Matthew Mitchell will lead his team into a rematch with Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It isn't among Matthew Mitchell's three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline, but man-to-man defense isn't far down the list of things that have come to define UK Hoops.
UK has ascended the ranks of women's basketball utilizing man-to-man pressure defense, so much so that it's earned the moniker "40 minutes of dread." That's what made the second half of Kentucky's 73-71 win at Auburn on Sunday so surprising.
Mitchell audibled to a zone defense, forgoing pride and his own long-standing philosophy.
"I think it's important as a coach to find a way for your players to be successful," Mitchell said. "I think man-to-man defense is the way to play. I think that's the best way to play, but I'm not out there playing and it's not about me; it's about the players."
Mitchell didn't base that decision solely on what he saw during the first 20 minutes at Auburn either. At least statistically speaking, the UK defense has gone from dominant in 2012-13 to merely very good as the Cats (15-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) prepare to host Alabama (8-10, 1-4 SEC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are allowing 68.4 points per game this season, up more than 10 points from last season's average of 57.9. The increase is due in part to the faster tempo of UK's games, but also to the 4.1 additional trips to the free-throw line opponents are making as the Cats toe the line between intense defense and fouling.
Before the season, the new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play received plenty of attention on both the men's and women's side. Eighteen games in, Mitchell and his team are still adjusting.
"If I'm in my space in a legal guarding position and the offense runs into me and I didn't create the contact, I think that's really what is giving us so much trouble," Mitchell said. "Just trying to figure out what's legal and what's not. It says in the rulebook that they can't create the contact and the foul will be on you. It has been difficult."
Unsure when the whistles are going to come, Mitchell says the Cats aren't as sure of themselves on defense, creating a cycle of sorts.
"You see that being one factor, but I think another factor is we could play a lot better, a lot harder," Mitchell said. "We watched film on it yesterday and so that's not all of it. It's not all the new way the game is being called. A lot of it is on us too."
That psychological effect was on display against Auburn, as UK looked a different team defensively in the second half.
"I don't know if the way it's being called is in our head and it just keeps us from really turning loose and playing because we were much more active and aggressive in the zone and played with the kind of energy that I wish we would play in man-to-man," Mitchell said.
Mitchell was particularly impressed with the way UK looked in that zone given the team had scarcely worked on it leading up to the game. In fact, he estimated the Cats played more zone in the game at Auburn than they had during their entire bye week in practice.
Having seen the zone in action, Mitchell has made it more of a focus in practice this week.
"We're working on that more now, so it may become a big part of what we do," Mitchell said. "I just don't know. I'm trying to figure that out from a coaching standpoint right now."
That throws a wrench into Alabama's preparation.
The Cats and Crimson Tide faced off three weeks ago and UK came away with an 85-63 road victory, the only time in SEC play the Cats have avoided the slow starts and early deficits that have plagued them.
"Alabama we got off to a great start and we got down to Florida, we got down to South Carolina, we got down to Missouri, we got down to Auburn," Mitchell said. "And to me that is a mental focus issue and the coaches and the players, we all have to do a much better job preparing."
Looking at the Auburn game only, Mitchell is looking for his team to both learn from the slow start that put the Cats in a hole and gain confidence from the way they battled adversity to win a tough road game.
"I just told the players we are just so proud of the part of the effort that got us the victory and we have to correct what got us into the situation where it looked so dire there for a while, 13 down in the first half," Mitchell said. "So there are reasons that's happening and those are the things that we have to correct."
Which defense UK uses to do that remains to be seen.
"They have been very active in man and zone yesterday in practice, so we'll practice both today and we'll see what happens," Mitchell said on Thursday.
Sometimes bye weeks come at inopportune moments, short-circuiting a win streak when a team is playing its best.
Other bye weeks are welcome, offering a chance for players rest their weary legs during a long season.
Count the week UK Hoops had off following a win over Missouri on Sunday among the latter.
"We were so blessed," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "The good Lord blessed us with this bye week and we really needed it on a couple of fronts."
No. 10/12 Kentucky (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) survived that game against Missouri and ended a two-game losing skid without leader Kastine Evans and with Bernisha Pinkett playing just two minutes. Bria Goss and Janee Thompson stepped up, as the two guards combined for 36 points in an 80-69 victory, but the Wildcats were always going to need Evans and Pinkett at full strength in their bid for the SEC title.
