UK will honor Kastine Evans and three fellow seniors on Senior Day this Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Every senior class is unique, but the group UK Hoops will honor as part of its annual Senior Day festivities is special
The four Wildcats who comprise the class -- Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth -- come from all corners.
"As basketball players they are very productive and really helped us change the program," Mitchell said. "And then all four of them have very unique stories and have contributed in my life all four in different ways but very impactful ways and I've learned a lot from these seniors and they've been very important people to me and will remain that."
There's Evans, the guard from Norwich, Conn., whom Matthew Mitchell calls a "gift from God."
"I was impressed with her and excited when we signed her but I don't that you can ever anticipate somebody being as strong as she is in just every area of her life," Mitchell said. "She's a very high-character young woman, has a sense of purpose, wants people that she's around to do well."
Mitchell is hard-pressed to think of a player who has maximized her time in Lexington more than Evans. She has contributed from day one on the court, filling every role from sixth man to power forward without a moment's hesitation. Off the floor, she's been honored for both her academics and her service in the community.
Her coach admires Evans so much he said he'd like for his two young daughters to emulate her.
"I think it's important for all of us if we want to really accomplish something we have to enter into the process with intention of doing very well and she's always been very intentional about achieving and very conscientious," Mitchell said. "My life is so much richer and better because she's been in it and is in it and will remain in it."
Pinkett will remain a part of Mitchell's life as well, in addition to occupying a special place in his heart for the way she's overcome the odds.
"If you think about the neighborhood she's from in (Washington,) D.C., two percent of the kids attempt college and less than one percent of the kids out of her neighborhood get a college degree. And so just the fact that she got here and made it and is going to walk across that stage," said an emotional Mitchell before pausing to compose himself, "on May the 10th is something else."
Walker and Stallworth -- two transfers from West Carrolton, Ohio, and Richmond Calif., respectively -- round out the class.
The two McDonald's All-Americans had well-established basketball pedigrees before their arrival on campus. Walker came to Kentucky after a semester at perennial power UConn, while Stallworth was an All-Pac 10 performer at California before deciding to leave her home on the West Coast.
Though the duo that has patrolled the paint together these last two seasons didn't have a full four years in Lexington, Walker and Stallworth are no less a part of the program and school they've represented.
"So they were here quite a bit of time and invested a lot in the program and we were fortunate that they transferred to Kentucky because at the time they came here we weren't really in the mix on kids like that, of that talent level and that ability level and so they have put up some huge numbers and some big victories for us and they've both given a lot to the program," Mitchell said.
Their paths have been very different, but the four have their share of senior-year adversity in common.
Evans has dealt with a lingering leg injury for most of 2013-14, even sitting out a game in January. Pinkett, meanwhile, has coped with an ankle injury of her own while still playing catch-up following a trying offseason.
"Bernisha had a tough end of the year last year and a tough summer," Mitchell said. "Like I've said many times, it's just much more important for me to see her graduate and finish. Basketball sort of took a back seat for a while there and I just think it was difficult for her to ever fully get back to where she once was and that's OK."
Stallworth has faced a similar journey after knee surgery in December and is only now regaining the form that made her a preseason contender for every major award. She turned in her most dominant outing of the year on Thursday night, posting 16 points, 20 rebounds, four blocks and two steals to lead UK to an overtime win at Mississippi State.
"DeNesha certainly had a chance to use the injury as an excuse and not do the work to get back," Mitchell said. "There's been some times of frustration and some times of where we really had to soul search there for a while, but she's come around and worked hard."
Walker has stayed healthy, but the ride hasn't always been smooth for her either.
"I've had to learn a lot through coaching her about patience," Mitchell said. "She's been real hard on herself and she's sort of up and down and so that's sort of been a roller coaster we've been on together. That's been difficult at times, but you never questioned her heart for others and for people."
Everything his seniors have been through makes Mitchell want to send them off properly even more.
No. 12/15 UK (21-7, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) will host Vanderbilt (18-10, 7-8 SEC) with a chance to lock down the No. 4 seed and a double by in the SEC Tournament. That prospect is enticing, but Mitchell isn't thinking about that nearly as much as the four players who will play on their home floor for the final time in the regular season.
"So it's an important game but there's nothing more important to me than really preparing well and working hard to try to get ready for Vanderbilt so we can send these seniors off with a great victory," Mitchell said. "And obviously it has other implications that would be valuable to us as well, but we're really going to try to keep our focus on preparing well against a very good team and making sure that we have a sense of purpose for our seniors on Sunday."
