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Video: UK Hoops reacts to tournament selection

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UK Hoops will learn its seed and path in the NCAA Tournament on Monday at 7 p.m. The Wildcats will watch the Selection Show -- which will air on ESPN -- in Memorial Coliseum at a party open to the public.

Afterward, Matthew Mitchell and select players will speak with the media about UK's draw. Watch live video of the press conferences below beginning at approximately 8:15:

Mitchell


Players


DeNesha Stallworth had 21 points in UK's 71-70 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth had 21 points in UK's 71-70 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- For the fourth time in five seasons, Kentucky saw its run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament end one game shy of a championship.

The latest title-game loss was the closest call yet, as UK fell to Tennessee by the narrowest of margins, 71-70.

As frustrating as those near misses may be, Matthew Mitchell isn't reevaluating things. He isn't wondering what he has to do to push the Wildcats over the top.

Of course he's always in pursuit of improvement, but he couldn't have asked for another ounce of effort from his team.

"I don't know that anything was missing today other than they came up one point better than us," Mitchell said.

UK played in high-caliber basketball games on Friday and Saturday in advancing to the championship game, but Sunday was at another level.

When UK (24-8) tried to deliver a knockout blow after building an early lead, the Lady Volunteers had a counterpunch. When Tennessee (27-5) seemed on the verge of getting over the top, UK wouldn't go away, not until the clock read zeroes in a decidedly pro-Tennessee environment at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"We fought so hard today," said DeNesha Stallworth, who scored a game-high 21 points en route to all-tournament team honors alongside freshman teammate Linnae Harper. "Those last few plays, (Jordan) Reynolds made those shots and that was tough. But we just fought so hard and I'm proud of my team."

UK led by as many as 10 points early in the first half, but the sixth-ranked Lady Vols were never going to let the Cats run away and hide. Tennessee battled, finally taking a lead on two free throws by tournament most valuable player Isabelle Harrison with 8:35 left.

That moment, perhaps more than any other, was when it looked like the Cats might wilt.

Samarie Walker committed the foul that sent Harrison to the line, prompting some post-play chippiness that had been brewing all game. Walker and Cierra Burdick were whistled for technical fouls and Lady Vol fans were thinking they had the Cats where they wanted them.

Gathering her teammates in an emotional huddle, Bria Goss had something to say about that.

"I told them that everybody in this arena wants us to crumble and thinks that we're not mentally strong," Goss said. "This is the time that we need to pull together. I could just see it in the look in my teammates' eyes that we just wanted it."

Twenty-five seconds later -- after yet another double technical on Stallworth and Tennessee's Jasmine Jones -- Stallworth buried a 3-pointer to show everyone else what Goss saw in her teammates' eyes.

"I think we fought a little harder after that," Walker said.

UK began building toward that moment exactly a month before.

On Feb. 9, the Cats lost for the fifth time in nine games at Florida. The defeat left UK 5-5 in conference play and cast doubts about the team's ability to advance in the postseason, doubts that were erased by UK's appearance in the SEC final.

"Everybody had us in the coffin and throwing dirt on top of it when we left Gainesville," Mitchell said. "Our team has become a team."

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's loss, that team sat together in the season's most emotional postgame locker room. Eyes still red and damp with tears, the Cats dutifully answered questions from reporters, though they were occasionally overcome by emotion all over again when they were reminded of a particularly painful memory.

"It's hard," Stallworth said. "It hurts. I'm a senior. We played our hearts out and it just hurts right now. But I think the plus part about this team is we're going to stay together. We're not going to let this one loss define our season just like any other loss we had."

That's the good news for Kentucky -- though thinking that way is near impossible for now -- that the loss to Tennessee ends UK's SEC Tournament run, not their season.

"Right now I think everybody's just hurt," Walker said. "Coach Mitchell's very hurt. I don't think anybody's thinking about tomorrow. We're so stuck on this right now, but I know once we get back in the practice gym we'll be fine."

