DeNesha Stallworth had 15 points and six rebounds after halftime in UK's comeback win over Louisville on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell didn't mince words with his star senior at halftime.
DeNesha Stallworth had just turned in a one-point, two-rebound first half, missing all six of her shots as Kentucky fell behind on its home floor, 36-27.
There are times in practices and games when Mitchell uses softer, more measured motivational tactics with Stallworth, but this wasn't one of them. Not with UK's archrival in town for a matchup of top-10 teams.
"DeNesha Stallworth did not have a good first half," Mitchell said. "And so, we had a very pointed conversation at halftime about her first half."
Stallworth allowed a few early misses from short range to derail her and she entered the locker unsure exactly what was going on in her own mind. Mitchell's frank talk crystallized that for her.
"He basically just told me that I'm not playing how I could be playing and just play relaxed and stop being so selfish," Stallworth said. "And I was being a little selfish, just not helping my team. So I just took that personal and tried to contribute more to my team, whether that's rebounding or scoring points or doing the little things that matter."
In the second half, she did all of the above.
Stallworth played 17 minutes as UK rallied from a deficit that grew to as large as 14 points. She scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed six rebounds and the No. 7 Wildcats moved to 8-0 with an early-season signature win over No. 3/4 Louisville, 69-64.
"To her credit, she turned it around and we certainly would not have won without her big second half," Mitchell said. "She is a really good player and I am glad we can learn a lesson out of a win instead of having to learn it through the pain of defeat."
Stallworth isn't the only player who has lessons to learn even though UK defeated a top-five opponent at home for the first time since 2000 on Sunday afternoon. She also wasn't the only player who heard from Mitchell at the break.
"We kind of got punched in the mouth in the first half and when Matthew came in and started, you know, basically yelling at us and telling us what we needed to do and what we weren't doing, it just made us want to play and show him we came here to play, we're ready to compete and we didn't work this hard to get where we're at to just give up a game like this," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half.
The focus for the Cats was simple in the second half: It was all about defense and rebounding.
Louisville built its first half lead on the strength of a 23-13 rebounding edge. The Cardinals scored nine second-chance points to UK's zero in the first 20 minutes, using those extra opportunities to shoot 50 percent from the field.
"It was definitely frustrating knowing that a lot of their points were from the o-boards and from free throws," Stallworth said. "We knew if just limited those two things and just boxed out and got those rebounds, it would be tougher for them to score."
In the second half, Stallworth was proven right.
UK outrebounded U of L 26-21 and immediately began cutting into the nine-point halftime deficit. The Cardinals would hold the lead until the 10:54 mark, but it was then that Bernisha Pinkett hit the first of her two 3-pointers to give UK its first lead since the opening minutes. Seventy-two seconds later, she hit another to put the Cats up 51-45.
"This was not my first year being in a big game," Pinkett said. "I knew when I got in, whatever he needed me to do I had to be ready; whether it was getting a stop on defense, getting a rebound, or making a 3. It so happened to be me being down and ready for the kick out for the 3. I was just saying when I get this ball, put your elbow in, knock it down and get back on defense.
U of L would answer with two 3s by Shoni Schimmel to tie it, but the sellout crowd of 7,963 in Memorial Coliseum wasn't about to let UK lose from there.
"A terrific game today and a terrific atmosphere, we really appreciate all the fans that came out," Mitchell said. "... Really, really appreciate our fans for coming out and making it a sellout and for providing such a great atmosphere for women's college basketball."
Benefitting from that electric atmosphere, UK beat Louisville for the 16th straight time in Memorial and third consecutive overall.
"It's really, really cool," Pinkett said. "That's just one team that, whenever it's time to play them, we get super, super fired up and it was just one of those nights we weren't going to let them come in our house and win."
UK's starting point guard, Janee Thompson is averaging 9.3 points entering Sunday's game against Louisville. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Janee Thompson had quite an initiation into the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.
Then a freshman, Thompson had the best game of her first season at UK almost exactly a year ago. On an evening when her teammates could hardly make a shot, she scored 13 points in just 16 minutes.
Thompson saved her best for last, scoring the game's final six points in a 48-47 comeback win, the last coming on a broken-play 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left and the shot clock about to expire. It's a play she won't soon forget.
"I remember that I was dribbling a lot," Thompson said, laughing, "and I was really just trying to make something happen and the shot clock was running down and I had to make a play."
Even if she did somehow forget, her teammates would surely remind her quickly, but not so much for the shot itself. They enjoy how Thompson reacted. In her words, she "looked a mess" as she celebrated.
"I don't have it on DVD, but I've seen it a million times and my teammates like to make fun of the reaction after I hit the shot," Thompson said. "So I see it a lot."
Makayla Epps remembers it too.
"Janee hits that 3 and literally almost threw my remote through the TV," Epps said. "I was ecstatic."
