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Linnae Harper had 12 points a career-high 14 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Linnae Harper had 12 points a career-high 14 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The absence of Bria Goss and Kentucky's young complement of post players has forced Matthew Mitchell to adjust.

UK is now relying on a shorter rotation than at any time in recent memory. Most notably, UK is relying on a core of top producers -- Jennifer O'Neill, Janee Thompson, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper -- to carry an abnormally heavy load.

"Right now, where we are without Bria, you have to do what you do and you have to do it well," Mitchell said.

In Mitchell's mind, offensive rebounding tops Harper's list of strengths, but she wasn't getting the job done early in the Wildcats' Southeastern Conference home opener against Ole Miss. That's when he challenged the sophomore to do what she's capable of.

"Linnae's standing out around the perimeter and I just told her she had to get on the glass because she is an incredibly gifted offensive rebounder," Mitchell said. "She went from standing around to eight offensive boards like in a blink of an eye."

Harper had five of her eight offensive rebounds in the second half, including three in a 12-second stretch. It was no coincidence that No. 11 UK (13-2, 2-0 SEC) outscored the visiting Rebels (11-4, 1-1 SEC) by eight after halftime to complete a comeback from six points down with 15:53 remaining in a 64-58 win to overcome a short bench and 30.8-percent shooting.

"We are not as good a team when she doesn't understand how important that is," Mitchell said. "She's gotta get in there and get some boards for us."

All told, Harper had 14 rebounds, a career high, to go with her 12 points in her third career double-double. On the strength of her big afternoon, Harper surged into the team rebounding lead with an average of 6.9 per game even though all but two players on UK's roster are taller than the 5-foot-8 Chicago native.

"I think it's just really passion," Harper said. "I love rebounding and I've always loved rebounding even when I was younger. But as I get older and play on the college level, it gets harder. It's just really about focusing, just a mentality that if I just want to go get. In this game, I just think I had a lot of opportunities and I just went for them and did the best that I can do."

Harper is still working on making that mentality more consistent, but the ability has always been there. Four years ago, Mitchell was watching Thompson when her younger teammate announced herself loudly.

"I was recruiting Janee really hard to try to get her when Janee was a junior," Mitchell said. "And then this kid who was a sophomore is 5-3 or whatever she is and I was sitting under the goal one day at an AAU game and the kid just gets up off the floor and takes it off the rim and I'm like, 'What just happened right there?' "

What happened was Harper took advantage of her explosive vertical leap and uncanny sense of timing.

"You can't teach it," Mitchell said. "There's nothing--Victoria Dunlap had it; Linnae has it. It's a gift, is what it is."

Harper's timing was once again on display in the waning moments.

Even as UK built a five-point lead at the 4:18 mark, Ole Miss wouldn't back down. The Rebels rallied to tie the game, but Harper had two of her game-high four steals a decisive 57-second period.

"Game could go either way," Mitchell said. "Somebody's gotta make a play. Who's going to make a play? These kind of games go that way all the time and she made two huge defensive plays and I just can't tell you how proud I am of her. That was crucial to us being victorious today."

Harper, who hasn't always been a defensive standout, stopped short of saying she couldn't have made the plays a season ago, but did acknowledge her improvement.

"Today in the game I was just really anticipating, just waiting for it and it was all about timing," Harper said. "I just think over time I just got better at playing defense and anticipating and trying to get steals."

Thanks in large part to Harper's tireless effort on the offensive glass and clutch plays on defense, the Cats survived another hard-fought SEC battle to move to 2-0 in league play. For the time being, that's the way it's going to have to be.

"You gotta do what you can do right now so we can some games until we can smooth this thing out a little bit and become a more complete team," Mitchell said.

UK is now relying on a shorter rotation than at any time in recent memory. Most notably, UK is relying on a core of top producers: Jennifer O'Neill, Janee Thompson, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper.

"Right now, where we are without Bria, you have to do what you do and you have to do it well," Mitchell said.

In Mitchell's mind, offensive rebounding tops Harper's list of strengths, but she wasn't getting the job done early in the Wildcats' Southeastern Conference home opener against Ole Miss. That's when he challenged the sophomore directly to do what she's capable of.

"Linnae's standing out around the perimeter and I just told her she had to get on the glass because she is an incredibly gifted offensive rebounder," Mitchell said. "She went from standing around to eight offensive boards like in a blink of an eye."

Harper had five of her eight offensive rebounds in the second half, including three in a 12-second stretch. It was no coincidence that No. 11 UK (13-2, 2-0 SEC) outscored the visiting Rebels (11-4, 1-1 SEC) by eight to complete a comeback from six points down with 15:53 remaining in a 64-58 win to overcome a short bench and 30.8-percent shooting.

