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Video: Mitchell previews SEC Tournament

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DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points in her final regular-season home game on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points in her final regular-season home game on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
With two players -- DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- who have transformed Kentucky's style of play celebrating their Senior Day on Sunday, Matthew Mitchell drew up an appropriate game plan.

Facing a smaller Vanderbilt team, Mitchell called for the Wildcats to throw the ball into the post early and often.

"Coach pretty much told the guards in practice -- even during the game -- that we have an advantage on the inside," Stallworth said. "So that was really our big emphasis and the high-low was very important."

Capitalizing on her opportunities, Stallworth scored a game-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting as No. 12/15 UK withstood Vandy in a 65-63 victory in Memorial Coliseum.

Walker, meanwhile, had just two points to go with her eight rebounds, but had four assists in often serving as the passer in UK's high-low attack against the Commodore zone. Three of those assists resulted in Stallworth baskets.

"I think me and Samarie, we play well together for the most part," Stallworth said. "So we were trying to take advantage of our size and get the ball inside."

UK (22-7, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) used that approached to build a first-half lead of as many as 17 points, but Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9 SEC) rallied when the two post players went to the bench with fouls. Walker picked up her second with 9:51 left and Stallworth did the same a little more than six minutes later.

"I thought when DeNesha (Stallworth) and Samarie (Walker) went to the bench that we just didn't have much inside presence, and that's where our advantage was," Mitchell said. "You really needed to get tough in there and make some decisions and get some reads against their 2-3 zone."

Vandy went on an 18-2 run and eventually trailed just 36-33 at the break. It would be a back-and-forth battle from that point on, with neither team leading by five until the final minute.

At that point, the Commodores made one final push. Vandy used a 3 by Christina Foggie, a steal and two Foggie free throws throws to close to within one with less than 15 seconds to go. Bria Goss (12 points) then hit one-of-two free throws before UK used solid defense to force a Jasmine Jenkins miss in the closing seconds.

"I'm going to tell you, this team worked so hard to get ready for today's game," Mitchell said. "I thought we had a few terrific moments and really made it tough on Vanderbilt, but at the end of the day, to be able to walk off that floor with a victory on Senior Day, there are not many better feelings than that."

The victory gives UK five in its last six games, an impressive feat considering the Cats' position at the start of that stretch. Kentucky then sat at 5-5 in conference play having lost five of nine games and facing a crisis of confidence. Now, UK will head to the SEC Tournament in Duluth, Ga., with a double bye as the No. 4 seed and a renewed sense of self-assurance entering its opener on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

"Four Sundays ago we were 5-5 and here we are still a No. 4 seed and I think that takes a lot of toughness and encouragement and support," Goss said. "I think that we really buckled down and got it together."

To Stallworth, togetherness is the most important word.

"I think us staying together was most important because it just would have been easy for everybody to go their separate ways and just say, 'You know, forget this,' " she said. "But I think we did a great job of just staying positive and just knowing that we have more opportunities ahead of us and we've just come together. That's why we're winning these games."

By closing with a win, UK sends off Stallworth, Walker, Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett with a win in their final regular-season home game, which was Mitchell's goal more than postseason positioning.

"Our focus and our sense of purpose came from trying to make sure we won for the seniors today," Mitchell said. "That was our focus today. We didn't really worry about seeding in the SEC Tournament."

A year from now, it will be Goss embracing her family before her final home game. That thought struck her as she watched her teammates do the same and she intends to carry it forward into what's ahead for UK.

"I just learned I'm a junior and next year I'm going to be a senior and how fast these seasons are going," Goss said. "I just want to send these seniors out right and go down to Duluth and just put on a show and just fight for them and leave it all on the court."

UK will honor Kastine Evans and three fellow seniors on Senior Day this Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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."

Live stream: Mitchell's pre-Vandy press conference

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UK will travel to Mississippi State for a matchup at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) 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."

Video: Highlights from UK Hoops' win at Texas A&M

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Recent Comments

  • joel alberto luna colon: I agree with you, UK has not only the talent, but some experience. They could go undefeated if they want read more
  • Berdj Rassam: This was expected to be an easy win for UK. read more
  • dannyone: if the cat,s play like that in every game as they should they could go all the what I,m read more
  • Dale Sine: Coach Cal at it again. He is the best coach in America and the only coach that could handle coaching read more
  • Mike J.: Cal is the best coach out there. He returned Memphis to national prominence and stayed 9 years, a helluva lot read more
  • Berdj Rassam: Booker will be a key part of whether or not this team will be successful this season. read more
  • Tom Moore: Since Tubby 98 and 2003-2004 team which should've won it all, Kentucky fans ( I am true blue ) have read more
  • John Mylant: Kentucky verses Kansas I am a UK fan but bringing this into perspective, this was just one of those games. read more
  • Catherine: We have the Blue Platoon and the White Platoon, I say we should name the rest team "The Closers"! read more
  • Sandy: Great game. I couldn't take my eyes off in the second half. Proud of all of you. I thought Epps read more