UK will travel to Mississippi State for a matchup at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Last week was an interesting one for UK Hoops.
It began with a historic win at Tennessee, the program's first since 1985. Next was a lopsided home defeat at the hands of Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina. To finish it up, UK took down No. 16/13 Texas A&M on the road.
The up-and-down eight-day stretch begged a question.
"Can we get some consistency going?" UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Because that's really important. We've been winning one, losing one, winning one and losing one. That's certainly not what we want to do tomorrow night."
With two games left in the regular season - starting in Starkville, Miss., at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday -- the Wildcats are looking to put together a winning streak. Wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt would assure UK (20-7, 8-6 SEC) of a double bye in the SEC Tournament -- certainly motivation enough -- but that's not why the games are so important in Mitchell's mind.
"I think still what we're trying to focus on is this team really rounding into form and being its best," Mitchell said. "We're getting close to a part of the season, if you win one then lose one, your season is over, so we're trying to build some consistency here at the end of the season."
In search of that consistency, Mitchell is asking for steadiness from individual players.
First on the list is Makayla Epps, who has emerged late in the season as an option at point guard.
In the loss to South Carolina, Epps was one of UK's lone bright spots, posting a career-high 16 points. She followed that up with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers against Texas A&M.
"She did a really good job on Sunday, so now what you're looking for is some consistency and you need to bounce back with another good game," Mitchell said. "It's going to be another big challenge just like it was in College Station. We'll just see if she can build on the performance."
Looking to do the same will be Jelleah Sidney, who had seven points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as part of an unconventional crunch-time lineup against the Aggies that also featured freshmen Epps and Linnae Harper.
"You know Jelleah can make plays, you know she can do some things of great value we just need her to do those things consistently well," Mitchell said. "What I always love about her is her energy and her effort. She sure gave us that on Sunday and she'll have to tomorrow night. This will be a tough, tough game for us."
Mississippi State (18-10, 5-9 SEC) has Mitchell's undivided attention, clearly. The Bulldogs are 13-3 on their home floor and have been competitive throughout SEC play. Of their nine losses in conference, all but one has come by 10 points or fewer and two in overtime.
"Mississippi State has been really good at home this year," Mitchell said. "They are a very aggressive defensive team, really hard-nosed and tough competitors, make it difficult on you to score and one of the real premier frontcourts in the league."
Makayla Epps had a career-high 16 points in UK's loss to South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
As South Carolina built a big lead, Makayla Epps allowed herself a peek when she checked in for the first time in the second half.
It wasn't pretty, but Epps could only think of one way to react.
"I looked up at the scoreboard once and I was like, 'We're down 20 and it can't get (any) worse so just go,' Epps said. " 'Fight to the finish.' "
When Epps came in with 15:09 left, UK trailed 53-32. Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina had been dominant, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a comfortable margin with a 15-4 run. With no reason for the self-doubt natural for a freshman, Epps threw caution to the win and went on the attack.
Within a minute, she hit a jumper. Later, she scored six straight points as UK showed signs of life and cut the South Carolina lead to 11 with 9:31 left. The Gamecocks, however, were too much on this night.
"We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's extremely talented, plays real hard," Matthew Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight."
Riding an astounding 44-19 rebounding edge, the No. 4/6 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) took down No. 15/15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC), 81-58. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds and South Carolina shot 52.6 percent for the game and 60 percent in the second half to erase any thoughts of a comeback.
Epps, however, wouldn't stop.
"Coach Mitchell, four minutes to go at the last media timeout, he was like, 'Just finish the game. Keep playing hard, keep playing hard,' " Epps said. "And that's what I was trying to do.' "
Epps finished with a career-high 16 points, 14 of which came after halftime. She played point guard for much of her 15 second-half minutes, coping more effectively with South Carolina's physical defense than any of her teammates.
On a night that saw UK's two-game win streak end and a bid at a second straight win over a top-10 team come up short, that was at least one reason to be encouraged.
"She was able to use her size and strength to make some plays in transition that were available to us and I thought played with some good tempo offensively," Mitchell said. "She's a talented player and she'll just keep getting better, but she had a really good night."
Now, Epps and the Wildcats go back to work.
"You have to let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that'll actually impact the game," Mitchell said. "So the score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in tomorrow down and defeated and discouraged."
Sunday's game won't be an easy one, as UK travels to Texas A&M to face the only team that's taken down South Carolina in SEC play. The good news is the Cats have some experience responding to losses.