"We are not as good a team when she doesn't understand how important that is," Mitchell said. "She's gotta get in there and get some boards for us."

All told, Harper had 14 rebounds, a career high, to go with her 12 points in her third career double-double.  On the strength of her big afternoon, Harper surged into the team rebounding lead with an average of 6.9 per game even though all but two players on UK's roster are taller than the 5-foot-8 Chicago native.

"I think it's just really passion," Harper said. "I love rebounding and I've always loved rebounding even when I was younger. But as I get older and play on the college level, it gets harder. It's just really about focusing, just a mentality that if I just want to go get. In this game, I just think I had a lot of opportunities and I just went for them and did the best that I can do."

Harper is still working on making that mentality more consistent, but the ability has always been there in spite of her size. Four years ago, Mitchell was watching Thompson when her younger teammate announced herself loudly.

"I was recruiting Janee really hard to try to get her when Janee was a junior," Mitchell said. "And then this kid who was a sophomore is 5-3 or whatever she is and I was sitting under the goal one day at an AAU game and the kid just gets up off the floor and takes it off the rim and I'm like, 'What just happened right there?' "

What happened was Harper took advantage of her explosive vertical leap and uncanny sense of timing.

"You can't teach it," Mitchell said. "There's nothing--Victoria Dunlap had it; Linnae has it. It's a gift, is what it is."

Harper's timing was once again on display in the waning moments.

Even as UK built a five-point lead at the 4:18 mark, Ole Miss wouldn't back down. The Rebels rallied to tie the game, but Harper had two of her game-high four steals a decisive 57-second period.

"Game could go either way," Mitchell said. "Somebody's gotta make a play. Who's going to make a play? These kind of games go that way all the time and she made two huge defensive plays and I just can't tell you how proud I am of her. That was crucial to us being victorious today."

Harper, who hasn't always been a defensive standout, stopped short of saying she couldn't have made the plays a season ago, but did acknowledge her improvement.

"Today in the game I was just really anticipating, just waiting for it and it was all about timing," Harper said. "I just think over time I just got better at playing defense and anticipating and trying to get steals."

Thanks in large part to Harper's tireless effort on the offensive glass and clutch plays on defense, the Cats survived another hard-fought SEC battle to move to 2-0 in league play. For the time being, that's the way it's going to have to be.

"You gotta do what you can do right now so we can some games until we can smooth this thing out a little bit and become a more complete team," Mitchell said.


Video: UK Hoops completes comeback at Alabama

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Kentucky seemed in trouble in its Southeastern Conference opener, trailing by 10 at Alabama with 16:54 left, but the Wildcats stormed back for a 78-66 win. Alexis Jennings scored 21 points against her home-state school and Janee Thompson had a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists. Check out highlights of the win below.



As demanding as Matthew Mitchell is, he has to admit his three young post players are playing as hard as they ever have.

Alexis Jennings, Alyssa Rice and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers have all developed in their first college season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. The intensity of their play, game by game, is picking up.

"But it's just not quite hard enough for what's coming and what looms in the conference," Mitchell said.

Kentucky's non-league schedule is over and the Wildcats sit at 11-2 and No. 11 in both polls. Those young post players have had a lot to do with UK's strong start, too.

Jennings has come on strong of late, scoring in double figures in four straight games, including a 27-point explosion in a win over Tennessee State on Sunday. Goodin-Rogers, meanwhile, is averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in starting all 13 games, while Rice has contributed regularly as well.

But since last weekend's nonconference finale, the Cats have gone to work on taking the next step.

"It's some good, some bad and what we're really trying to do is even that out," Mitchell said. "And it's difficult because we're so young there and I just don't think--well, I think we're having a hard time understanding how hard we have to play."

Alabama, UK's first Southeastern Conference opponent, is likely to make the Cats pay if they aren't clear about that.

The Crimson Tide sit at 11-4 as it prepares to host UK at 3 p.m. ET on Friday. Sophomore forward Ashley Williams, averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, leads the way.

"It is going to be very, very challenging all season long and it opens up with a real tough one at Alabama," Mitchell said. "They are a very athletic team. They have what I think is just one of the toughest players in the league. Williams is just so tough down in the post, in the block and can also bring it out on the floor and take it to you."

To cope with that challenge, Mitchell knows it's going to take a level of focus his young post players are still developing.

"You just can't do one thing and then rest," Mitchell said. "You have to keep playing throughout the possession. So I think that's our biggest challenge right now, is just defensively for our post players to understand how consistent the effort has to be. But before we're consistent we just have to learn how tenacious and how hard we have to play."

