Matthew Mitchell leads UK into the SEC Tournament this week in North Little Rock, Ark. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Defining success for this team has always been simple for Matthew Mitchell.
"We started the season of the goal of becoming a great team, and that being defined by this team becoming the best that this team can be," Mitchell said.
Wins and losses have never figured into the equation, at least not directly. Nor has Kentucky's performance in the postseason. That doesn't mean those things don't have a role as the Wildcats head to North Little Rock, Ark., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"I think it would be significant to get in the mix for a championship," Mitchell said. "I think it would be very significant to win the SEC Tournament. It would be a great sign that they have given it their best."
Significant, not to mention especially meaningful to this group.
UK - which enters as the No. 6 seed - has advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons but never won. Fifth-year senior Jennifer O'Neill has been a part of three of those trips, and classmates Jennifer O'Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney two each.
"I think they'll be hungry to go down there and win it," Mitchell said. "Especially the veterans. We have gotten very close. I think the veterans have been to two championship games. It's a big-time tournament. It's a big one to win. We would be very proud to win it and we're going to try to do that."
The Cats (21-8, 10-6 SEC) will open their title bid at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday against either No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Alabama. They will also do so in a much better place than if the tournament had started a week and a half prior.
On Feb. 23, UK had just lost its third straight game. Sensing their team was about to "go off the cliff," those four seniors - led by O'Neill - called a meeting with their head coach to ask him to be more involved in demanding focus and intensity from his team.
"We're not the most talented team around," Mitchell said. "We're talented enough that when we play extremely hard and we're ultra-competitive, we're talented enough to win. We're also talented enough that if we don't compete, if we're not ultra-competitive and we don't play extremely hard, we can lose to anybody. So there's really no in between with the team."
With no in between, Mitchell has changed up practice and even implemented game-speed drills during pregame warmups. He's also abandoned his customary spot in the locker room before games in favor of running the team through those drills. The Cats have responded by winning two straight, including Sunday's upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina.
"For me, it's been fun because I'm sort of bored back in the locker room, staring at the board," Mitchell said. "You've written the words and you know what you want to say and you're just back there by yourself and so it was great."
Mitchell will be on the court again Thursday night helping his team get ready. If anything, he'll be even more eager to be there.
"I think it's a really exciting tournament, the SEC Tournament," Mitchell said. "I think it's very difficult to win and we've had a chance several times to win it and we'd love to taste victory in that tournament. It would really be a big accomplishment if we could win it, so we have to take them one game at a time obviously and no matter who it is, Vanderbilt or Alabama, it'll be a tough test. We will do everything we can to get prepared."
Though UK will be preparing for a game with winning in mind, the ultimate goal remains the same as the one the Cats had to start the season.
"I just talk to them about doing the things that we need from them to be successful and that is to have an edge to us, a competitiveness to us, playing defense for each other, getting on the boards, things like that," Mitchell said. "We'll go down there with the intention of winning, but I'll talk with them more about the process than I will about whatever result we get."
The season-turning meeting that Kentucky's seniors called on Tuesday night has been well documented.
The four veterans asked to come to Matthew Mitchell's house to talk about the state of their team entering the final week of the regular season. They told their coach he needed to turn up the discipline and accountability with the Wildcats in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Five days and two wins later - including an upset of No. 2 South Carolina on Sunday - it's clearly worked.
"All of them said, 'Listen, this thing's going to go off the cliff if we don't stop it. But if we stop it, we've got great things we can accomplish,' " Mitchell said. "As you saw something like beating South Carolina today and we were heavy underdogs."
Mitchell had spoken emotionally and at length about the power of the message prior to handing the Gamecocks (27-2, 15-1 Southeastern Conference) their first SEC loss, 67-56, but he had never revealed which senior had actually initiated the meeting. After No. 15/13 UK (21-8, 10-6 SEC) celebrated Senior Day with a signature win, he did.
It wasn't the most likely suspect. In spite of remaining the consistent vocal presence she's been throughout her four years, it wasn't Bria Goss who placed that phone call. It was Jennifer O'Neill, the soft-spoken fifth-year guard, which made it all the more meaningful.
"I was so happy that they called the meeting," Mitchell said. "And that Jen called the meeting - Jen was the person that called me - because Bria's been a rock her entire career and she's just done everything she can do. She's really worked hard. And I'd really been after Jennifer to step up and accept her importance to this team."
O'Neill has always been a potent scorer, capable of outbursts like the program-record 43 points she poured in against Baylor a season ago. She's always been a gifted player who can take over a game at a moment's notice, but she's still shied away from the spotlight at times.
