In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's
basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann
(men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald
(women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton
(rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) --
participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia
sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns
sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note
that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the
views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of
Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Bria Goss writes about the group's final hours in Ethiopia and looks back how a memorable trip changed her forever.
Today is the last day in Ethiopia and I feel like I just got here. I feel like I need to stay longer because there was still more to be done. I knew I had to make the best of the last day!
After breakfast we went to visit kids while they were learning at school. There were so many kids learning their ABCs and learning to count. We completely distracted a class by our entrance. We were so energetic and ready to play with the kids. Some were shy, but most were pretty open. They were first and second graders and for their age, they spoke pretty clear English. I noticed how well they got along with each other. They were very polite and generous to each other and really tried to show the same generosity and politeness to me even though we just met.
They were so eager to show me what they know. I was blown away by their willingness to learn. This was considered to be optional and the kids did not have to be there, but the class was full. There were no seats left open. The kids told me it was because everyone there cherishes school and wants to have a good education. I was in shock. Kids see the school as a way out. They are passionate because it can provide for their families.
There was one little girl that really stuck out to me. Her sassy attitude and outgoing personality is going to lead her to a bright future. She stole the show by showing us her dance moves and spirit. She swung her hips and put her hands in the air as we sang our tune. The girl had skills! I could see her as the next winner on Got Talent!
After the fun time with the kids it was time to go. We went to a market to get some food supplies for the next city we were going to. The market was very busy and muddy. It smelled terrible and people were shoving things in your face to get you to buy their product. There were flies everywhere, which gave me goose bumps! After we got the food we left to the market to go to drop off the food to the widows. They were so thankful for the blessings we brought them. They repeatedly said "May God bless you" and "Thank you, God bless"! This put a smile on my face. I fell in love with serving others! I want to help people with nothing in return. I get the utmost joy when I put smiles on other people's faces.
After passing out the food it was time to pack up and leave. We had about an hour to shower and get our things together and get something to eat. We gathered downstairs to eat and after we all finished, we gave Girma money to get his driver's license. He was thrilled and surprised. We wanted to do this for him because to get his license was very expensive and he had just about given up on his dream of one day being able to drive. Now, he will be able to take his test and get his license. We were happy to help him and be a part of something so special.
We then left for the airport and said our final goodbyes! It was so hard saying goodbye to our new friends. They were a big help and made the trip so much easier. I love how well this team came together and became friends. We weren't ready to leave. We got to the airport around 7 and we board at 9:30. This plane ride was a little different than the first. We were all close now so this made the flight more enjoyable.
Eighteen hours later, we were back in the U.S. The trip was life-changing. I know more than I ever thought I would about Ethiopia and had the chance to experience it firsthand. This trip will stay with me forever. The thing that really sticks to me is that life is not about what you do or don't have. It's about the relationships you build. It's about the friendships you cherish. It's about the people you reach out to. I learned how to give willingly and what that feels like. I learned to put others before myself to lift them up. I am not perfect, but living for God you don't have to be.
It was so good to be in Ethiopia but hearing "Welcome home Mr Sutton" felt too good. Glad I was able to take part in such an amazing trip.
In late July, nine student-athletes - Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) - participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
To start off, Bria Goss writes about the group's first day of travel and time in Washington, D.C.
By Bria Goss
This is the day we have all been waiting for. As excitement rises, so does nervousness. There are so many questions running through my mind as I make my final preparations for the trip. I am unsure what to expect when I get to Ethiopia, even though I have a pretty clear image.
The plan was to meet in the K Fund office to get lots of snacks from Coach Rock (Oliver) and double-check our bags to make sure we had everything. Today is Haley Mills' birthday so Katrina very generously gave her homemade brownies. Katrina and Haley had only met once or twice before that and Katrina already showed an act of kindness by giving her brownies. From that point on, I knew I had to make friends with Katrina to get some sweets on my birthday!!!
As 10:30 a.m. rolled around, it was time to load the bus and head to Cincinnati where we will depart for Washington, D.C. I slept the whole ride to catch up on some much-needed rest. We arrived at the airport and check our bags. Everyone was so nice helping us along and pointing us to our next destination. We had a wonderful lunch in the airport and continued on our way. As we boarded the plane was when I first realized I was traveling to Ethiopia.
