UK will host Ole Miss on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in its annual Play4Kay game. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell saw positives in Kentucky's 86-80 loss to Florida on Sunday.
The Wildcats turned in one of their best offensive efforts of Southeastern Conference play, shooting 56.3 percent in the second half in nearly coming from a double-digit deficit.
The silver lining, however, was merely a reminder of the issues that have plagued UK of late.
"We scored 80 points and that was good," Mitchell said. "It's just been difficult. Some games we've held teams in the 50s and then we don't score. And then the day we score 80, we give up 86 and so that was tough."
Game to game, Mitchell doesn't know what to expect from his team. He needs look no further in search of reasons for UK's five losses in nine games.
"Just the lack of consistency's what hurting us right now," Mitchell said. "If we ever get that going in practice, we're going to be in really good shape. When we were playing really well early in the season, we were very, very consistent with what we were doing."
That fact is what Mitchell is counting on as he looks ahead to the remainder of the season. The Cats know what they are capable of because they've already done it. They know they can compete with the best because they're already beaten the likes of Louisville and Baylor.
"We're not a team that's dreaming about having good players and being able to make things happen," Mitchell said. "We can do it, so for me right now you just can't give into frustration, you can't give into negative thoughts and you can't give into discouragement."
Kastine Evans - whom Mitchell counts on as a team leader along with Bria Goss - feels the same way. That's why she's altered her approach to dealing with her teammates, trying to uplift them with text messages rather than berate them for mistakes.
"I think I've been a lot more vocal and encouraging (not) so much as criticism or constructive criticism just because that's something that we've needed," Evans said. "It's hard when the coaches are on you and somebody who's at the equal level as you because I'm playing with my teammates to also try to more critical."
No. 18/18 UK (17-6, 5-5 SEC) will look to prove that approach is working when the Cats host Ole Miss (10-15, 1-10 SEC) in its annual Play4Kay game. Both teams will wear pink uniforms and UK is encouraging fans to wear pink of their own for the game, which will tip at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum.
"It's going to be a tough game," Mitchell said. "Ole Miss is certainly a team that has some explosive athletes, one of the best point guards that I've seen in the conference in (Valencia) McFarland and (Tia) Faleru is a very explosive post player that can drive the basketball and just plays with great, great energy and can make an impact on the boards."
The most familiar face on the Ole Miss sideline will be Matt Insell, who spent five seasons as an assistant under Mitchell at UK before being named the Rebel head coach this offseason.
"We speak pretty frequently," Mitchell said. "I mean, we spent a lot of time together in the trenches and have a real strong friendship and he's done a lot for this program and contributed a lot and I certainly was proud for him to be able to move and realize his dream of being a head coach, especially in the SEC."
As warm as the feelings may be between the two, they'll be put aside for two hours on Thursday night.
"We want to beat him really bad tomorrow night if we can, but when we are not in that arena I'm there to support him," Mitchell said. "And he's supported me a bunch over the years, I'm telling you. He's really been a great friend to me, so it's a relationship that I think's built on some friendship and some mutual respect for one another."
It's impossible to pinpoint the exact genesis of UK Hoops' January slump, but the problems that led to the were on display for the first against Florida.
After the 83-73 defeat, Matthew Mitchell bemoaned the fact that the Gators simply played with more passion than his Wildcats.
"I am just so disappointed that happened and that we were outplayed from an energy standpoint and from a focus standpoint," Mitchell said on Jan. 5. "It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us."
It was a tune Mitchell found himself singing far too often as UK lost four times in seven games.
"We just looked like a team that I thought was entitled to win, felt like they were entitled to win the game," Mitchell said, reflecting on the game more than a month later.
Mitchell went on to say the Cats played like a team that expected to win by virtue of the incredible success they have had on their home floor of Memorial Coliseum. The belief was reinforced as UK took a nine-point lead at the 12-minute mark of the second half after trailing by double digits.
"We were able to get it flipped and go up and I thought that hurt us probably even more," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, this is what we thought. We're going to win the game.' We lost a lot of composure when it got close down at the end, so that would be the best way to describe it. I just thought we sort of felt like we were going to win the game no matter what."
Now facing a rematch with Florida (16-7, 6-4 Southeastern Conference), it's hard to imagine No. 15/13 UK (17-5, 5-3 SEC) will feel the same way.