"Her importance to the program is something that she has not always embraced," Mitchell said. "And I just could hear in her voice for the first time it kind of hit her. Like, 'This thing is winding down and I need to meet with you. All of us need to meet with you.' "
O'Neill, motivated by mounting losses and the on-rushing end of her college career, stepped up. Her willingness to do so is already paying off.
"When we had the three-game losing streak, it was just miserable," O'Neill said. "I hate losing and just to get this win meant a lot."
In both the win on Sunday and Thursday's potentially even more important victory at Arkansas, O'Neill proved it wasn't just talk either. She scored a team-high 15 points and added a career-high-tying eight rebounds, but her defense was even more important.
"She was all over the place," Mitchell said. "She really understood the game plan. She was really terrific defensively and I think that's what this team needs her to do. The offense will be there. It'll come. But we need her to be a lockdown defender."
Once again, O'Neill stepping up meant a great deal.
"Thursday night, her defense changed the game," Mitchell said. "I've always wanted her to value defense. When we've been good this year, she's cranked it up on defense. And she did it again today. She was the energy defensively that changed it. Bria's always there. Bria's always there. And so sometimes when you're always there, you're taken for granted."
The only time O'Neill wasn't there to provide a defensive spark was when she was on the bench saddled with foul trouble.
With 11:35 left, O'Neill picked up her fourth foul and went to the bench. At the time, UK had a commanding 48-29 lead on the strength of stifling defense spearheaded by O'Neill. Over the next six minutes, South Carolina outscored Kentucky 17-5 to trim the deficit to seven. It was then that Mitchell reinserted her as part of offense-defense substitutions with Linnae Harper.
"I was thinking I need to get back in," O'Neill said. "And once I got back in, I was just like, 'I have to play smart.' "
O'Neill promptly earned and hit two free-throw attempts to steady the ship. The Gamecocks would get no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
"It was a great performance and we need her to do that down the stretch," Mitchell said. "We might can do something special."
With UK set to open the SEC Tournament as the No. 6 seed on Thursday night at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET against either Vanderbilt or Alabama, O'Neill feels the same way.
"I just think we have to focus on what we're doing right now that makes us such a great team, constantly communicating with each other and showing up for practice and not taking any days off," O'Neill said.
When No. 2 South Carolina makes its way to Lexington on March 1, the stakes will be much higher for No. 13 Kentucky than a typical rematch with the toughest opponent on the Wildcats' schedule.
Sunday's game marks the last time seniors Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, and Jelleah Sidney will ever take the floor at Memorial Coliseum. However, because of their accomplishments off the court, as well as on it, head coach Matthew Mitchell believes their legacy will live in UK lore forever.
"The seniors have had a great week, and in my mind, have really solidified their standing in this program, and how they'll be remembered for the job they did this week," Mitchell said. "Not just winning the game (Thursday at Arkansas), but the responsibility that they took on, and the passion that they have for the program, and the insight that they gave me to help coach the team better."
After rattling off three straight wins, the Cats dropped three in a row at the hands of No. 6 Tennessee (in Knoxville), at home versus No. 15 Texas A&M and on the road at Ole Miss. Before Kentucky's latest contest with the Razorbacks, UK's four seniors organized a private meeting with their head coach to discuss the state of the program and the prospect of administering adjustments before the season comes to an end.
"As a coach, you're trying to give your players the ability to grow up and be adults, and do what they need to do and learn," said Mitchell. "You don't want to be such a taskmaster all of the time, but that's what this particular group needed right now. (They were) kind of down in a funk and on a downward spiral."
Mitchell's seniors realized the team was on a negative trajectory, so they made sure their concerns were vocalized.
"They basically said, 'Hey, listen. If you don't step in here and really shake this thing up, and let people know this is a serious deal, I don't think it's going to change,'" Mitchell said. "Nobody was acting up, nobody was acting ugly, nobody was out late at night partying. It was just young kids lacking focus. We need to mature as a basketball team, and I needed to take a greater role of how the structure of the day has unfolded."
It wasn't the content of Tuesday's impromptu meeting that had Mitchell so taken aback with the leadership of his four seniors, but rather the initiative the group showed by calling the meeting in the first place.
"It's not anything earth-shattering," said Mitchell. "I just think it's more powerful. At this point of the season, they could have just said, 'Hey, I'm out the door here in 30 days, and I've had a good run. We've won the SEC, and we've been a championship-caliber program,' and just rolled off into the sunset. But, they care enough to say, 'Hey, Coach, we need a little bit more structure. We need to get focused.' "
Kentucky's top three contributing seniors -- O'Neill, Goss and Bishop -- combined for 34 of UK's 56 points in the Cats' win over the Hogs following Tuesday's consultation. The remarkability of one of the all-time most accomplished senior classes in school history has continued to shine throughout each season over the past four years.