The plane ride was smooth and I slept the whole hour and a half. When we got to the Washington, D.C. Airport, we quickly grabbed our bags and headed to the hotel. After we dropped everything off in the rooms, we met in the lobby for our tour. Our tour guide, Zuma, was awesome. Not only did he make the tour interesting, he taught me a lot about D.C. Zuma took us everywhere: the Pentagon, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Capitol, the White House and much more. He made the tour special and enjoyable.
After the tour was done, we went to dinner. This is where I really got the chance to talk with the other student-athletes. As the day went on, we became closer. After a great meal, we surprised Haley by telling the waiter it was her birthday. The staff of the restaurant came out singing happy birthday with a lot of energy. Haley was shocked! The look on her face was priceless.
After a night of many laughs, we loaded back up in our bus and headed for the hotel. We had a long day the next day so we wanted to get some rest. I am so excited to see what this trip has to offer. I am still so thankful for this amazing opportunity.
Big thanks everybody for all the love as we head to Ethiopia today. Proud to be apart of an athletic dept that makes a difference #weareUK
Matthew Mitchell has pledged $1 million in donations over the next 10 years to UK Athletics. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In the life of a head coach, 10 years is a long time. Given the competitiveness of college sports, moving is all but a guarantee over the course of a decade.
But on Friday, Matthew Mitchell made a long-term commitment to UK Athletics. Pledging $1 million in donations over the next 10 years to the athletics department with his wife Jenna, Mitchell is showing that UK is more than his place of work.
"The problem we have here at UK now is that even if they ask me to leave coaching, I've become such a big fan then I'll just be at all the games for everybody else," Mitchell said. "Then I'll start calling in on all the call-in shows and really get riled up. It'll probably be better for them that they keep me on for a while because we're not going anywhere."
Jokes about his future aside, it's highly unlikely UK will want Mitchell going anywhere. His seven-year tenure has brought with it unprecedented success for UK Hoops even though Mitchell says it started with Mitch Barnhart taking a chance.
"I wasn't the biggest name that Mr. Barnhart could have hired and so some people would call that good luck or good fortune," Mitchell said. "I call that a blessing. I call that a blessing from God. That's the only way I know how to make sense of it. God's really provided some unbelievable opportunities for me in my life. And for Jenna and me, we have found a home here in Lexington and so we would love to be a big part of this community and do our part in this community and try to help this community move forward."
Mitchell has already shown his commitment to the Lexington community on multiple occasions, but this donation -- the largest ever by a UK Athletics employee to the athletics department -- is the clearest proof yet.
"Matthew has said to me on multiple occasions how much UK and the city of Lexington mean to him and how it's the perfect spot for his wife, Jenna, and his children," Barnhart said in a release. "His ability to grow our women's basketball program into one of the top programs in the country has given him a platform to impact others in a variety of ways. One of those ways is with a philanthropic heart in many areas of our community. He and Jenna wanted to show their appreciation to other sports programs in our athletic department by supporting our capital growth. This gift will allow us to support and grow the things we are trying to do in our football program, which at the end of the day gives support to all of our student-athletes and teams at Kentucky."
Mitchell's gift, spread out in $100,000 over each of the next 10 years, will be used to help fund a variety of capital projects, including football facility upgrades. Mitchell knows those upgrades help not only Mark Stoops' program.
"People need to understand football really makes so many things happen for the rest of us in this department," Mitchell said. "We need football to be thriving and healthy at Kentucky and with Mark Stoops as our head coach I don't have any doubt that that is going to happen."
A $100-plus million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium is already in progress and another $45 million in funding for a new football practice facility was approved in January.
"The incredible renovation at Commonwealth is just really going to put our football program, I think, at the forefront of the country," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a great experience at Commonwealth Stadium in the years to come. We're excited to be a part of that and help that out if we can."
The donation will surely be helpful and appreciated, but it was solely borne out of the Mitchells wanting to make yet another positive impact on the place they've come to call home.
"It's an individual decision because of how good God has been to us," Mitchell said. "No one has pressured us to do this or asked us to do this. This is just what we want to do because of the blessings we've received and it's no more complicated than that. We just love this university. We love the people."
The feeling is mutual.
"I want people to know and understand what special, special people Matthew and Jenna are to this community," Barnhart said. "I'm very thankful for their generosity, team approach and long-term vision to this athletics department and this university."
Linnae Harper scored 14 points off the bench in UK's Sweet 16 loss to Baylor. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Tony Neely, UK Athletics
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Kentucky's season ended Saturday, as it does for all but one of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with a defeat.