Epps, now a freshman, is set to play her first game in the in-state rivalry on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. She wouldn't mind making her debut in a fashion similar to Thompson, but the game will hardly serve as an introduction to UK-U of L. Not only did Epps grow up Lebanon, Ky., she also came to Kentucky after originally verbally committing to play at Louisville.
She attended multiple UK-U of L games as a fan, including the one two years ago in Memorial when the Wildcats won 74-54.
"At the time, I was a (junior) so I was like, 'This is nuts,' " Epps said. "I was loving it. It was a heck of a game. Kentucky-Louisville, regardless of who it is or what you are, this is going to be a crazy game to you."
Adding to the crazy is the fact that Kentucky and Louisville enter the matchup as two of the nation's top teams. No. 7 UK is 7-0 with each victory coming by double digits, while No. 4/3 Louisville sports the same record and wins over LSU, Oklahoma and Florida State.
It's only December, of course, but whichever team comes out on top will have an early resume win as both bid for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. On Wednesday, UK announced that tickets to the game were sold out, meaning a capacity crowd will be there to watch.
UK fans in attendance will likely see shades of their own team in U of L, as the Cardinals play at a pace and apply pressure similar to the Wildcats. Kentucky is averaging 98.1 points and forcing 26.9 turnovers a game, while Louisville has averages of 88.4 points and 21.1 turnovers in the same two categories.
"You have to be ready to handle a double-team and sometimes triple-team," Mitchell said. "They are bringing some people at you, so you have to be prepared for that. It's unlike anything we've seen up to this point. They are clearly the best defensive team we've faced."
U of L isn't half-bad on offense either.
The Cardinals boast a balanced attack, led by Shoni Schimmel. The senior helped carry Louisville to the national championship game a season ago and headlines seven players scoring more than eight points a game with averages of 12.9 points and 4.7 assists in 2013-14. The senior guard is on the watch list for every major national award for good reason.
"Schimmel, what a terrific career she's had," Mitchell said. "She's a really, really good player. She can make deep shots and handle the basketball and is a real smart defender."
UK's effectiveness in limiting Schimmel could go a long way toward determining Sunday's outcome. Kentucky and Louisville have matched up each of her first three seasons. In the two UK wins, she totaled just 30 combined points on 11-for-33 shooting. In U of L's lone victory, Schimmel scored 26 on 9-of-18 shooting.
"We'll just have to make her earn everything, which is what we've always tried to do, is to try to make her work hard to get everything," Mitchell said. "Rarely can you shut a player like that down. You have to make her work and make them really, really play hard throughout the course of the game."
Playing hard, in Mitchell's estimation, will be the deciding factor when it comes to both guarding Schimmel and for the game in general.
"I think the intensity level of the game will be terrific and we'll have to see if we can exceed their level of intensity and exceed their level of play," Mitchell said. "We'll see if we can play a little bit harder and see if we can find a way to win."
By no means would a loss prevent Kentucky from accomplishing its goals this season, but the Cats also don't hide from how much this game means.
"It's a big game," Mitchell said. "I think any time we get together in any sport it's certainly important for our fans, so no matter what the records are I think it's an important game, very important for us at Kentucky."
Samarie Walker had a career-high 22 points and 12 rebounds in UK's 117-77 win over Bradley on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Save for a five-minute first-half stretch, Bradley hung with No. 7 Kentucky.
The Braves weren't afraid to run with the Wildcats. They took advantage of holes in the UK press and scored in transition. And for the 34:47 outside that first-half spurt, the Wildcats only outscored the Braves by 15.
But fortunately for UK, there's no ignoring a 25-0 run.
"It was a devastating run for Bradley," Matthew Mitchell said. "Just really hard for them to recover from that."
It began halfway through the first half. UK's lead was a tenuous five points as the visitors were proving Mitchell right about how formidable an opponent Bradley would be.
It ended with 4:33 to go before halftime. In a flash, Kentucky was up 51-21 and well on its way to a 117-77 victory to move to 7-0 on the season entering a Sunday matchup with archrival Louisville.
"That stretch, we got kind of rattled a little bit with their pressure," said Bradley assistant Skyler Young, who was filling in for head coach Michael Brooks after the birth of his son. "We had some turnovers, but more importantly I feel we had some bunnies and layups that we had to make to stop the bleeding of that run."
UK scored 16 points off seven Bradley turnovers during the back-breaking run. The Braves missed all seven of their shots from the field, while UK shot 8 for 9. Six different Wildcats scored, led by Jennifer O'Neill, who scored eight of her 14 points during the stretch.
In Mitchell's estimation, the run was all about defense.
"We finally got some good traps set and hustled enough to get some good traps set," Mitchell said. "I think today the pace was such that that was really the only time in the game where we had enough energy and substitutes came in off the bench and were able to get into Bradley's conditioning."
As impressive as the run was, the Cats didn't even process that it happened until after the fact.
"Actually, we're not aware of what's going on," said DeNesha Stallworth, who had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. "We just try to break it down and win every four minutes at a time, just play hard and play Kentucky basketball."