Jennings is at the top of the list when it comes to developing consistency, and she'll surely be motivated to do so in returning to play in her home state. The Madison, Ala., native might inspire some frustration on the part of her coach as she learns to play with the kind of defensive effort that's being asked of her, but she's more than capable of contributing meaningfully in the meantime.

"I feel good about how she is progressing," Mitchell said. "One thing that is in her favor is that if she is having a good day offensively, she can really help you and make up for some deficiencies on defense."

Long term, that's not what Mitchell has in mind. He expects Jennings to become a two-way player.

"When it finally clicks for her, we are going to have a really, really top-level player in her," Mitchell said.

O'Neill 'progressing well' with knee injury

Senior guard Jennifer O'Neill sat out Sunday's win over Tennessee State with a strained patellar tendon. Days after she was labeled as day to day, O'Neill was back on the court going through a shooting workout. There's no official word on her status for the Alabama game, but there is reason for optimism.

"She went through about an hour of shooting last night and those were game-like shots and she looked good and bounced back this morning," Mitchell said. "So I think--it looks to me like she's progressing well. We are feeling good about her progress right now."

Alexis Jennings had career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) in UK's win over Tennessee State on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Alexis Jennings had career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) in UK's win over Tennessee State on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
If you had watched only the Kentucky bench, you might not have known Alexis Jennings was having a career offensive day.

"I was very hard on her today during the game," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I had no idea she was scoring 27 points because I was trying to coach her up on defense a little bit and it was just a tough game."

It was a tough game that, in large part, the No. 12/13 Wildcats (11-2) won because of Jennings. Along with the career high in points she scored on 8-of-15 shooting, the freshman post player added eight rebounds in UK's hard-fought 87-75 win over Tennessee State (3-8) on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.

The performance was the latest in a string of good ones by Jennings, who scored in double figures for the fourth straight game after not doing so once since her collegiate debut.

"I wouldn't say I saw it coming," Jennings said. "We had four days off and coming back I really wasn't expecting that. But as I got out there, I adjusted well and I was able to score offensively."

Jennings showed off a diverse skillset, burying three of her four tries from 3-point range and scoring on both post moves and put-backs off her five offensive rebounds.

"We would not have won without her and I've told y'all before: She is supremely talented and skilled on the offensive end and I am really seeing a lot of progress out of her," Mitchell said.

Her teammates are particularly impressed with that progress considering how hard Mitchell has been on her both in practice and in games knowing what she is capable of.

"I give Alexis a lot of credit being as whenever we're in practice Coach Mitchell is extremely hard on her," said Makayla Epps, who scored 16 points. "He's hard on all of us, but some days she gets it harder than any of us and she's got thick skin. She's a tough kid from Alabama and I give her a lot of credit because most players would get down and go in slumps."

Linnae Harper - who had a big all-around game with 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals as the Cats fended off a game Lady Tiger team - has seen the same. And with it, she's seen Jennings become more and more self-assured in her continuing adjustment to college.

"I just think, personally, her confidence level has just increased drastically day by day and it's making a difference in the game," Harper said. "She's more tough and I think that's really going to help us when we start SEC conference because we have the toughest conference in the nation."

With Bria Goss missing again due to a broken thumb and Jennifer O'Neill day to day with a strained patellar tendon, Mitchell knew the Cats would be tested on Sunday. With Jennings and others stepping up - including Janee Thompson with her ball pressure and career-high seven steals - they passed.

"Those are the kind of games we need while Bria's out to help us be stronger when Bria comes back," Mitchell said.

Now, when it comes to Jennings, Mitchell will continue to push her to improve defensively.

"I definitely believe that she's capable," Mitchell said. "There's no question. The reason I'm hard on Alexis is because her offense is a little bit further ahead than her defense right now. And so usually when I'm hard on her it's defensive driven."

Video: Happy holidays from UK Hoops

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Video: Mitchell previews UK Hoops' trip to Duke

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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: 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."

Recent Comments

  • Sandy: Just wanted these young ladies to know that I watched the whole game. I am exceedingly proud of you. Even read more
  • Rao: When Harrison twins drive the ball to the post opponents usually snap the ball from their left hand even before read more
  • Kristi Hazlewood: We love you MiMi! read more
  • CHRIS OSEDO: I love the job Coach Call is doing in UK. I hope my son comes there soon. read more
  • B J Vance: Kudos to the Big Blue Nation who turn out everywhere to cheer the Cats. The very entertaining and knowledgeable Dick read more
  • gerald adams: you done a hell of good job today boys. I,m so prod ove you all for the heart some of read more
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  • Commenter: Both Derick and Dominique should watch Willie's game 3 years back. Compared to what Caulistain then these two players are read more
  • Patrick Quinn: I've always liked Willis...we will need him getting significant minutes during our run..I have faith in his athletic ability...I remember read more