The Wildcats fought gamely but fell 90-72 against No. 5-ranked Baylor, which was the No. 2 seed in the Notre Dame Regional and moves on to the Elite Eight.
It was a rematch of the epic 133-130 four-overtime classic that Kentucky won back in December. And although this outcome didn't turn out the same way today, the Wildcats can be no less proud of their effort, or their season.
"I'm really proud of the players for the season that we had," coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We had some heavy expectations on us (before the season) and things started going in a way (in mid-season) that we didn't feel like we were going to meet any of those.
"They were able to get it back together, so we learned a lot, experienced a lot. We became very close as a team this year. I built some great relationships that we wouldn't have done any other way if we hadn't had that adversity, so I'm really proud of them, they had a lot of great moments. I think we'll look back on this season as being very significant in the development of our program."
Kentucky completed the campaign with a 26-9 worksheet, setting numerous accomplishments not just for this season but over the careers of seniors Kastine Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker and Bernisha Pinkett.
This year extended UK's school-record streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth time among those five tourney appearances.
UK has charted at least 25 wins the last five seasons, another school record.
This year contained five wins over Top-10 ranked opponents -- Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road, South Carolina and Baylor at neutral sites and Louisville at home.
"We've been underdogs for so many years and we've always been able to come together as a team and prove people wrong," Stallworth said. "I'm sure many people thought we wouldn't be in this position with the way we started the SEC but we're just proud of ourselves and what we accomplished during the year."
The second edition of the Baylor contest turned out to be a game of frustration for the Wildcats. It began well enough; UK got an early lead and forced a flurry of missed shots on the defensive end - including six straight misfires by All-American Odyssey Sims - but that is where the trouble began.
The taller Bears grabbed rebound after rebound, controlling 10 of the first 11 boards of the game, and began cashing in on the second chances. Problems compounded on the offensive end as the Wildcats earned good opportunities but saw four layups crawl around the rim and fall off. Baylor capitalized with a 16-2 run and led 20-7.
To their credit, the Cats didn't panic and started scratching out of the hole. Makayla Epps began scoring on drives to the hoop. DeNesha Stallworth tallied post-up baskets. Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill got to the free-throw line, and when O'Neill canned a couple of freebies with 4:31 remaining, the Cats had pulled within 32-28.
Then, the decisive time came. Sparked by a suddenly hot Sims, Baylor closed the first half with a 17-4 spurt, and the Wildcats found themselves on the wrong end of a 49-32 halftime score.
Kentucky battled just as gamely in the second half and got within 12 points on four occasions but could get no closer.
An analysis of the game shows that Baylor's height advantage was simply too much. The Bears outrebounded the Cats, collected 20 second-chance points on offensive rebounds and totaled 50 points in the paint. Sims, who came in averaging 28.5 points per game, was held below her average but still showed why she is one of the nation's best with 25 points.
The Wildcats were led by Stallworth, who totaled 19 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Linnae Harper sparked UK's second-half rallies and finished with 14. As noted above, Goss got to the foul line and made 9 of 10 en route to 13 points.
The ending, however, shouldn't overshadow what was another outstanding season for Kentucky. In addition to the 26 wins, the hallmark of this team was who they were and what they overcame.
This group truly came together as a team. Eleven players saw action on a regular basis. And even though UK had one of the nation's top scoring units with more than 81 points per game, no one averaged more than 13. UK shared the ball, shared the defense and shared the responsibility when adversity hit.
As Mitchell alluded to, the Wildcat ship endured some rough sailing early in the SEC schedule. The Cats were 5-5 in league play with the toughest part of the schedule straight ahead. But Captain Mitchell and his players came together to right the ship, grab some memorable wins down the stretch, reach the finals of the SEC Tournament and go to yet another NCAA Sweet 16.
"I want to thank our players for battling through some tough circumstances and doing a good job this year," said Mitchell, who once again showed his respect for his seniors.
"Bernisha had a lot of great moments on the court but I'm more proud of her for getting her college degree. She comes from a neighborhood where only two percent of kids even try college and less than one percent ever finish college. She is a success story just by walking across that (graduation) stage," Mitchell said. "Kastine, you want your child to be like her, she's just such a wonderful young woman.
"Samarie and DeNesha really gifted us with their presence, transferring here and helping elevate the program. Hopefully they benefited from it, too. A class group of seniors, really proud and feel blessed by God that I got to coach them."
And although their seasons end like almost everyone else's, the seniors can hold their head high when they think of what they've done at Kentucky.
