Matthew Mitchell celebrates with his team following UK's first win at Tennessee since 1985. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell boasts an unmatched list of accomplishments as UK head coach.
On Sunday, he added another line to his resume.
For the first time in his seven-year tenure and the first in school history since 1985, the Wildcats won at perennial Southeastern Conference power Tennessee.
"Anytime we do something we haven't done before or in a really long time is good, but I am just happy for these players," Mitchell said. "They have worked real hard over the last few weeks so they could get their minds in the spot where they could come in and win a big game like this today."
The victory touched off a jubilant locker-room celebration. Surrounded by current Wildcats as well as Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies and Carly Morrow -- three players who played central roles in building the UK program -- Mitchell climbed a chair to dance after a 75-71 victory.
But it wasn't surprise that was drove the team's reaction. You see, Mitchell knew No. 18/18 UK (19-6, 7-5 SEC) was capable of taking down No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-5, 9-3 SEC) for the first time in Thompson-Boling Arena. In fact, he spent the early part of the week reminding his team why.
"We have a good team, and we knew that. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been focusing on making sure our players know we have a good team. What they did today is something they have already done this year.
En route to an 11-0 start, UK took down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. The Cats won four true road games and ascended to the top five of both major polls in the process. To remind his players of just how good they can be, he opened up the archives and showed them tape of those early-season performances.
Watching themselves, the Cats saw what they can be when Jennifer O'Neill keeps it simple and attacks. They saw what they can be when DeNesha Stallworth shows the All-American form typical of her pre-injury self.
In a dominant win over Ole Miss on Thursday, the Cats proved they still have that ability within them. Against Tennessee, they showed they might just be on the way to showing it consistently.
"We were questioning ourselves, but we came down here and played a good game and got a victory," O'Neill said. "That is all that matters."
UK led 38-34 at the end of a back-and-forth first half, but the Lady Volunteers retook the lead, 46-42, by the first media timeout of the second. As recently as a week ago, the Cats may have been derailed in that moment. Instead, they rallied to take their largest lead at 60-52 with 9:09 left.
Tennessee, however, responded again with the kind of stretch that has made it so difficult for UK to win in Knoxville, Tenn., over the last three decades. With 3:57 to go, the Cats found themselves trailing by three.
After Kastine Evans had a layup blocked out of bounds, UK came to the sideline for the final media timeout. On the ensuing possession and with the shot clock running down, O'Neill pulled up from the right wing and banked in a long 2-point jumper. It was a bit of good fortune for the Cats and just enough to give them the confidence they needed to close out the kind of game Mitchell worked so hard to show his team it could win.
Less than a minute later, Stallworth -- who battled all game with a physical UT front line to post 17 points and nine rebounds -- came up with a steal. O'Neill then went on the run and scored in transition to stake UK to a 70-69 lead the Cats would not relinquish.
After another UK stop, O'Neill scored the final two of her game-high 24 points on a jumper. O'Neill has now scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games.
"My coaches are being positive with me," O'Neill said. "They have just been telling that I need to shoot the ball and not keep hesitating. They also told me not to overthink things. It is just a matter of coming out and playing my game, not just myself but for them too."
Kastine Evans would go on to hit three clutch free throws and come up with a game-clinching steal in the final seconds to prevent Tennessee from getting off a potential game-tying shot.
The win provides a lift to UK's position ahead of next month's SEC and NCAA tournaments, but it's much more important for what it says about the Cats as a team. As Mitchell will be quick to remind everyone, the issues with UK's confidence and mentality that led to five losses in nine games don't disappear after a history-making Sunday.
Then again, UK hasn't looked this much like a potential Final Four team since December.
"This something that you look back at after the season when you
highlight some things, but this team needed to win today because they
could," Mitchell said. "They needed to believe in themselves, and they did. That is the
significant thing in my mind."
Matthew Mitchell will lead his Kentucky team into a trip to No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell doesn't typically make a habit of looking back, but this week was an exception.
His team facing a crisis after five losses in nine games, he pulled the tape on UK Hoops school-record-tying 11-0 start. He showed the Wildcats clips of their wins over top-10 opponents Baylor and Louisville. He reminded them of their four hard-fought road victories.
"I just tried to show them that we're not sitting in some rah-rah session where I'm making things up and trying to make you look good," Mitchell said.
Since that start, optimism about UK's Final Four chances has faded outside the program. Inside the walls of the Joe Craft Center, the Cats' confidence followed a similar trajectory. Mitchell, however, has remained steadfast in his faith.
"I just wanted to tell them the reason that I believe we can move forward and be a great team and be heard from in this league and beyond, is because they have already proven to me that they can do it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's only goal was to encourage a similar belief on the part of his players.
"Whether we ever get there or not is not the point, the point is that you believe that and then prepare that way," Mitchell said. "We just need to know that we can show up every day and if we choose we can be the best team in the country. That mindset is what I was trying to get them back to."
Early returns suggest the film session may have worked.
In a dominant 108-78 win over Ole Miss on Thursday, UK looked closer to its early-season form than at any point in Southeastern Conference play. DeNesha Stallworth (19 points, 11 rebounds) rediscovered her All-American form from before a December knee injury and Jennifer O'Neill (27 points) combined with her to form a potent inside-out duo.