"We've been here before," Epps said. "It's not like it's our first loss or (anything) like that. So we've been in this position before and we know what we're capable of. All the players, all the coaches, we know what we're capable of. So, like I said, we got Sunday to look forward to. We got Texas A&M and nobody says we can't go out there and beat them. So we're looking for a bounce back."
DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points in UK's 68-59 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 9. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Armed with the experience of facing South Carolina a little more than a month ago, Matthew Mitchell could alter his game plan to reverse a 68-59 result in Columbia, S.C.
Similarly, Dawn Staley could change the approach of her Gamecock team to catch Kentucky off guard in a rematch in Memorial Coliseum.
The two coaches could, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
"They won't see a whole lot different from us and I doubt we see a whole lot different from them," Mitchell said. "We just need to play better than we did over there."
If the last week is any indication, it seems reasonable to expect No. 15/15 UK (19-6, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) will do just that on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are fresh off their first 2-0 week in SEC play, a week that included an upset of Tennessee on Sunday. The win over the Lady Volunteers -- UK's first in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985 -- proved that Mitchell had good reason for keeping the faith that his team is capable of making noise the rest of the season.
He spent last week reminding the Cats of what they accomplished in starting nonconference play 11-0, showing tape of UK's memorable victories over top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. With another such win now in the much more recent past, that confidence Mitchell worked to build goes to another level.
"It's just like a boost," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We knew we could do it and we've shown people that we can do it and now we just gotta go out there and do it."
No. 4 South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) won't make that easy.
The Gamecocks have reeled off seven straight wins in SEC play behind a dominant defense that allows just 53.9 points per game. South Carolina's only loss in conference came on the road against top-25 Texas A&M by just two points, and in overtime to boot.
"We have great battles and they certainly have brought out the best in us over the years and I think it's developed into a good rivalry," Mitchell said.
UK and South Carolina have split their last six matchups with each one decided by single digits. That means Thursday will be a challenge, but one the Cats think they need.
"I think it's really good that we face somebody as good as South Carolina at a time like this to really see where we are," Goss said.
The first time around, UK wasn't ready to cope with South Carolina's physical defense for 40 minutes. In that game, the Cats charged out to an early lead before going ice cold from the field. They shot a then-season-low 31.5 percent, putting them in a 22-point hole that a late rally could not overcome.
"I think it was because of us, because of our shot selection," Goss said. "But we're a whole different team from when we played them a little (more) than a month ago, so I'm really excited."
With DeNesha Stallworth back at full strength, UK looks different from a personnel perspective though their approach remains the same. The loss at South Carolina was the senior forward's second game back following a knee injury that sidelined her for a month. With 11 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, she played well given the circumstances at South Carolina, but Stallworth is at another level now.
"She's a completely different player now, playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of toughness," Goss said.
Over her last three games, Stallworth is averaging 16.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Stallworth's emergence has corresponded with that of point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the reigning SEC Player of the Week. After the junior scored just 12 points in 32 combined minutes against Georgia and LSU, O'Neill has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive outings.
"It's real simple with Jennifer, we want her to attack off the ball screens and look to score there and we want her down and ready when she doesn't have the ball, prepared to shoot," Mitchell said.
O'Neill didn't hesitate to shoot the first time around against South Carolina, but the shots certainly didn't fall. She was just 1 for 13 on Jan. 9, scoring five points. With the way O'Neill has played of late, Goss isn't doesn't see a repeat performance coming.
"I'm not expecting 30 points, 40 points, but, you know, for her she's playing with a lot confidence and she has every right to," Goss said. "She should feel like every shot's going in because I know every time she shoots it I know that it's going in."
It's no coincidence that Stallworth and O'Neill have played their best basketball since early in the season as the Cats have done the same. It's also no coincidence that the reasons are the same.
"I think just our mindset has changed," Goss said. "We're just more aggressive, we're confident, we're believing in ourselves, we're playing as a team and I think that's really key."
Aggressiveness and confidence will be even more important considering South Carolina's strength inside. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots in the first matchup and rank third nationally with 7.1 blocks per game.
"I don't think we did a good job playing through that last time," Goss said. "But shot-blocking's part of the game and we just gotta go out there, you know, get your shot blocked, we'll go get another board or go get a defensive stop or make the stop or something like that."
UK coped well with Tennessee's length on Sunday and will look to do the same against Elem Ibiam and Co. If they do, the Cats could be celebrating their second top-10 win in five days.