"I'm very proud of the team, proud of the coaches and myself as well," Walker said. "I think we've come a long way from when I was being recruited by UK in high school, just seeing how the program has changed and knowing I've had an impact on that really makes me happy."
Evans also was able to look past today's disappointment and take the long-range view.
"My class (committed to Kentucky in Nov. 2009) before that first team with Amber Smith, Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin went to the Elite Eight (in 2010), so we came in wanting to make a change," Evans said. "A lot of credit goes to our class, although we're still up and coming and still have a lot more to do as a program, I think we have put our face out there and start having Kentucky be recognized."
Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
When the bracket was unveiled, the matchup immediately stood out.
Kentucky and Baylor, back in December, slugged it out to the tune of four overtimes with the Wildcats coming out on top in a game that appeared at times might never end.
And there the two teams were in the Notre Dame Regional, poised to meet again in the Sweet 16.
"The committee has really just a tough, tough job to do, but you just have to believe they have a sense of humor too," Matthew Mitchell said on the night the field was revealed.
Selection Monday, however, was a long time ago.
To make the rematch happen, the third-seeded Cats (26-8) would need to advance past Wright State and Syracuse in hosting first- and second-round games for the first time in school history.
For their part, the second-seeded Lady Bears (31-4) would have to beat Western Kentucky University and California at home.
As fate would have it, UK and Baylor would take care of business, setting the stage for a reprisal of that thriller in Arlington, Texas. On the line for the Cats at noon on Saturday will be their third Elite Eight trip in as many seasons and fourth in five years.
"It will be a real, real test for our team," Mitchell said. "Baylor has a fantastic team and they've had a great season and we know from firsthand experience how tough they are and so we'll just have to continue to try and prepare well."
In that first matchup, both teams had every opportunity to pack it in during UK's 133-130 win that set an NCAA record for most points in a game.
The Cats could have given in as Baylor's Odyssey Sims hit shot after shot and scored 47 points. The Lady Bears could have yielded as Jennifer O'Neill went off for a career-high 43 and certainly when Sims fouled out late in the first overtime period. Neither would, of course, and a classic ensued.
Nearly four months later, the Cats wouldn't mind another back-and-forth battle. Four overtimes though? That's a different story.
"Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."
The length of the game isn't the only thing Mitchell would like to see change.
While viewers surely enjoyed the scoring and big shots of the first edition of UK-Baylor, Mitchell -- a coach with a sterling defensive reputation -- found himself trying to keep from covering his eyes when he broke out the film.
"When you go back and watch that game, it was a very exciting game to watch, but from a coaching standpoint, it wasn't fun to go back and watch the kind of defense we played," Mitchell said. "We just didn't have a very good defensive night at all."
Sims was the primary reason for that.
"She was terrific," Mitchell said.
Accordingly, Sims has come up often in practice this week.
"(Baylor) really gets the ball in Sims' hands a lot and she's just so explosive and so tough to guard," Mitchell said. "We really try to work hard on how we're going to defend her and then their overall offensive scheme and get as solid as we could. We did a lot of defensive work yesterday."
With a player like Sims, Mitchell said it is the responsibility of all five players on the floor to guard her. That's particularly true when it comes to drawing charges.
"We were able to get her out of the last game by drawing charges and I think you have to have the guts to stand in and take some hits from her because she's so aggressive going to the basket," Mitchell said. "She's really, really physical trying to get loose from denials and things like that so you have to stay strong and that call goes in your favor."
Four of Sims' five fouls against Kentucky were of the offensive variety.
But don't make the mistake of thinking Sims -- the nation's second-leading scorer at 28.5 points per game -- is a one-woman show. The Lady Bears proved otherwise the first time around.
"They have more than just her," Mitchell said. "They have a really good team with good players that made a lot of good plays in that game. One benefit of the game was you could really see their full complement of players because everybody had to get in that game because it was so long."
Much more is on the line this time though. Both teams have a goal of reaching the Final Four and this is the next step. In fact, Mitchell wants it to be the only step the Cats think about right now.
"Baylor will be a huge test, but what we tried to talk about (Wednesday) was getting our mind off the Final Four and getting our mind on Baylor because you can't go if you don't win Saturday," Mitchell said.
UK will face Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 9:45 p.m. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- In five years, John Calipari has left his mark on Kentucky fans.
He's helped them learn to "enjoy the ride," to maintain just a little bit more on an even keel through the ups and downs of a long season. He's shown them that putting players first can lead to the kind of program success expected at UK.