Practice is for tomorrow though. For now, Mitchell has little interest in anything but telling his players how proud he is of them.

"Wouldn't trade locker rooms right now with anybody in the country," Mitchell said.

UK now awaits Selection Monday on March 18, when the Wildcats will learn their seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky has one of the more interesting profiles in the country, featuring four wins over top-10 teams and a top-10 RPI but also a couple puzzling defeats.

Mitchell generally stays away from seeding projections, but he did hear of one recently that had UK pegged as a four seed, which caught his attention.

"I think that's a joke," Mitchell said. "I don't think we're a four. Other than that, that would be my only opinion. I guess I would say we're not a four. But I don't have any control over the seeding, so maybe we'll be a four. Maybe we'll be a five."

Only two things are certain. First, UK will open the NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum. Second, Mitchell is happy to have the team he's taking back to Lexington.

"I'm glad I'm coaching Kentucky going to the NCAA Tournament," Mitchell said. "I don't know if anybody will be jumping for joy if they get the Wildcats in the first round."

Video: UK Hoops' pre-SEC final Cat Walk

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Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper combined for 22 points in UK's SEC semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper combined for 22 points in UK's SEC semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Before each game, Matthew Mitchell writes his three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline on Kentucky's locker-room white board.

At least for one day, Mitchell added a fourth.

"Dang near everything he wrote on the board had 'attack' by it and that's what we had to do," Makayla Epps said.

With Kentucky set for a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal showdown with top-seeded and fifth-ranked South Carolina on Saturday, Mitchell didn't want two previous defeats at the hands of the Gamecocks on the Wildcats' minds. He didn't want his team to be overwhelmed by the stage.

He only wanted them to go, go, go.

"That was the word that we wanted to rule the day for us," Mitchell said. "Don't worry about the outcome, the result, just get in attack mentality and stay there."

Based on Saturday's performance, Mitchell may want to make attack a white-board fixture.

UK blitzed South Carolina, using a 12-0 run to take an early 10-point lead. In spite of being throttled by the Gamecocks (27-5) at home barely two weeks ago, the Cats (24-7) led by no fewer than six from that point forward in a 68-58 win, their fourth over a top-10 opponent this season.

"I thought you saw a heavy dose of that early in the game," Mitchell said. "We were able to sustain it for 40 minutes. It was really impressive. I'm extremely proud of the players. This is a great effort."

A great effort headlined by two players who didn't need to be told twice to attack.

A month ago, Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps weren't sure from game to game what their roles would be. The two McDonald's All-Americans would play single-digit minutes one game, then score double-digit points the next.

Now, with UK using more zone defense and less full-court press to adjust for their strengths and weaknesses at this early point of their career, Harper and Epps are featured pieces in the UK backcourt in their first postseason.

"Some freshmen don't get the opportunity to play at all," Epps said. "Some freshmen have to wait 'til their sophomore year to even go out there and touch the court. But me and Linnae getting the opportunity to go out there and play is real encouraging to us."

They are taking full advantage.

Harper scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a career-high 27 minutes, adding five rebounds, two assists and a block. She was confident both shooting from mid-range and driving to the basket. She got to the line repeatedly, though she missed four of her six attempts.

"You know, I thought she was sort of a great example of the entire team," Mitchell said. "We played with a tremendous amount of poise and toughness. We got down to the last seconds of shot clocks a few times and made buckets."

Had UK not coupled that poise with the attacking mentality Mitchell was demanding, Saturday's win likely doesn't happen at all. Facing a South Carolina defense undisputedly among the best in the nation, the Cats didn't concede any possessions.

When chances early in the shot clock were there, UK took them. When they weren't, UK was content to run its offense in locking up a place in Sunday's SEC Tournament final at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN against third-seeded Tennessee (26-5).

