Janee Thompson had a team-best 15 points in UK's 91-62 win over Morehead State on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
Even though Kentucky was nine points away from scoring in triple figures Wednesday afternoon, no one player poured in more than 15 points individually.
Only four points separated the Wildcats' leading scorer, Janee Thompson, from its fourth leading scorer, Azia Bishop. In UK's 91-62 win over in-state foe Morehead State, cohesive teamwork was the key to victory.
"We don't just play five people," Thompson said. "Everybody is going to play, and that makes it that much easier for us when we get out on the floor."
Thompson, a 5-foot-7 point guard from Chicago, has accepted an increased leadership role through the first three games of her junior season.
"The position of point guard, it is a positional leadership role," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "People are looking to you as a point guard to be a leader, and sometimes you get true leadership and sometimes you get positional leadership. (Thompson) is really truly leading and I am very excited about that."
Committing zero turnovers in Wednesday's victory in front of 5,923 fans in Memorial Coliseum, including 1,500 sixth graders there for "Class of 2021 Day," Thompson scored 15 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting from the free-throw line, but received substantial help from the two remaining thirds of Kentucky's three-headed point guard assault. Senior Jennifer O'Neill recorded 14 points and six rebounds, while sophomore Makayla Epps stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench.
"Jennifer has an excellent attitude right now," Mitchell said. "So our leadership is doing really great. Even Makayla Epps (has) a great attitude right now. I am happy with that. We need that."
"I think the three of us--myself, (O'Neill), and Epps--have a really good relationship," Thompson said. "(We) are really starting to understand what Coach Mitchell is looking for and what our team needs from us."
From all five positions on the floor, No. 9 Kentucky (3-0) completely dominated its opponent from the Ohio Valley Conference. The Wildcats' starting frontcourt of Bishop and sophomore Kyvin Goodin-Rogers pulled down 11 and nine rebounds, respectively. As a team, UK outrebounded the Eagles 55-35.
"We love going out there and playing hard, and getting rewarded for the hard work we have put in in practice," Thompson said. "We work extremely hard every day, and to be able to see that stuff come out when we play on the floor is great for us."
Thompson's former high school teammate, current sophomore guard Linnae Harper, contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes off the UK bench. Along with Bishop, Harper was one of two Cats to log a double-double.
"We aren't going to be the most talented team around, but our intangibles can be really high," said Mitchell. "If we can work together and the sum be greater than the parts, we can really do some things."
After three games over the course of six days, Kentucky has until Saturday to relax and reflect on the season's hot start. The Wildcats will travel to Mount Pleasant, Mich., for 2014-15's first road matchup with the Chippewas of Central Michigan.
Jennifer O'Neill hit her first and only 3-pointer with 1:17 left in UK's comeback win over Baylor on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Good teams, they just keep on playing.
Good shooters, they just keep on shooting.
When Kentucky found itself down 14 early in the second half against perennial power and top-10 Baylor, the Wildcats refused to go away.
"It was a very, very poor start to the game, and we came back and really played a tough 20 minutes there in the second half, and I'm very proud of them," Matthew Mitchell said.
When Jennifer O'Neill had the ball in her hands having missed her first 10 3-point tries but with a chance to take the biggest shot of the night, she did.
"Really my teammates had a lot of belief in me and told me to keep shooting and fed me the ball," O'Neill said. "So I was going to keep shooting.
Even though she was aware she had missed her first 10 tries from deep, O'Neill followed through on that when she received a pass from Makayla Epps with 1:17 left. With UK having overcome that deficit to claim a one-point lead, O'Neill rose and fired from the right wing.
"I told her, 'I was going to keep feeding you regardless,' " said Epps, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. "She's the best shooter on the team. We don't play here often. We play here one time a year. So shots are going to fall; shots aren't going to fall. I had the utmost belief in her and I knew that once she got hot she was going to hit."
She did, sending an announced crowd of 22,075 into a frenzy and giving UK (2-0) a four-point lead the Cats wouldn't relinquish in a 74-64 win over No. 8/7 Baylor (1-1). In doing so, UK picked up the first top-10 win of the season and completed the 10th-largest comeback in program history with a 50-point second-half outburst.
"That's a great win for us," Mitchell said. "We have a long way to go as a basketball team, but learned a lot tonight, have a lot of room for improvement, but it's great to get into an atmosphere like this."