"They really took it to us here in Lexington and beat us pretty badly on our home court, so we definitely have to focus in on a very good opponent and try to get prepared this afternoon and tomorrow for what we know will be a tough game," Mitchell said. "It's always a tough game with Florida."
Though they certainly won't assume victory, the Cats have reason to be confident this time around. They are coming off an impressive home victory over top-15 LSU and have tried to build on that during a bye week before a trip to Gainesville, Fla. The focus has been entirely on building team closeness.
"Our whole key is we have to have a team mentality," Mitchell said. "We can't have a collection of individuals playing individually well. We really have to come together as a team. Our whole deal is playing for each other and great energy on the court, great energy on the bench."
Mitchell says UK is "making progress," but he isn't about to pronounce his team as being over the proverbial hump.
"We didn't start playing that way overnight and I think it's been some great stuff that we've been able to do as a team to try to see if we can get the situation to where we can become our best," Mitchell said.
Just as UK's struggles didn't start all at once against Florida, the Cats can't prove they are over against the Gators. That will take time.
"I think you're going to have to let it play out here over the last seven games of the conference season," Mitchell said. "The team needs to play well and win some games and get into the NCAA Tournament and take advantage of the SEC Tournament and see what happens."
Bria Goss scored a team-high 11 points in UK's 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
After a loss at Georgia on Thursday, the Kentucky Wildcats had dropped four of their last seven games and were searching for answers.
In the midst of that prolonged slump, Matthew Mitchell knows every second of practice counts. But on Friday, he bypassed the chance to take the court with his team.
There was more important work to be done.
"We didn't take the floor Friday," Mitchell said. "We just sat in a room and weren't leaving until we got some things straightened out about how we are going to move forward."
You see, Mitchell didn't think drills or running would cure UK's ills, at least not right away.
"I am telling you, this is not a physical thing," Mitchell said. "It is mental. It is a mindset."
Instead, the Cats spent the afternoon watching film, talking through the reasons they had gone from unbeaten barely six weeks ago to questioning their talent.
"Friday was intense, even though we didn't get on the court," Samarie Walker said. "It was kind of like a tell-all meeting. He was being very open and honest with us; we were being very open and honest with him."
With everything on the table, UK went back to work on Saturday, making up for lost time with back-to-back "great" practices. On Sunday, that work -- first mental, then physical -- paid off in a 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference).
"I am just so proud of them for pulling together and getting this victory," Mitchell said. "This was one of the top teams in the country and we are not playing particularly well right now and we have to find ourselves and to gut this one out and find a way to win is huge."
No. 13/12 UK (17-5, 5-4 SEC) went back to its roots to get it done, relying on stingy defense and capitalizing on LSU mistakes. The Tigers shot just 32.3 percent from the field and UK scored 25 points off 18 LSU turnovers to claim a slugfest in front of 6,333 fans in Memorial Coliseum.
"We're going to have off nights, but we should never have an off defensive night," said Bria Goss, who led a balanced scoring effort with 11 points. "So we can bring our defense a hundred percent of the time and just relying on our defense is just going to get us to the next step."
Jennifer O'Neill, who added 10 points in just 15 minutes off the bench, says the performance was all about transferring good practice habits to the game.
"We've been going like cutthroat, really going at each other one on one," O'Neill said. "We have a lot of drills where you play for the team you're on and we just wanted to bring that to the court today."
Perhaps the best example of that was freshman Makayla Epps, who hadn't scored a point in exactly a month after a strong start to her freshman season. Epps had to listen to some hard truths in that Friday meeting, but she didn't put her head down.
"She is unbelievably talented and strong and skilled and gifted and was just doing nothing for us," Mitchell said. "I think she probably did one of the best jobs I have ever seen a freshman just really, really getting taking to task in a film session and actually showing up the next day and trying to correct it."
Epps was quiet in five first-half minutes, but turned in one of the game's most important stretches with less than seven minutes left in the second. With LSU looking to make a run behind freshman Raigyne Moncrief -- who had a game-high 19 points -- Epps scored seven straight points in the span of less than two minutes to keep UK's lead in double digits.
"She wasn't trying to step outside her role," O'Neill said. "She was trying to do the things she was doing in practice like attacking the basket and trying to look to get the ball inside to the post."
