 36-33 at the break. It would be a back-and-forth battle from that point on, with neither team leading by five until the final minute.
At that point, the Commodores made one final push. Vandy used a 3 by Christina Foggie, a steal and two Foggie free throws throws to close to within one with less than 15 seconds to go. Bria Goss (12 points) then hit one-of-two free throws before UK used solid defense to force a Jasmine Jenkins miss in the closing seconds.
"I'm going to tell you, this team worked so hard to get ready for today's game," Mitchell said. "I thought we had a few terrific moments and really made it tough on Vanderbilt, but at the end of the day, to be able to walk off that floor with a victory on Senior Day, there are not many better feelings than that."
The victory gives UK five in its last six games, an impressive feat considering the Cats' position at the start of that stretch. Kentucky then sat at 5-5 in conference play having lost five of nine games and facing a crisis of confidence. Now, UK will head to the SEC Tournament in Duluth, Ga., with a double bye as the No. 4 seed and a renewed sense of self-assurance entering its opener on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET.
"Four Sundays ago we were 5-5 and here we are still a No. 4 seed and I think that takes a lot of toughness and encouragement and support," Goss said. "I think that we really buckled down and got it together."
To Stallworth, togetherness is the most important word.
"I think us staying together was most important because it just would have been easy for everybody to go their separate ways and just say, 'You know, forget this,' " she said. "But I think we did a great job of just staying positive and just knowing that we have more opportunities ahead of us and we've just come together. That's why we're winning these games."
By closing with a win, UK sends off Stallworth, Walker, Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett with a win in their final regular-season home game, which was Mitchell's goal more than postseason positioning.
"Our focus and our sense of purpose came from trying to make sure we won for the seniors today," Mitchell said. "That was our focus today. We didn't really worry about seeding in the SEC Tournament."
A year from now, it will be Goss embracing her family before her final home game. That thought struck her as she watched her teammates do the same and she intends to carry it forward into what's ahead for UK.
"I just learned I'm a junior and next year I'm going to be a senior and how fast these seasons are going," Goss said. "I just want to send these seniors out right and go down to Duluth and just put on a show and just fight for them and leave it all on the court."