Whatever UK becomes as a team, O'Neill will play a key role. The senior guard, who finished with 22 points 11 months after dropping a school-record 43 against Baylor, better keep shooting if the Cats' fast-paced offense is going to work.
"They were running back to a packed lane and we were shooting in rhythm wide open 3-point shots, and our offense, we have to shoot that shot, and Jennifer is a great shooter and has been shooting the ball great," Mitchell said " ... I have no idea if she's missed them, made them. I'm just coaching every play, and I was telling her every time out to keep shooting the ball."
O'Neill was 0 for 6 from 3 and 1 of 8 overall in the first half, but she was hardly the only reason UK went into the locker room trailing 34-24.
"I give our team a lot of credit because I'm telling you, it was not good in the first half, as you all could see," Mitchell said. "It was disjointed, there was no rhythm, there was no focus offensively, there was no execution."
Due to that lack of execution, the Cats shot just 30 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers. Linnae Harper was the lone bright spot, scoring nine of her 11 points to help keep UK within striking distance.
"I think in the first half Kentucky beat Kentucky," Epps said.
There would be no repeat performance in the second half, though the Lady Bears scored six of eight points out of the break to take that 14-point lead.
"I think going into the second half Matthew had said enough about what we did in the first half, so we knew what we had to do," O'Neill said. "Yeah, we were aware that we were down, but the game wasn't out of reach."
Climbing their way out of a big hole, the Cats were buoyed by a crowd that never gave in either. Thousands filled Rupp in spite of freezing temperatures and snow and they weren't about to go down without a fight.
"When you are emotionally down," Mitchell said, "when you're playing not well and you're sort of clearly discombobulated, and we, I thought, were lacking energy and emotion there as we were starting to decline in the first half, there's no question for us, once we started playing with some energy and the crowd responds, it pumps you up."
UK will count on its home crowd one last time on Wednesday at 11 a.m. against Morehead State before four games away from Lexington, first at Central Michigan and then for games against Illinois, Oklahoma and South Florida as part of the Paradise Jam Island Tournament.
For all those games, the Cats will look to do what they did on Monday: combine winning and learning.
"Just the way the schedule hits us now, we don't have a lot of practice time, so we've got to make the most of our time here and try to get a little bit better and see if we can win some games while we're still learning," Mitchell said. "But that's why this one is so big and such a great win that will still show up at the end of the season, but we're not a finished product."
Part of Matthew Mitchell probably wouldn't mind waiting a while before taking on the challenge of facing a top-10 team.
A bigger part of him can't wait to welcome Baylor to Lexington.
"It's two of the top-rated teams in the country," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a great way for us to showcase Kentucky basketball. National television, a sold-out Rupp Arena. That's just nothing but a positive opportunity for you there."
UK (1-0) will welcome the Lady Bears (1-0) in the second game of the season for both teams on Monday at 7 p.m. Not only is it UK Hoops' annual Pack the House game in Rupp Arena, but ESPN2 will also be on hand to broadcast the game as part of the seventh annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. And with still more than 24 hours to tip-off, more than 21,000 fans have already snapped up tickets.
"If everybody that has a ticket shows up tomorrow night, it would be an outstanding atmosphere," Mitchell said. "We appreciate the folks supporting us. It ought to be a great atmosphere for college basketball tomorrow night."
A great atmosphere and, in all likelihood, a great game.
UK is ranked No. 11/10, while perennial power Baylor comes in at No. 8/9. The game will be the first in the country between top-15 women's teams this season, meaning it will be an early measuring stick for both.
"We have a big challenge ahead of us, very tough opponent," Mitchell said. "We have tremendous respect for Baylor. What a great program. They have some really tough players. Well coached and we know it will be a very tough challenge for us tomorrow night, but we're looking forward to taking the floor and seeing what we can do."
Baylor returns three starters from last year's Elite Eight team that UK twice faced. Last December, the Cats came out on top 133-130 in a quadruple-overtime thriller that set an NCAA record for points in a game. Four months later, Baylor eliminated UK in the Sweet 16.
UK won't have to contend with departed All-American Odyssey Sims, but Baylor still has still has Nina Johnson, the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Davis had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Lady Bears' 101-60 season-opening win over Oral Roberts.