"We were very patient and we used the clock to our advantage," Harper said. "So we just took our time, ran our sets, stayed focus and had poise."

Most often, it was Epps' setting the tone at point guard. She played the position throughout her 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and dishing out two assists. Epps has come a long way since the eight-game stretch in SEC play during which she didn't score a point as she bounced between the post and the perimeter.

"Whenever he had me at three, four -- especially the four -- I was really out of sync," Epps said. "But I was doing what the team needed me to do and now he's got trust in me to play the point guard like I did in high school."

In a happy -- though not celebratory, at least not yet -- postgame locker room, Epps was told UK had just five turnovers as a team. At first, she misunderstood and thought five was her individual total before pausing to clarify. Told the amount -- fewest of the Mitchell era -- was for the whole team, Epps was slightly astonished.

"Whoa, now that's something," Epps said.

When you consider UK played two freshmen a combined 52 minutes in the backcourt, it's something indeed. It also has a lot to do with the bond Epps and Harper have built in short order.

"The connection we have already is just crazy," Epps said. "I basically just met her in August and then at (the) McDonald's (All-American game), but the way we click now is crazy. I feel I've been playing with her for years."

"Our chemistry is just there," Harper said. "So it was fun. But at the same time, it was business too. We had to take care of business, do what we were supposed to do and we came out on top."

Not long ago, the thought of UK taking down the SEC champion and advancing to the league tournament final would have seemed as farfetched as the idea of Epps and Harper playing such important roles. Now, the Cats are making their share of March Madness noise and intent on making more.

"It shows a lot about our character on and off the court," Harper said. "We don't really dwell on the past. We just focus on now and we still have a month left of basketball to play, so we're just worried about us now and just still practicing every day to get better."

UK, Tennessee set to face off in final

Immediately after UK's upset of South Carolina, Tennessee closed its semifinal matchup with Texas A&M on an 11-2 run en route to an 86-77 win over the Aggies. Isabelle Harrison had 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead the way.

"It was a battle and it was a grind," Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said.

UK claimed the lone regular-season matchup between the two rivals on Feb. 16, 75-71, the Cats' first win in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985.

"That was our goal, to get to the finals," Warlick said. "And then get an opportunity to play Kentucky, who beat us on our home floor..

Kentucky and Tennessee last matchup in the postseason in 2011, when the Lady Volunteers claimed the SEC Tournament championship with a 90-65 win over Kentucky.

 
DeNesha Stallworth scored all 13 of her points in the second half of UK's 75-70 win over Florida on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth scored all 13 of her points in the second half of UK's 75-70 win over Florida on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Time is running out on DeNesha Stallworth's decorated Kentucky career.

In fact, heading into UK's Southeastern Conference Tournament opener on Friday, Stallworth was guaranteed to play just two more games as a collegian.

That made the moment when she picked up her second foul early in the first half against Florida and the nearly 18 minutes on the bench that followed particularly painful.

"It was very frustrating, but my assistant coaches and Coach (Matthew) Mitchell just did a great job of just helping me to stay in the game and I think that really helped me in the second half," Stallworth said.

With Stallworth unable to play due to foul trouble, UK appeared on the verge of a third defeat at the hands of the Gators and an early SEC Tournament exit. The Cats were down 36-29 headed to the locker room and could not be certain of how ready Stallworth would be to contribute in the second half after being out for so long.

Stallworth -- in spite of being adversely affected in similar circumstances in the past -- was sure she'd be alright.

"In the past I would probably get frustrated and check out but I knew my team needed me," Stallworth said.

She was anything but checked out when she checked back in.

Within 45 seconds, she hit her first shot of the game, a layup. In the next two minutes, she had a pair of steals as UK rallied to within one point of the Gators by the first media timeout of the second half.

All told, Stallworth scored all 13 of her points after the break, hitting 5-of-7 shots and adding four second-half rebounds, but she was hardly the only Wildcat to step it up as UK (23-7) rallied to a 75-70 victory over Florida (19-12). With the win, the Cats set up a semifinal matchup against top-seeded South Carolina at noon ET.

