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Dominant doesn't quite do South Carolina justice.

The top-ranked Gamecocks are outscoring opponents by more than 31 points on average and feature arguably the nation's most imposing frontline.

On Sunday, Kentucky faces the task of handing South Carolina its first loss on the road. The challenge, significant as it may be, isn't one that has the Wildcats cowering.

"We're certainly not going over there to give it the old college try and hang with them," Matthew Mitchell said. "We're going to go over there to win. It's a tall task, but we have a plan. I think if we go over there and execute our plan and work our tails off, we'll have a great chance to win."

Mitchell has reason for confidence.

His team, after all, enters Sunday's 1 p.m. ET trip to Columbia, S.C., with a No. 10 ranking, a 14-2 record and two wins over top-10 opponents. The Cats, in spite of playing without senior defensive stopper Bria Goss, are off to the same 3-0 start to Southeastern Conference play as South Carolina (15-0).

UK, in other words, is pretty good too.

"To think that we are some prohibitive underdog here and we don't have a chance to win - now could we go over there and lose? There is no question," Mitchell said. "If we don't play well. We are certainly not going over there to just give it all we've got and hopefully hang in there with them. We're going in there to win."

But to win, the Cats will have to adhere strictly to the plan Mitchell mentioned, especially inside. UK will be at a size disadvantage against the Gamecocks, who feature four players 6-foot-4 or taller and block an average of 6.2 shots per game, which means it will have compensate in other areas.

"We are going to have to play real strategically sound basketball, which you can't do in the post against them," Mitchell said. "You just can't go in there without a plan. You can't just go in and shoot the ball around the basket. You've got to have some focus on some technical things you need to do to guard the post. You can't just go chest to chest with them and challenge them."

The likes of Aleighsha Welch, Alaina Coates and freshman A'ja Wilson will have a field day if the Cats try that. Dawn Staley's group might be ranked higher than it ever has been before, but the team doesn't look all that different to Mitchell, and he means that in a good way. He would know since the Gamecocks are a permanent conference rival, meaning two annual matchups between the two teams.

"When you play somebody twice a year, you get to know them, and no matter where they're ranked, if they're ranked No. 1 or we have played them when they are unranked, it just doesn't matter," Mitchell said. "They're always real tough. Always play together, always play real hard, always make it tough on you to score. So really, they're doing the same things that South Carolina has become known for."

Rebounding, of course, is one of those things.

The Gamecocks are outrebounding opponents by an average of 11 per game, which is of particular concern considering the Cats were just bested on the boards 45-35 in a win over Auburn on Thursday. With that in mind, UK will go to work.

"We've just got to figure out a way to be a good box-out team," Mitchell said. "Listen, if we don't rebound well Sunday, it'll be a long day. They can just reach over you and go get the ball, so rebounding will be really important and we'll do everything that we can today and Saturday morning and Sunday morning to remind them and we'll go out there and see if we can make some improvements from Thursday night into Sunday afternoon."

To that end, Mitchell and his coaching staff reviewed film from the Auburn game and counted missed box-out assignments. The guilty parties were then assigned to run based on those missed assignments.

A few weeks ago, the Cats had to do something similar when turnovers became an issue. They have responded, most notably by committing 15 or fewer turnovers in three SEC wins, which suggest similar improvement on the glass is possible.

"This group has shown some ability that once they start focusing in on something, that they can do some things and correct some things," Mitchell said. "We've corrected our turnovers so far in league play, so hopefully, we can have that kind of improvement on rebounds."


UK Hoops is off to a quick start to the 2014-15 season, but rarely has that been the case in any single game.

The Wildcats have been consistently sluggish out of the gate, even in their best wins of the season, which Matthew Mitchell knew was unsustainable if they wanted to reach their goals.

On a bitterly cold Thursday night, UK reversed the trend.

"I thought we got off to a very good start," Mitchell said. "I will tell you the kids worked really hard this week on their games and on their minds. We tried to improve, so hopefully all of the hard work paid off with a good start."

Hosting Auburn, the Cats grabbed leads of 9-4 and eventually 21-10. The Tigers would battle back, but UK's lead never dipped below seven points en route to a 78-57 win in Memorial Coliseum to move to 14-2 (3-0 Southeastern Conference).

"I think we did a good job of starting off strong this game," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored 17 points due in large part to her five made 3s. "Usually we start out real flat or real slow, but we started off faster than we normally do, which got us off to a good pace."

UK's focus after a Sunday win over Ole Miss on improvement wasn't limited to getting off to a quick start.

In that victory over the Rebels, Mitchell was forced to rely on O'Neill, Janee Thompson, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper to play a combined 140 minutes due to unpredictable post play. All week and against Auburn, Kentucky's young bigs took steps forward.

"I thought we played a little bit better tonight at times," Mitchell said. "They worked real hard. They've worked really, really hard since our game Sunday. They put a lot of time into it. We still have a lot of improvement that we need to make, but we're working like crazy to try to get up to speed."

Included in that group is Azia Bishop, the veteran of the group. The senior, now trying to step into a leadership role, says she's never worked harder.

"(Assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou pushes us really, really hard," said Bishop, who had eight points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four steals. "We get in before practice, after practice, before games and he believes us a lot and he motivates us really well. So I think that this is the toughest year for me, but I think it's helping me and it's going to help me in the long run."

Though UK is more consistent in the backcourt, the guards haven't been excused from the hard work, most notably in taking care of the basketball. Through the first 10 games of the season, the Cats committed 20 or more turnovers six times. In the last six, they haven't done it once, including three straight in SEC play with 15 or fewer.

Considering Auburn was forcing 21.6 miscues per game with its full-court press and UK turned it over just 12 times against the Tigers, it's clear the Cats are on the right track.

"I'm just happy that we have been able to show some maturity in that area," Mitchell said. "I've really faulted the team throughout the year about our lack of maturity. It shows that they have taken it seriously."

With a trip to face an unbeaten, top-ranked and overwhelmingly big South Carolina team on Sunday looming, the next order of business is to address rebounding. UK was bested on the boards by a count of 45-35 against Auburn, but with the way the Cats dedicated themselves earlier this week, there's no reason to think they can't progress in that area against the Gamecocks.  

"I can't tell you how hard the players and the coaches have worked this week and we're just fighting every day to try to get better and see if we can become a good team," Mitchell said.

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."

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