With a little downtime, the two senior guards are getting there.
"Kastine was full go (Friday) morning, reported no issues, no pain," Mitchell said. "So she was off all week from practice activities. Stayed with low non-impact cardio and tried to stay up with that. So the time off for her and Bernisha was very, very good and they looked good."
DeNesha Stallworth is another player recuperating from injury, but she took a very different approach to UK's week without a Thursday game.
The senior forward has played three games since her return following arthroscopic knee surgery, but has shown signs of some of the rust to be expected following a month-long layoff. This week, she's taken full advantage of the opportunity to knock off some of that rust.
"DeNesha needed a week where she could just turn loose and practice and you weren't worried about playing Thursday and you could really go at it," Mitchell said.
And for UK as a team, the time off was productive as well. With some effects still lingering from that short-lived losing streak, a week of "high-level, high-intensity practice" was much-needed.
"We got it on both ends, got what we needed out of the open date and so I think we're starting to round back into full strength and we'll need to be as sharp as we can be to win Sunday, I can tell you that," Mitchell said.
UK will face a road test at Auburn (11-6, 2-2 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (SEC TV) that has Mitchell's undivided attention. The Tigers are facing 20.7 turnovers per game and are likely to throw multiple defensive looks at the Cats.
"Long, athletic, aggressive defenders and make it really tough on you to score," Mitchell said. "They've done a great job defensively."
Senior guard/forward Tyrese Tanner is leading the way for Auburn, scoring 16.4 points per game, but it doesn't end there for the Tigers. Ten players are averaging more than 15.1 minutes per game, meaning Auburn won't be fazed by UK's depth.
"Just their overall team is a really tough, explosive team," Mitchell said. "So going on the road in this league is always tough. It will be tough Sunday afternoon and we'll have to prepare well to win."
On Wednesday, Matthew Mitchell joined the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Teleconference. With his Wildcats in the midst of a one-week layoff between games, Mitchell talked about the strength of the SEC, leadership and his work in mentally preparing his team. Here's a transcript.
Opening statement "Well, we came off an important win on Sunday against a really good Missouri team and we're happy to get that victory. We're just going to try to take advantage of our open date on Thursday, try to help us get better as a team and try to get prepared for what we know will be a tough game on the road at Auburn. Always a tough place to play. We're just trying to focus on practice every day and see what kind of team we can become."
On parity in the SEC ... "I just think it's very early, too early to tell what will happen. Most teams four games into it, it's hard to know what's going to happen. So a lot of big games ahead, but I thought going into the year the league was a very, very high-quality league. It always is and it's no different this year. So think we'll have some really tough, tested teams because of league play will advance to the NCAA Tournament and I think the SEC will really be a conference to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament."
On whether any players who have exceeded expectations this season ... "Well, we have gotten off to a really good start if you look at it over 17 games and we've won some big games. I think, for us, what's always important is to have some balance and I've been so pleased with the team's performance. We've had a really, really good balance of people contributing on the team to victory and you never know from one night to the next exactly who's going to be the top scorer. We really try to focus more on our defense and our team play maybe more than we do someone's scoring. I don't know if there's any real surprises. I was very optimistic about our team going into the season and they've performed well so I couldn't really single out just one person."
On who has done a good job from a leadership standpoint ... "Well, I think that Kastine Evans and Bria Goss have both really worked hard, are excited to lead, have the courage to do that, really work on it and think about it. I think our seniors--always people look toward your senior class and I think that they have done a really good job working hard and setting good examples for the player. And then, you know, we've really tried to get the players that have been playing the point-guard position - Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill - to improve in that area. Just yesterday, I thought that Janee Thompson was really, really trying to focus in on being a good leader. So we believe in leadership development. We believe that you can develop those qualities and I think our team's worked really hard in that area."