O'Neill came to Kentucky as a consensus top-30 high school prospect and the first McDonald's All-American in program history. After missing her entire sophomore season in 2011-12 with a right foot stress fracture, O'Neill emerged as a full-time starter in 2012-13 and led the Wildcats to a 27-5 (13-3 SEC) record and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
As a redshirt junior, O'Neill led Kentucky in scoring off the bench (with 12.6 PPG) en route to being named SEC Co-6th Player of the Year and All-SEC Second Team. This year, the 5-foot-6 Bronx native is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 PPG, and leads the Cats in 3-point field goals by a large margin.
Named the state of Indiana's Miss Basketball in 2011, Goss made her presence known upon her first season in Lexington as a freshman in 2011-12. After starting every game, the 5-foot-10 defensive specialist was named SEC Freshman of the Year on the Wildcats' road to the Elite Eight. S
tarting in 56 of UK's 71 games over the next two seasons, Goss entered 2014-15 as the one of five former McDonald's All-Americans on the Kentucky roster. The Indianapolis native averages 8.9 PPG and 3.6 RPG on the year.
As a freshman, Bishop led the team in blocked shots with 31, good for fifth most by a freshman in school history. As a junior, she recorded a career-high five blocks in one contest, tied for UK's sixth most in one game by any player. At 6-foot-3, the Toledo native is the tallest player on Kentucky's roster. Bishop averages 6.4 PPG and 5.6 RPG on the season, accounting for 48 blocks in 2014-15.
Unlike her three senior colleagues, Sidney is in only her third season in a Kentucky uniform. The former high school teammate of O'Neill began her collegiate career at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where she averaged 11.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG in 2011-12.
Appearing in 57 games as a sophomore and junior, Sidney sealed her Wildcat legacy in the 2013 NCAA Tournament with an outstanding defensive effort on eventual No. 2 overall WNBA Draft selection Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. The 6-foot-2 post player averages two points and 3.4 rebounds in 10.8 minutes per game this season.
When Sunday afternoon's monstrous matchup with South Carolina is all said and done, Mitchell will remember his latest group of seniors for much more than baskets and rebounds.
"I'll just remember Tuesday night when they came to my house and let me know what I needed to do," Mitchell said. "They also let me know what the program has meant to them, and you couldn't have tripled my bank account, or bought me a new car, or sent me on a vacation, or anything that would have been worth what Tuesday night was. No matter what happens going forward, what happened in that meeting... that solidified their legacy to me."
Kentucky (20-8, 9-6 SEC) will face South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) March 1 at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gamecocks defeated the Wildcats 68-60 in Columbia, S.C. earlier this season.
"They've accomplished a lot on the court, but what they did on Tuesday night was more valuable than anything they could have ever done," Mitchell said. "They were not only concerned about this season and how we finished, but they were concerned about us going forward and what our young players needed to learn right now so a year from now, they would know what to do and how we needed to be. To me, that summed it up for them. So now we are really motivated to try and finish strong, and I think we are capable of that."
Matthew Mitchell and Kentucky will look to snap a two-game losing streak at Ole Miss on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Three weeks of games don't get much more difficult than the one UK Hoops just went through.
"All schedules aren't created equal in the Southeastern Conference," Matthew Mitchell said, "and we've had a real, real rough stretch."
Five of the Wildcats' last six games have come against ranked opponents, most recently including a stretch of three straight against top-15 teams. No. 11/10 UK (19-7, 8-5 SEC) has survived it with three wins, but lost back-to-back games to close it out, both by double digits.
On Thursday, the Cats fell behind by as many as 23 points in an 81-69 defeat at the hands of Texas A&M. In the loss, the Aggies got to the rim at will and didn't even need to attempt a 3-pointer to top the 80-point mark.
"Well, there's two things and one's on me," Mitchell said. "I really need to get our half-court defense shored up. And that's my responsibility from a schematic standpoint I need to get a couple things taken care of there and then the energy is on them and we had a good discussion about that (Friday)."
UK's first opportunity to address that energy comes on Monday at Ole Miss (15-11, 5-8 SEC). The Cats will have their regular Thursday-Sunday schedule interrupted by the SEC Network's Monday Night Showcase, but Mitchell doesn't see that as a bad thing.
"(Ole Miss head coach) Matt (Insell) has them playing extremely hard and he's just done an amazing job with their turnaround," Mitchell said. "So tough game for us and we're going to really put a poor performance behind us last night and focus on getting better defensively today. So actually is good we have an extra day to do that."