"I think she is really the glue to that entire basketball team," Mitchell said. "I just think she is a terrific player and it is going to be very important for us to do a good job against her. And try to do everything we can to make sure that she doesn't have a monstrous night. She is an outstanding basketball player and she plays so tough."
Defending Davis might be important, but not as crucial as UK setting the game's tempo. At this early juncture, the Cats are still very much a work in progress in the half-court. For that reason, they have to turn the pace in their favor.
"We must make it a fast-paced game if we want any chance to win right now at this point in the season," Mitchell said. "We have got to get it going up and down."
If UK succeeds in doing that, the big Rupp crowd figures to enjoy it. For those who haven't yet bought tickets, there's another reason to do just that.
"Boy, we'd love to sprint to the finish and get this thing sold out tomorrow night," Mitchell said. "It would be a great thing for us."
After being diagnosed with pulmonary embolism and missing the entire 2013-14 season, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers let go of more than just the basketball during the first official field-goal attempt of her career.
As the ball sank through the net without ever touching the rim, all of the pressure coming from her yearlong comeback effort fell away with it.
Goodin-Rogers began Kentucky's 111-74 rout of Appalachian State with back-to-back 3-pointers. Then, after personally denying two Appalachian State jump shots on consecutive possessions (with a layup from teammate Bria Goss in between), Goodin-Rogers converted on both of her free-throw attempts the next time down the floor. Less than two minutes into her collegiate debut, Goodin-Rogers had scored eight of her team's 10 points.
"That was fun. I thought that was a fun way to start the game," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "Those first two 3s, they looked like they had a lot of tension in them right there. She just let it go, and nothing but net."
Thanks to Goodin-Rogers' hot start, the Wildcats jumped to a 58-42 lead by halftime -- ultimately ending in a 37-point margin of victory. Goodin-Rogers would go on to finish the game with 11 points, six rebounds, four blocks, and one assist. In 17 minutes of play, she was the only Kentucky starter not to commit a single turnover.
However, when asked about Friday's special performance, Goodin-Rogers quickly deflected credit to her UK teammates.
"It was special," Goodin-Rogers said. "I'm just glad to be back with my teammates. Last year, everybody supported me through everything. I knew I was going to be okay."
Mitchell is the first to attest to the triumph of the 6-foot-1 Marion County native's comeback story, as well as Goodin-Rogers' overall quality of character.
"She is all about the team," Mitchell said. "What a great kid. (Last year's diagnosis) was a scary, scary situation. (It was) such a downer of a year for her freshman year--couldn't be less ideal to start your career. She's really blossomed."
With Goodin-Rogers anchoring the low block, Kentucky's backcourt was steered by the three-headed attack of Jennifer O'Neill, Linnae Harper, and Makayla Epps. O'Neill, a senior, scored a team-high 20 points, complemented by eight rebounds, five assists and four steals. Leading the spark off Kentucky's guard-heavy bench were Harper (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Epps (16 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals).
With the season's inaugural win, No. 11 Kentucky's window for celebration won't extend much past the weekend. The Wildcats are scheduled to face the No. 8 Baylor Lady Bears in a 7 p.m. nationally televised marquee matchup at Rupp Arena on Monday. Kentucky defeated Baylor 133-130 in a four-overtime thriller last season before falling to the Lady Bears in the NCAA Tournament.
Goodin-Rogers wouldn't mind starting it with a pair of 3s again.
Matthew Mitchell has spent countless hours with his team over the last five months.
An offseason of conditioning, individual workouts and practices is at its end, giving way to the start of the regular season.
"It's finally here and it's time to play," Mitchell said.
But for all that eagerness, there's also some anxiety. Mitchell might have seen all that preseason preparation leading up to Friday's 7 p.m. season opener against Appalachian State in Memorial Coliseum, but he still doesn't know exactly what to expect from the No. 11/10 Wildcats.
"The biggest thing for me right now is I'm not quite sure what we're going to see tomorrow and as a coach that's a little scary," Mitchell said. "And I'm talking about from our team. I'm not talking about our opponent."
UK Hoops has plenty of experience in the form of seniors Bria Goss, Jennifer O'Neill and Azia Bishop, but this is a new team. Gone are post stars DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, with three players - Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice - who have never played a college game set to step in.