On whether it has gotten easier to mentally prepare his team ... "You know, that is such an interesting part of being a teacher and a coach. And it's such a journey to try to figure out each and every year what works for a team and what works for players and players change from year to year. And so what I've found is if you ever start making assumptions and think that you've got it figured it out, that's where I've always gotten in trouble with that. I think it's so interesting from year to year how different that process is and trying to make sure players stay focused on what they need to do and you make look great on a Thursday and then you come back on a Sunday and you don't look that great and you just try to figure that out as a coach, how to get that consistency. And so I really admire the coaches who, over the years, are able to get consistent performances from their team year in and year out. For us, it just always goes back to the core tenets of our program. We're just always trying to develop our kids' character. We want kids of really high character. We want players that'll sacrifice for each other and we want players that'll work really hard to prepare and then players that are interested in our core principles: honesty, hard work, discipline. So we're always trying to mentally get them to a spot where they can embrace those things and I think that'll not only help our team this year, but it'll also help our players after they move on from Kentucky. So it is a very interesting part of being a teacher, is trying to keep people focused and on task and not looking too far in the future and maybe not holding on to mistakes made in past games. So it's a daily process, I think, as a teacher to try to make sure you're working hard in that are to help your players and students the best you can."
Bria Goss had 20 points and eight rebounds as UK ended a two-game losing streak with a win over Missouri on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
He wasn't about to admit it to his team, but Matthew Mitchell was nervous on Sunday afternoon.
UK was in the midst of a two-game losing streak and preparing for a matchup with a Missouri team coming off an impressive upset of No. 25 Georgia, so he wasn't sure what to expect.
To add to the uncertainty, a nagging leg injury bothered third-leading scorer Kastine Evans in two days of practice following UK's latest loss at South Carolina. On game day, Evans reported to her coach she would not be able to go at full speed and would therefore have to sit out.
In light of all that, Mitchell sensed the shorthanded Wildcats would need Bria Goss in a big way.
"Just with where our psyche was after the two losses and we were just not full speed and I just thought today we were going to have to play extremely well and extremely tough and I was talking to the coaches before the game and I just said, 'Bria Goss has to play today. We really need Bria Goss to have a big game,' " Mitchell said.
In every way imaginable, the junior guard delivered as the No. 9/10 Cats (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) got back in the win column with an 80-69 defeat of Missouri (13-4, 2-2 SEC).
"That is a kid on a day where we needed a big effort and needed all hands on deck she was able to get it done on both ends of the court and that is a big-time, big-time game from Bria Goss," Mitchell said.
Goss's 20 points and eight rebounds stand out on the stat sheet, but her role in the victory began well before the opening tip. With Evans -- with whom she shares primary vocal leadership responsibilities -- unable to play, Goss spoke up.
"Before the game, I brought the team together and said, 'We're down another player, which means everybody has to step up,' " Goss said. "So that's really what I was going for. Not just me, but I knew my teammates were going to step up to the challenge as well."
Validating Mitchell's concern that the Cats were facing a deficit in confidence against the visiting Tigers, Missouri jumped out to a 24-16 lead when Bri Kulas hit an and-one layup with 7:32 left in the first half. When UK came to the bench for the ensuing under-eight media timeout, Mitchell challenged Goss's backcourt mate, Janee Thompson.
"Somebody at some point was going to have to stop worrying about being scared about losing the game and step up," Mitchell said. "I just tried to wake them up the best that I could and I thought from that point on just telling them to stop dragging around and feeling sorry for themselves and start making some plays."
After Kulas missed a free throw, Thompson calmly drilled a jumper from near the free-throw line, sparking an 11-0 run to give the Cats a lead they would never relinquish.
"In that timeout, he told us to let everything go, let it loose and play and just be confident," Thompson said. "Once he said that, I think that really picked me up and it gave the confidence to go in there with no fear and knock that shot down. We were just rolling from there."
But if not for Goss, UK may not have rolled to victory.
Kulas, Missouri's leading scorer, torched the Cats for 20 points and nine rebounds in the first half. She shot 7 of 12 from the field and Mitchell knew he needed to do something to slow the versatile post player.
The 5-foot-10 Goss switched onto Kulas, gladly accepting the assignment of shadowing the 6-1 forward.
"I evaluated what she was doing at the beginning in the first half and she's a great player, can score in a lot of ways and I was just honored to be able to guard her," Goss said.
Hounded by Goss for much of the final 20 minutes, Kulas scored just seven points on 2-of-6 shooting. With 2:22 left and UK leading by 10, Goss drew the second of two charges on Kulas. The foul was Kulas's fifth and all but sealed the outcome.