The performance was another shot of confidence.
"I think that most of our problems, while we had some physical problems with injuries and some of what has been going on has been physical, but to me the lion's share of it has been mental and emotional," Mitchell said. "I think that confidence is very important for this team right now."`
It will be particularly important as No. 18/18 UK (18-6, 6-5 SEC) travels to No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-2, 9-2 SEC) for a matchup at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. As good as the Lady Volunteers may be, Mitchell knows his mind needs to be on his own team more than anything else.
"My concerns are about Kentucky right now," Mitchell said. "I just want to get ready to do the things that we need to do to beat Tennessee, and that is more about Kentucky than them."
That begins with tempo.
"I think we need to get our minds ready on playing Kentucky basketball," Mitchell said. "That means a fast-paced game."
In half-court offense, UK will need to be ready for a UT defense that features a great deal of zone. On defense, UK's bigs must be prepared to battle with the likes of Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves.
"They have some really powerful interior post players that they try to get the ball in there to," Mitchell said. "It will be a great battle and a great opportunity for us to beat a quality opponent."
Senior guard Meighan Simmons spearheads the attack for Tennessee, averaging 15.2 points.
"She's real fast, really fast, explosive and an explosive scorer," Mitchell said. "She's one of the fastest players with the basketball that I've coached against. When she's on, she's one of the most explosive scorers I've ever been around."
That description doesn't sound much different from UK's O'Neill, a player with whom Mitchell describes his relationship as "complicated."
"She's a joy in my life because she has brought so much to us and so much to our program," Mitchell said. "She's a kid that's done a lot for me in a lot of different ways and hopefully I've helped her, but she's just real, real stubborn."
Her stubbornness comes from her cerebral nature. O'Neill has a tendency to overanalyze, while Mitchell wants her to keep it simple.
"You need to attack every time and when you don't have the ball you need to be ready to shoot," Mitchell said. "Every time you need to be down, whether you do or not, but you need to be ready because it's a threat. Defensively, you need to be in a stance getting after the basketball every time. It's not complicated."
O'Neill made it look pretty simple against Ole Miss on Thursday. If she can repeat that performance on Sunday, Mitchell might not need to go into the archives to find tape of a big win any longer.
DeNesha Stallworth had 19 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Six days ago, Matthew Mitchell offered a prediction about DeNesha Stallworth, the star forward who was then still trying to find her form after a December knee injury.
"One of these nights she's going to go for 18 or 20 (points) and eight or 10 rebounds and that's when you'll know she's back," Mitchell said last week.
The night was Thursday.
Stallworth nearly hit those forecasted numbers on the head in a 108-78 Kentucky victory. In just 22 minutes against Ole Miss, Stallworth posted 19 points and 11 rebounds.
"It feels good to have our All-American back," Jennifer O'Neill said.
Stallworth made 7-of-12 field-goal attempts in her best performance since her injury, registering her second straight double-double in the process.
"We need to get her the ball a little bit more because we're missing her, but just the effort and the willingness to go to the boards is important," Mitchell said. "It's being talented and being able to get up there and have strong hands."
The senior said afterward that she feels "a hundred percent," an encouraging sign for a UK team trying to shake off a prolonged slump in SEC play during which the Wildcats (18-6, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) lost five times in nine games.
"I think I was kind of a big piece that we were missing, but this is not always all on me," Stallworth said. "I think we all have out little parts as a team. But it just feels good to be back out there and playing hard and playing with a purpose. It's just a great feeling, especially to get a win."
When Stallworth had it going pre-injury, UK was one of the best teams in the country. The Cats sprinted to a 9-0 start with her in the lineup, taking down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor in the process. Since then, UK has never looked better than they did against the Rebels (10-16, 1-11 SEC).
"It was exciting to see that we could get back to playing the way we were once before," O'Neill said. "Even though we still have a lot of stuff to work on, it was really good just to get a win."
The win started with entry pass after entry pass.
UK built a first-half lead by getting the ball to Stallworth and she delivered with 10 points and six rebounds. At halftime, Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell -- a Mitchell assistant at UK until last season who received a big ovation when he was introduced in Memorial Coliseum -- had no choice but to adjust.
The inside game established, O'Neill -- the sharp-shooting point guard -- had ample room to operate.
"D's always preaching, 'Throw the ball inside, throw the ball inside,' " O'Neill said. "And we try to play inside-out and sometimes we miss the post a lot -- not sometimes -- we miss the post a lot and it was just good because it made her draw more attention and it allowed me to get open easier."
Taking advantage, O'Neill was dominant in the second half. She poured in 19 of her 27 points after the break, drilling 5-of-6 shots from the field and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
Watching O'Neill and Stallworth playing well together, it's not difficult to remember why UK was so good to start the season.
"They're real good when DeNesha Stallworth plays," Insell said. "They're even better when Jennifer O'Neill plays. And so you get both of those clicking together on the same night like they had tonight, that's a team right there that has a chance to play in Nashville."
The Cats have a trip to the Volunteer state on their mind, but to a city about 180 miles east of this year's Final Four site.
"It just felt fantastic, especially going into the next game versus Tennessee," Stallworth said of UK's Sunday trip to Knoxville, Tenn.
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."