The game will be a rematch between the Cats and Rebels, with UK winning a tough one on Jan. 4, 64-58. It wasn't a work of art, but the win does offer a lesson.
"So we watched the A&M game, and then we popped the Ole Miss game in and our energy level - we didn't do everything right that day, and we weren't just fantastic on offense, but we played much more energetic than we did (Thursday) night," Mitchell said. "That was good for the players to see. That's how you need to play."
A two-game losing streak has made the big wins the Cats have notched this season a distant memory, but Mitchell is working to remind them what they're capable of.
"You know, over the course of a 35-game season it's a long season and I just don't think you can get too weighed down when you sort of hit a little trough like it seems like we're in," Mitchell said. "We've always found some way to bounce back from that and we have to stay real positive and real encouraging."
He's convinced they'll bounce back again.
"I won't stop believing in this team," Mitchell said. "What's great about basketball is that if you can get it right at the end of the year, that's the best time to get it right. I am very optimistic that we can help our players do a better job defensively and we are going to work at that today."
Finding perspective isn't always an easy thing for a coach.
Since the goal is constant improvement, Matthew Mitchell can't always separate himself from that.
"You just kind of view your team differently," Mitchell said. "You know all of the deficiencies your team has and you know what you feel like they're capable of doing and what they're not doing and all those things kind of roll into you maybe being a little more critical of your team than anyone else's."
But when he takes a step back, Mitchell can remember that Kentucky is in a good place. The No. 11/10 Wildcats (19-6, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) are well-positioned for the postseason. UK is in the top 10 of the RPI and currently projected to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games, an impressive fact considering the Cats have dealt with a month-long injury to senior defensive stopper Bria Goss and a season-ending one suffered by point guard Janee Thompson.
"I think all in all it could a lot different right now," Mitchell said. "So I'm really, really proud of the position they've put themselves in. We just need to finish. We need to finish and keep getting better. I think if we can do that we can do some special things here down the stretch."
The stretch run for Kentucky begins with a Thursday matchup with No. 15 Texas A&M (20-6, 8-4 SEC) that will go on as scheduled in spite of winter weather in Lexington. The Aggies are led by dynamic juniors Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker, who are averaging a combined 29.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
"Texas A&M is a very good team," Mitchell said. "Some of the best players in the conference are on their team. It will be a difficult challenge. Our team is upbeat and excited for the game, and we are going to work hard and see if we can earn a very, very important victory for our team."
The victory is important because the Cats and Aggies are competing not only in the SEC but for NCAA Tournament seeding. The two teams are currently knotted in conference standings in pursuit of a bye in the SEC Tournament and separated by a single seed line in ESPN.com's latest Bracketology. UK is a No. 3 and Texas A&M No. 4.
"It would be a significant victory," Mitchell said. "We're right there with them in competition for some positioning in the SEC and probably the NCAA, too. So, it's a big game. Big game tomorrow night. The thing I tell the team is that we still have an opportunity to get it together and really play some good basketball and see how good we can be."
As has been the case most of the season, Mitchell is targeting improvement first in the post. With a group now made up of two seniors and three freshmen with the return of veteran Jelleah Sidney, inconsistency has been an issue, including in a loss on Sunday at Tennessee.
UK was outrebounded 46-36 in the loss, a far cry from the 39-38 advantage the Cats enjoyed in a previous matchup with the Lady Volunteers.
"That was just a real rough game," Mitchell said. "It was a real rough game and if you didn't stick your nose in there and really play tough you weren't going to be successful. That's what I was disappointed in. I just thought we were out-toughed in the post a lot of times."
The Aggies are capable of inflicting damage similar to what Tennessee did if they Cats don't come ready.
"They look like an A&M team: Big and physical in the post, a good power game and if you don't play real, real tough they can make some plays and have great size," Mitchell said. "It's a very good A&M team and really tough in the post. We'll have to play well."
The last time Kentucky faced Tennessee, UK sophomore Makayla Epps led the way in scoring for both teams, but failed to convert one of Kentucky's several potential game-winning field goal attempts as time expired.
As the Wildcats (16-5, 5-3 SEC) prepare for Sunday's matchup in Knoxville almost two weeks later, the narrative is slightly different.
Once again, Epps is fresh off a career night in which she not only led all scorers, but also found the ball in her hands in the contest's closing seconds. This time, however, with the game on the line, she would not be denied the victory.
"I'm pretty sure after last night, a lot of teams are going to key in on me more, if they weren't already," said Epps. "Last night's performance was crazy."