"The biggest thing that Bria did for us now was that she went on Kulas in the second half and really, really affected her and did a masterful job," Mitchell said.
Goss's work is the most important single reason why UK was able to get back on the right track.
"I think this was a huge win," Goss said. "Like I said, Missouri's a really good team and for us to come out the way we did and battle back and just get that confidence back and ease our way back into was really good for us."
Time will tell whether the win ends up deciding the SEC title race, but Mitchell believes Sunday was important regardless.
"Not from the standings or our long-term future, but just for our immediate psyche right now we needed to win," Mitchell said.
UK will travel to No. 10/11 South Carolina for a game on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's common to hear coaches refer to road games as business trips, not vacations.
Matthew Mitchell has a different spin on the old cliche when it comes to UK Hoops' game at South Carolina on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
"Well, we are scheduled for our annual visit to the dentist's office," Mitchell said. "Our yearly root canal over in Columbia."
Mitchell's tongue-in-cheek analogy is no comment on the venue or the university. All he's saying is the No. 10/11 Gamecocks (14-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference)) are going to make life as miserable as possible for the No. 9/10 Wildcats (13-2, 1-1 SEC).
Dawn Staley's team, per usual, is among the best defensive squads you'll find. South Carolina is third nationally in scoring defense at 49.7 points per game, allowing opponents to hit a paltry 33.4 percent from the field.
"It is a real challenge to play over there," Mitchell said. "They have a really good program and always play really hard and it is always a tough, tough battle for us."
The last five games between South Carolina and Kentucky have been decided by eight points or fewer. The Cats have won three of those games, but lost a physical 55-50 battle a season ago in Columbia, S.C.
"They are obviously our permanent rival so we go to Columbia every year and it is always a really tough game," Mitchell said. "It is probably one of the best teams that Coach Staley has had. It is very impressive to watch them and how hard they play."
Unpleasant as it may be, facing South Carolina may be exactly what the doctor -- or perhaps more appropriately, the dentist -- ordered for Kentucky.
The Cats are coming off a home loss to Florida that left Mitchell disappointed by his team's intensity and focus. Taking on a team that succeeds because of those two things, Kentucky won't have any choice but to respond.
"It'll have our players' attention - certainly needs to have our players' attention - and the key to this game is being able to hustle and stay really tough mentally, emotionally, physically and rely on your fundamentals because they will really, really play hard and really play tough," Mitchell said.
DeNesha Stallworth remembers playing at South Carolina a season ago. The way the Cats built a second-half lead only to watch it vanish after they managed to score just 10 points in the final 11:37. Returning to the scene of their first SEC defeat of a season ago, UK will be able to gauge its progress following this year's first conference loss.
"I think it just tests us and see where we were are mentally," DeNesha Stallworth said. "I think we're on the right track right now and we're doing the right things."
Stallworth credits that, at least in part, to a players-only meeting and workout that immediately followed that loss to Florida on Sunday. Unhappy with what had just transpired, UK's veterans decided to do something.
"I think it definitely was a wake-up call," said Stallworth, a senior. "I think it was just something that needed to be done and everybody has stepped up so much in practice."
UK has benefited in practice from Stallworth's return. On Sunday, she played for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in December. After knocking the rust off in seven solid minutes, Stallworth has experienced no swelling and only minimal pain.
"She practiced really hard (Tuesday), made all the plays, did all the defensive fundamentals, all of our defensive footwork," Mitchell said. "So I think we will see her round into shape, however many games that takes her to get back."
She probably won't regain her All-SEC form on Thursday, but any contributions she can offer will be welcome against a big, physical South Carolina front line.
"It'll be a tough game Thursday," Mitchell said. "They are extremely big in the post and extremely physical and your physical conditioning will be a factor in this game. So still, we'll practice hard every day with her and we'll let her play as hard as she can play."
Whether Stallworth is a major factor or not, Mitchell knows what will decide the outcome.
"The key: Can we keep that strength about us and can we really hustle and try to outhustle South Carolina?" Mitchell said. "I think that's going to be such a key because I don't think there's really any secrets between the two programs. We play twice (each season) and the team that plays harder usually wins."