Florida built its halftime lead on the strength of inside play, leading Mitchell to issue a challenge to his post players.

"I thought we sort of stepped back from the challenge in the first half," Mitchell said. "We didn't have a lot of toughness in the post in the second half of the first half. I just didn't think we were competing very hard in the paint. I thought Florida was much tougher in the first half."

The next time he was in front of his team in the locker room postgame, there's no way he could have said the same.

UK had 22-16 rebounding edge in the second half and 42-29 for the game en route to outscoring Florida in second-chance points, 16-6. The Cats also had 20 of their 34 points in the paint after the break.

"I thought our play on the interior really stepped up and battled there and played tougher in the second half," Mitchell said. "We made some real tough buckets."

 UK would need every basket it could get because the Gators simply refused to wilt.

When the Cats took their first lead of the second half on a Linnae Harper free throw, Lily Svete answered with one of Florida's 10 3-pointers to put the Gators back in front at 53-51 with 9:30 left.

Two freshmen orchestrated UK's response, scoring or assisting on each of the Cats' next four baskets. Makayla Epps started the stretch with a pretty pass to DeNesha Stallworth for a layup before Linnae Harper grabbed a defensive rebound and hit a step-back jumper. Epps took back over from there, feeding Stallworth for another layup, then taking a pass from Stallworth for a layup of her own.

"Their result today was because they've been working so hard and they're extremely talented," Mitchell said.

Epps and Harper combined to help UK build a five-point lead, but there were no signs of the Cats pulling away, at least not until Stallworth hit a layup with 2:15 to go to give UK a six-point advantage. But those in The Arena at Gwinnett Center who thought the outcome was no longer in doubt quickly learned otherwise.

Cassie Peoples, who tied for the game high with 18 points, hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute sandwiched around a Stallworth turnover. The game, all of a sudden, was tied at 70-all with 1:29 to go.

This time, UK turned to more veteran players.

Janee Thompson (10 points, five assists) hit a jumper to give the Cats a lead, Samarie Walker had a clutch tip-in and Stallworth hit a free throw as UK came up with defensive stops on Florida's final three possessions to close it out.

"Florida played really, really hard," Mitchell said. "They have a very good basketball team. Beat us twice this year. Our players have worked really hard to improve since the last time we played them. So it was very gratifying to win this game and also to shake off a very poor first half."

The Cats couldn't help but go back to what happened during the 15 minutes that followed the first half in explaining why they were able to do that.

"The way we responded in the second half shows how much poise we really had going into the locker room," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored eight of her 11 points in the second half.

That poise manifested itself in a unique scene.

The Cats always spend halftime discussing what they did well in the first half and what they need to improve in the second, but usually only a select few voices are heard.

Not this time.

"That was the first time I heard everybody say something," O'Neill said. "From that moment, you could just tell that people were listening to what Matthew was saying about having poise, about coming out and playing for the first four minutes."

South Carolina another third-time challenge for Cats

Florida was responsible for two of UK's losses in SEC play, but the Cats got a measure of revenge on Friday.

In a Saturday semifinal, UK will look to do the same against South Carolina.

The Gamecocks have taken down Kentucky twice this season, most recently in a dominant 81-58 performance in Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 20.

"We have to play better defense than we did in Lexington," Mitchell said. "We didn't have a good defensive night at all. South Carolina really took it to us that night. We're going to have to battle a lot harder."

The Gamecocks shot 52.6 percent from the field in that game and 57.1 percent in a 67-48 quarterfinal win over Georgia on Friday. South Carolina certainly looks like the SEC champion and a potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed, but UK is not without reason for optimism.

"I think this team has worked really hard since that game as well," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a really tough game, and we just have to get our minds ready to battle for 40 minutes."

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