Bria Goss is averaging 11.7 points on 50-percent shooting this season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Starting on Sunday, the Kentucky women's basketball team will begin a stretch during which it will face four ranked foes in five games.
A matchup with No. 4/3 and archrival Louisville will tip it off, while games against No. 9 Baylor, No. 25 DePaul and No. 2 Duke follow.
But as intimidating as the December schedule may be, Matthew Mitchell isn't thinking about it. Not yet. The Wildcats have another tough opponent to think about first.
"There's not one thought in our mind but Bradley Braves," Mitchell said. "They are a very dangerous team, very tough team and (have) more than enough talent to make plays to win the game."
Bradley may enter Tuesday's game -- which tips at noon ET in Memorial Coliseum -- at 2-3, but Mitchell has been impressed by the Braves in scouting them. They boast a win over Illinois and a starting lineup featuring five players who are averaging at least 9.4 points per game.
"Their starting five is very, very impressive," Mitchell said. "We need to do everything we can to make our depth a positive factor in the game for us and this'll be a tough challenge for us tomorrow at noon."
Kelsey Budd, in Mitchell's mind, is the standout. The senior point guard has made 51 consecutive starts and is averaging 15.2 points, 3.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds.
"As you watch our personnel tape on her, she's able to make all the plays, get to the basket, push it in transition, get to the basket," Mitchell said. "She's able to hit the mid-range jumper, she has deep range from 3, so she can really push the ball."
Like the Central Michigan team UK defeated last Sunday, Bradley won't be afraid to run with the Wildcats. For that reason and a few others, the Braves have UK's undivided attention.
"Those are really good teams (UK will face in December), but the main focus right now is Bradley and taking it one game at a time," Bria Goss said. "Right now, we have a tough team in front of us and we're going to look at them as the top team in the nation."
Goss benefiting from more Mitchell attention
Mitchell has never been afraid of self-critique.
On Tuesday alone, he admitted to not using statistics well enough in evaluating his team and even questioned the way he handled Goss last season.
The junior guard was an immediate impact player, so Mitchell didn't feel the urgency to lead her that he did with other Cats who had a tougher time.
"She showed up and she just really had a great work ethic and did everything that you ask her to do, very little problems," Mitchell said. "Sometimes I don't do great with those players because, SEC Freshman of the Year, great success, I don't know that I did a great job of helping her until it was sort of too late last year and being more aware."
By no means did Goss have a bad season as a sophomore (she averaged 8.8 points while consistently taking on the toughest defensive assignments), but she shot just 38.5 percent from the field. But through six games this season, Goss is shooting 50 percent and scoring 11.7 points a game.
Mitchell attributes that improvement to Goss's work ethic, above all else, but also says a little added attention from her coaches has helped as well. That started with an offseason meeting during which Mitchell asked her to outline her goals and has continued throughout the season.
"It's just constantly trying to make sure that we stay connected and checked in with her and she's doing a terrific job and I'm so happy," Mitchell said. "When someone works hard like that and they see rewards from that hard work, it makes me very happy for Bria."
Goss never felt neglected but she does acknowledge the change over the offseason has helped.
"Over the summer we worked hard and I was in the office more, just building relationships," Goss said. "There will be times when Coach will take me out to eat and just talk. That carries over to the court and I think our bond has become stronger."
Mitchell talks 2014 signing class
On Tuesday, UK officially announced its four fall signees for the class of 2014.
Jaycee Coe, Ivana Jakubcova, Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice will join the team next fall and comprise a class that currently ranks among the top 20 nationally according to every major outlet.
"Not only do you have to have a high level of talent, you have to have the desire to be in this atmosphere and in the environment every day where we are really trying to push young women to be their best," Mitchell said. "We are so thrilled with the four players that we signed."
This was an important class for Mitchell because he will lose four seniors to graduation following the season, including starting post duo Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth. In Jennings and Rice, Mitchell sees shades of Walker and Stallworth.
"What I really loved about the high-school players, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings, is they have very good size, big post players, strong, but have the athleticism and the speed for us to continue to play an up-tempo style," Mitchell said. "Those are not the easiest players to find. It really is a small group of players each and every year."
Coe, a shooting guard, fills a need as well.
"Losing Kastine, losing Bernisha, two players who have throughout their careers made significant contributions," Mitchell said, "but both of them have been able to make shots from the perimeter and help us there and Jaycee Coe is one of the elite-level shooters in this class and what a high-character young woman she is."
Jakubcova -- a 6-foot-6 junior-college center -- doesn't have a facsimile on UK's current roster, but is still a welcome addition.
"She has great size and is really, really tall but still mobile," Mitchell said. "She is not a plodding, slow post. She has some great length and can be disruptive around the basket just with her size. The thing we liked most about her is her skillset. She can really run and catch and has great hands. You know, 15- to 17-foot range that is just knockdown deadly and we feel like she can make the 3 enough to keep people honest."