But try as he might, Coach Cal knows there's no changing the Big Blue Nation when it comes to Louisville.
"People grieve for a year after the game," Calipari said on the eve of a Sweet 16 matchup with the Cardinals. "People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work."
It doesn't work because the rivalry is too ingrained. Just ask Jarrod Polson, who grew up a UK fan before going on to a four-year career playing for his favorite team.
"I was born to hate Louisville," Jarrod Polson said, only half joking.
Those are the feelings at play on both the blue and red sides of a Sweet 16 showdown between UK (26-10) and Louisville (31-5). On Friday at 9:45 p.m., bragging rights will be decided. Coach Cal knows better than to think he can control any of that, but it's another story with his team.
"We will not make this game bigger than it is," Calipari said. "It's an NCAA Tournament game. We've gotta play a basketball game against a really good team. Every team still standing is playing a really good team. So that's my message. Don't make it bigger than it is. Just play."
To that end, Coach Cal has given very specific directions to the Wildcats.
"Don't watch any TV," Calipari said. "Watch the History Channel, watch Biography, watch the Military Channel, watch movies and don't read anything, don't look at anything. It has no bearing on this game we're about to play."
That's not a difficult message to put into practice because, really, how could there be anything bigger than playing in the NCAA Tournament? No matter the opponent, there are only two options at this stage of the season: win or go home.
"I don't want to disrespect the rivalry or anything, but we're playing for something bigger than the rivalry," Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters in UK's locker room, television tuned to CNN.
Taking his turn after Kentucky's time with the media was up, Louisville star senior Russ Smith was asked about the way Cauley-Stein views the game. Though he has a couple years and a few extra games of UK-U of L experience on most of the Cats, he agrees.
"It is a rivalry game," Smith said. "There's no way around it. But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game. They would have to play with the same enthusiasm and wake up reading the same scouting report as if they were playing a UCLA in the Sweet 16 or UConn. It's just the same game face.
"You just want to get to the next round. And that's what's most important. I feel the same way. I felt the same way the last two, three years, coming into this program, be prepared for every team the same way."
Count U of L head coach Rick Pitino -- a man intimately familiar with the rivalry -- in the same camp.
"I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice," Pitino said. "Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play."
Polson is the only scholarship Wildcat who was in uniform for that national semifinal matchup. When he stepped into the Superdome in 2012, he remembers all thoughts about the rivalry -- long as he's been on the UK side of it -- going out the window.
"I mean, in that Final Four game, to me and our team, two years ago it didn't really seem like a rivalry at all," Polson said. "Once you get so far in the tournament there really is no rivalry games. It's just getting to the next round. That's how we saw it back then and I think that's how we're looking at it this year."
Three months ago, the Cats and Cards faced off when the rivalry was the biggest thing at play. Then, UK picked up its signature regular-season win in Rupp Arena, 73-66.
"Honestly, I don't even remember the first game, the first time we played them," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, the only thing I can really take from that is we fought for the whole 40 minutes of the game and that's what we have to do tomorrow, is just play like we played against Wichita (State), which we didn't even realize how close we were to winning or losing the game until the buzzer."
In defeating Louisville, the Cats played with the kind of 40-minute intensity that's become their hallmark in the postseason. With that, UK has improved by the day since the Southeastern Conference Tournament, making them a far different team than on Dec. 28.
"I think we just all settled down and just started thinking about having fun and it's still basketball," Aaron Harrison said, explaining UK's improvement. "We just go out there and have fun and fight for each other."
In a battle of Louisville's experience -- four starters played key roles on last year's title team -- and UK's youth, that carefree approach could work in the Cats' favor.
"The difference between freshmen is freshmen are going to play hard no matter what," Smith said. "That's what's so scary. Freshmen, regardless of how prepared they are, regardless of how trained they are, they're going to always be ready to play and they're always going to come play hard. They may not do the right things, but they're always going to be ready to play."
Differently comprised as UK and U of L may be, their goals -- and their approach to facing their archrival in the tournament -- are the same.
"The goal is to get to the Elite Eight," Smith said. "If you let the university or the other school that you're playing against get in the way of that it could potentially become a problem."
"We're playing to move on and that's the way we're coming into the game," Cauley-Stein said. "We're not thinking about, 'Oh it's Louisville so it's a must-win because it's Louisville. It's a must-win because we're trying to win a national championship."
To bring you more
expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining
forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are
accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog,
but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.