On Thursday, Epps scored a career-high 42 points in Kentucky's 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13 Mississippi State. Epps sank the game-winning jumper with 0.6 seconds remaining, converting 15 of UK's 18 points in extra time.
"Literally, maybe 100 times a game, (head coach Matthew Mitchell) will say, 'They can't guard you, Epps. They can't guard you, Epps. When are you going to understand they can't guard you?'" Epps said. "Sometimes when I'm scoring in sync, I'm like, 'Maybe Coach is right, they can't guard me.'"
Since losing to Tennessee 73-72 at Memorial Coliseum on January 29, No. 10 Kentucky has rattled off three straight wins over No. 21 Georgia, Vanderbilt, and No. 13 MSU. Epps leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring, with 17.3 points per game in league play.
"I'm a small-town kid from Marion County, Kentucky. Nobody expects people like me, from small places, to do anything big." said Epps. "I'm just here and happy to play."
The last time Mitchell's Wildcats visited Thompson-Boling Arena, UK emerged victorious for the first time in school history. The sixth-ranked Lady Vols, winners of eight national championships since 1987, lead the all-time series 51-10.
"Tough game ahead on Sunday," Mitchell said. "It'll be tough. It'll be a big crowd and not many will be for us. I'll be happy for (last year's road victory) to be a benefit, but it won't be something where I'm saying, 'We won last year, so mark it down this year.' That's not my approach."
The Cats will travel to Tennessee (21-3, 11-0 SEC) Sunday for a 3 p.m. nationally televised matchup on ESPN2.
"As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they're a great team and it was a tough game here," said Mitchell. "A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete."
Makayla Epps scored 42 points, including the buzzer beater, in UK's 92-90 win over Mississippi State in double overtime. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
From the final play to the whole 50-minute game to her 42-point performance in it, Makayla Epps didn't need to say much more to describe what had just happened.
"Crazy," Epps said. "Complete craziness."
Epps, however, was talking only about the final possession that led to the buzzer-beating shot she used to send No. 10 Kentucky (19-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) to a thrilling 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13/15 Mississippi State (23-4, 8-4 SEC).
The play started when the Wildcats took possession following a Breanna Richardson basket with 35 seconds left. Matthew Mitchell didn't call timeout, instead opting to tell Epps to run the clock down and attack as the shot clock neared zero.
"I just thought it was kind of silly to have it in anybody else's hands but hers there at the end, no matter if four were guarding her," Mitchell said.
Epps would get a good first look, but missed a short jumper. Somehow, Jelleah Sidney came away with the offensive rebound in a mad scrum as the clock reached five seconds remaining.
"I feel like all 12 of my teammates crashed the glass on that one," Epps said.
"I can't wait to watch it again," Mitchell said. "It was a really incredible play."
From there, Sidney could do little else but fire the ball back into the fray.
"Jelleah Sidney, sometimes she has the tendency to throw the ball really hard at us," Epps said. "And she threw it really hard and it was bouncing off faces and noses and ears. And then I looked up and it was right there. 'Go get it, Epps!' "
Epps got it, and put the ball on the glass and through the basket with 0.6 seconds on the clock.
"And then Epps, we'd missed so many, and that one was as tough as any one that you'll ever shoot and we make that one," Mitchell said. "So go figure. Who knows? I can't figure all this stuff out. I don't know how we're winning all these games."
Epps has a lot to do with it, especially on this night.
Her buzzer beater brought her career high in scoring to 42 points, just one point shy of the school-record 43 Jennifer O'Neill scored in five overtimes against Baylor last season. She made 18-of-30 field goals and added six rebounds and five assists for good measure to outduel Bulldog star Victoria Vivians, who had 39 points of her own.
"Especially at the level we're at in the SEC, that's not common," Epps said. "That's not something you see every month or every week or (anything) like that."
With Epps leading the way - including scoring UK's final eight points in double overtime - the Cats weathered multiple furious Mississippi State rallies. Kentucky built and lost double-digit leads on four different occasions and the Bulldogs tied the game in the final seconds of regulation on a basket by Moran William.
"I was glad she scored 42 and not 39," Mitchell said. "We needed those extra three points that she had. So that was incredible. We didn't look like we could win any other way tonight."
Epps is now seven games into her run as UK's full-time point guard in place of the injured Janee Thompson. She's now averaging 21 points in those games and the Cats have won five of them, two against ranked opponents.
"I'm hoping that after every game she's proud of me and that she's happy I'm out here handling my business as she would if she was out there with us," Epps said. "At the end of the day, it's all for Janee. Regardless if I'm playing, Bria's (Goss) playing good, the team's playing good, in the back of our minds we're all thinking about Janee."