Pleased as they may be with the win, Epps and the Cats have no choice but to attack practice the way they did Saturday.
"It's just all about being consistent," Goss said. "This game was a really good game for us and it looked like we were back to Kentucky's way of playing. It won't mean anything if we go back to being down and low-energy."
Asked a question about whether his team had overcome its January lull for good, Mitchell took the "out-of-the-woods" metaphor as far as he could think to do.
"We are working hard and in the woods right now trying to get through some briar patches and get some machetes out and hack our way through," Mitchell said. "We are not even close to being out of the woods yet. We have a lot of work to do."
It took some help from a former player for Matthew Mitchell to realize he needed to make a change.
Crystal Riley is in her second season on Mitchell's staff after playing three years at Kentucky. All that time spent with the UK head coach led her to make an observation this week.
"She just helped me out tremendously," Mitchell said. "She said, 'Coach I've never seen you work harder at trying to make people feel good about themselves and build them up and stuff.' It just has not worked."
The advice came as Mitchell was searching for answers following a loss on Thursday to Alabama in which UK lacked fire and energy. He applied it immediately.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," Mitchell said. "No more telling them how everything is going to be all right."
The practices that followed have been predictably intense. Every drill has a winner and the loser has to run, all in an effort to inject competitiveness back into the Wildcats.
"I do think he was being a little light on us and trying to stay positive," Janee Thompson said. "But his mentality now is better because it kind of lights a fire under us at times and it makes us play harder and that showed in the game today."
On Sunday, No. 9/8 UK (16-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) responded, taking down Arkansas (15-5, 2-5 SEC) in Memorial Coliseum, 68-58.
"Well, we are happy to win a really hard fought game and I thought Arkansas really played hard and competed and we were finally able to find a group that would get in and compete in the second half," Mitchell said.
For the first few minutes after halftime, it appeared that wouldn't happen.
UK trailed 32-31 at the break and Arkansas went on a 12-3 run over the first 2:40 of the second half behind 5-of-5 shooting. Mitchell quickly called a timeout, forgoing the Mr. Nice Guy routine and spelling out exactly what needed to happen.
There would be none of the wallowing in self-pity, none of the self-doubt that led to losses in three of UK's last five games. In that moment, the Cats simply had to step up and they did. A 22-6 run gave the Cats a six-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"With the way we have been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves that was a critical juncture down 10 with no life whatsoever," Mitchell said. "So you give credit to those kids that went out there and flipped that 20-point swing and I did need to see that."
Mitchell didn't mince words in talking about the importance of that stretch, calling it a "very critical juncture for this team." The Cats didn't realize at that exact moment that it may have been a crossroads for their season, but they did after the fact.
"It was extremely important because that's something we've been struggling with for the past games now," Jennifer O'Neill said. "But I think the biggest thing was, when we were down 10, we played with poise. We weren't panicking; we didn't look to rush things. We played with poise and a sense of urgency."
O'Neill scored only two points during the game-changing run, but Mitchell said she was "the best player on the floor" Sunday. She scored a team-high 21 points, hitting five 3-pointers and adding six rebounds and five assists, also team highs. The performance came just three days after O'Neill scored just four points and took just two shots in the Alabama loss.
"That is how she has to play and she made things happen today and I am so proud of her defense," Mitchell said. "She just has to have her mind right."
Helping on that front was a pregame meeting between Mitchell and the junior point guard, who was inserted into the starting lineup for just the second time this season.
"I had just spoke with Matthew before the game and I was just telling him, 'Basically, I need you to tell me what you need me to do before games,' " O'Neill said. "And that's something he did before and he stopped doing and it was helping me so I went back and told him."
That was just another example of Mitchell going back to coaching tactics that have worked well for him in the past, the most prominent of course being his demeanor and intense practice plan.
"It kind of reminds me back to my freshman year," Bria Goss said. "What we've done the past couple days has been what we did my freshman year and we were very successful, winning the SEC regular-season championship. So it's good to see him have that fire back, I guess."
"Like Matthew said, his mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to being more intense," O'Neill said. "That's going to reflect on us and I feel like you guys are going to see that from games here on out."
That's the hope, but Mitchell isn't about to let his guard down.
"I am not saying we are out of the woods yet," Mitchell said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a group that wants to fight and show up every day and play and once we do that we will be fine. We have always been really good with a situation like that."