Considering the makeup of his roster, Mitchell has set three simple goals for his team, and it's nothing to do with Southeastern Conference standings or advancing in the NCAA Tournament. He wants UK to be the fastest team in the country, the most defensively disruptive and the toughest. From there, he'll let the results play out.
"They're capable of it," Mitchell said. "They're already showing some great signs in all three areas, but that's what I'd like for them to become."
UK showed more such good signs in its lone exhibition, a 141-63 win over Pikeville. The Cats were dynamic in the open floor, regularly getting out in transition in scoring what would have been a school-record number of points had the game counted.
Though Mitchell praised the speed of players like O'Neill, Bishop and Janee Thompson, it wasn't any of them handling the ball on their own that made UK's pace what it was against Pikeville.
"We don't need to be a big dribbling team," Mitchell said. "To be fast, we need to be a good passing team. The ball needs to move and I think one lesson we've tried to learn as we really broke down taking some steps forward this year, is sometimes when one player dominates the ball with the dribble, it actually slows us down."
UK was also disruptive in the exhibition, forcing 37 turnovers. The Cats also showed signs of toughness against Pikeville, taking charges and effectively transitioning into a half-court offensive game when necessary. However, it's going to take some regular-season tests to truly judge this team.
The Cats won't have to wait long for a handful of those.
Friday's season opener begins a stretch of three games in six days to start the season, a matchup with No. 8/9 Baylor in the middle of it. Mitchell expects to use the results from those three games to identify strengths and weaknesses and tailor practices going forward.
"We've constructed all the practices to be fast, tough and disruptive, so what are you doing well?" Mitchell said. "Sometimes you do things a little bit better than you give your team credit for as a coach. You're a little too critical sometimes, maybe you haven't worked on something that maybe you haven't felt like was going to be really good and it's not. The information we can gain will really, really help us as a team."
In many ways, Mitchell still sees his team as a blank canvas. Friday, he begins the work of trying to paint a masterpiece.
"This team has so much room for growth it's incredible," Mitchell said. "I do know that about us right now: We're going to get much, much better than we are right now. You just have too many young players who are thinking too much right now. And there's no way around it. You have to teach it. You have to give them the information and so if we look like a million bucks this week, we're going to look like $5 million at some time. If we look less than that, we'll increase in value with this team."
Even as spoke of high hopes for the season, Matthew Mitchell was quick to point out it would take time for Kentucky to round into offensive form.
For that reason, he was unsure what to expect as the Wildcats played their lone exhibition vs. Pikeville.
"To be honest with you, I was a little concerned what it might look like offensively if it got into a half-court game," Mitchell said.
Fortunately for UK, that rarely happened on Thursday night.
UK Hoops raced paced visiting Pikeville both on the floor and on the scoreboard, 141-63. The Cats shot 56-of-89 (62.9 percent) from the field in putting together an offensive night that would have eclipsed the school record for points in a game had it been a regular-season affair.
"I was just happy to see them run. No matter who the opponent is--I hope Pikeville has a great season, but we just really weren't concerned with the opponent," Mitchell said. "We were just trying to run tonight and I thought they did that really well."
Though the final box score showed just 18 fast-break points, the Cats continually sprinted past the Bears, scoring 52 points off 37 turnovers. Jennifer O'Neill and Alexis Jennings led eight players scoring in double figures with 20 points apiece.
"I think we have potential to be like we were today," O'Neill said. "But the thing that got us into the one hundreds was the fact that everybody was running the floor."
The most impressive statistical performance, however, belonged to Makayla Epps. The sophomore flirted with a triple-double, posting 18 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
"Honestly, I was completely unaware until I came off the bench and (assistant) Coach Adeniyi (Amadou) was like, 'Oh, two more rebounds,' " Epps said. "And I was like, 'Wow, I've never even been close to 10 rebounds.' Ever, like in my life."
Mitchell, however, was more concerned with the way Epps looked than her stat line.
"I don't even really look at the numbers, just the way she moved out there," Mitchell said.
On that front, Epps is unmistakably a different player than the one who had an up-and-down freshman season.
"That is easy to spot, which is a compliment to her because that shows you hard she's worked," Mitchell said. "She's worked really hard and she just looked super."
Epps, like her teammates, has room for growth though, but that's to be expected with the regular season still eight days away from starting with a Nov. 14 matchup with Appalachian State.
"I thought the players did what they were charged to do tonight," Mitchell said. "We really tried to talk about energy and effort and playing hard. We are a long, long away from being a finished product, but we have worked very hard on our effort and conditioning and running the floor."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers heard the doctors saying how serious her condition was.
But lying in a hospital bed with her mother and Matthew Mitchell nearby, it had not quite sunk in. She was still thinking she'd be at practice the next day.
"Coach, he was there beside me, and I was like, 'Coach, I'll be there tomorrow,' and the doctor was like, 'No, you're not going to be playing,' " Goodin-Rogers said.
Last October, Goodin-Rogers, a 6-foot-1 forward, was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and would need to go on blood-thinning medicine for the next several months to ensure her long-term health. Though that was the only reasonable decision, it meant her first season as a Kentucky player had ended before it began.
"Our doctors and the family decided to put her on blood thinners, which was the protocol that would try to guarantee her recovery and make sure that she didn't have any more problems or another one didn't occur, and so the moment she went on the blood thinners, her season was done," Mitchell said. "That was a tough day certainly for her."
It didn't stop being trying either, and Goodin-Rogers wasn't the only one affected.
Her new UK teammates had gotten to know her as a person and player over the summer and in fall practices and all of a sudden she was relegated to watching from the sideline. For Makayla Epps, who played with Goodin-Rogers at Marion County High School, it was particularly difficult.
"It put both of us down really bad," Epps said. "That's like my best friend. I've been with her for seven years and when I found that out it was real heartfelt for me. Like, I almost got real emotional about it. But we tried to keep her positive about it and all of that."
With the support of her teammates and coaches, Goodin-Rogers made the best of a bad situation.
"It was an eye-opening thing. Over the year I actually got more mentally tough about it. I took it more in a positive way than a negative way because everything happens for a reason."
It would have been easy for Goodin-Rogers to get down, especially when she learned a blood clot is a career-threatening condition for some high-level athletes, but she refused to think in those terms.
"No, never," Goodin-Rogers said, asked on UK Hoops media day whether she ever thought she'd played for the last time. "I knew I would play no matter what."
A year later, she's proven herself right.
Goodin-Rogers, a sophomore who will be eligible to apply for a medical redshirt, is poised to contribute when the Wildcats open the regular season on Nov. 14 against Appalachian State.
"Kyvin Goodin-Rogers has just bounced back from a very difficult freshman year with her health problems, and she looks really good right now and looks like a player we're going to be able to count on," Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers began building that confidence when she was officially cleared on April 28 after a battery of tests. Hours later, she was on the floor with her teammates playing in the most gratifying scrimmage of her life.
"It meant a lot because once you start going a few trips, I was like, 'Yeah, I still have this. I haven't lost anything,' " Goodin-Rogers said.
If you ask Epps, Goodin-Rogers has actually gained something. In a preseason scrimmage last weekend, Epps saw a player even better than the one rated a four-star prospect in high school.
"The kid hasn't played in a year and I was on the court with her and I love seeing her out there with me," Epps said. "And then when I was on the bench watching her, she was just going like she played last year. I was like, 'That's crazy. Like, you're amazing.' But she's back and I think she's better than she's ever been. Sitting out a year, that's just crazy. I can't wait to be out there with her for real."
After the scrimmage, there was one final hurdle for Goodin-Rogers to clear this week. She had to get through practice on the one-year anniversary of the day she reported chest pains to senior athletic trainer Courtney Jones.
"Yesterday, I was like, 'If I get past this day, I'm good. I'm going to play this season no matter what,' " Goodin-Rogers said.
That day behind her, Goodin-Rogers has moved her focus solely to preparing for the season. She's a potentially important piece for a UK frontcourt that lost stars DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker to graduation, laying the burden on the shoulders of seniors Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney, freshmen Alexis Rice and Alyssa Rice and Goodin-Rogers.
"We just need to keep working hard because we know how to play the game," Goodin-Rogers said. "It's just another game, another practice. We just gotta be mentally tough and prepared and know our positions."
Goodin-Rogers is a contender to start, but she's not overly concerned with that.
"I just want to be there for the team, do my part, do what I have to do, do my role to win games and do better," Goodin-Rogers said.
That's the perspective of a player who knows how much of a gift playing basketball is.
"I take every position more seriously than I ever have in my life," Goodin-Rogers said. "I'm just grateful to be back on the court and show what I have and (can) do, what I can for my teammates."