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."
Samarie Walker had 10 points and 12 rebounds in UK's 83-73 loss to Florida on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky Wildcats pride themselves on intensity. In fact, it's the cornerstone of Matthew Mitchell's "40 minutes of dread" style of play.
That what made its absence on Sunday against Florida so notable.
"It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us," Mitchell said. "You have to credit them for getting in here and getting fired up and playing and really taking it to us today."
With that energy and focus, Florida (12-3, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) upset No. 6/6 Kentucky (13-2, 1-1 SEC), 83-73.
After falling behind by 11 points in the first half, UK recovered and built a 62-53 lead with 12:00 left. The Cats, however, made 1 of 15 from the field the rest of the way and committed seven turnovers against Florida's confounding 2-3 zone.
"I felt like we had momentum and I think it was a letdown and a lack of focus," said Jennifer O'Neill, who had a team-high 15 points. "We had a lot of unforced turnovers and forced shots and we weren't poised."
Both of UK's losses this season have come against an opponent playing primarily 2-3 zone, which would seem to be a concern down the road.
The Cats, however, don't see it exactly that way. UK was sound offensively against Alabama's zone on Thursday and had ample opportunities on Sunday, but layups and missed free throws (the Cats shot just 17 of 30 from the line) undid them.
"We were getting some pretty good attacks and some good passes, but we really didn't finish anything outside the paint or inside the paint," Kastine Evans said. "That just comes from staying composed in a tough game like, especially when Florida's playing at such high pace."
UK will face what could be an even tougher challenge in its next game, traveling to face No. 13/12 South Carolina on Thursday. The Gamecocks are perennially one of the nation's top offensive teams, meaning the Cats cannot afford to duplicate Sunday's performance.
Evans, one of UK's seniors and vocal leaders, will be delivering that message this week.
"I think we have voices on the team," Evans said. "It's whether we choose to listen to those voices and pull together as a team or we come and everybody is separate by themselves.
She has been through losses similar to this one before, so Evans knows to expect a tough week of practice. She also expects the Cats to respond.
"From my experience being here, it's going to be on the better side where we're going to pull together, we're going to encourage each other, we're going to be positive in a very tough situation where we're coming off a loss and have to go on the road," Evans said.
Samarie Walker had 12 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in UK's 85-63 win at Alabama to open SEC play on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
For most of the last two years, you could hardly bring up Samarie Walker's name without mentioning DeNesha Stallworth, and vice versa.
Together, the two UK seniors established themselves as one of the nation's top post duos, helping to reinvent Matthew Mitchell's previously perimeter-oriented style of play in the process.
But in December, Walker learned she would have to play without Stallworth for at least a few weeks. Nonetheless, she wasn't about to change her approach.
"I have 12 other teammates -- nine that can play, I think, if I'm counting correctly -- but there was no pressure on me specifically," Walker said. "We all had to do a good job of coming together and filling in for her and making up for her points."
No. 6 UK (13-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) has won four times in five outings as Stallworth has recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, the only defeat coming against second-ranked Duke. Whether it's been on her mind or not, Walker's presence has had a lot to do with that.
"In DeNesha's absence, Samarie has been really big for us," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Walker is averaging 11.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in the games Stallworth has missed, including a 12-point, 13-rebound effort in an SEC-opening win at Alabama on Thursday. In spite of missing her first five shots from the field, Walker's energy didn't wane, which is exactly why Mitchell was so pleased with her performance.
"If she will do that and just not let any external thing affect her and she stays with it, she is a double-double waiting to happen," Mitchell said. "She is just so strong, athletic, explosive, talented, skilled."
Mitchell will be looking for a similar effort on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET as the Wildcats play host to Florida (11-3, 1-0 SEC). The Gators have proven a historically tough matchup, with UK's five straight wins in the series all coming by seven points or fewer.
"We, I think, have really good games because they always have tough players and their coach (Amanda Butler) gets them ready to play and our style of defense has some difficulties against them because they always have good guards," Mitchell said.
Headlining that group of guards once again is senior Jaterra Bonds, who is averaging 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists.
"She's so explosive and can get out and make plays," Mitchell said. "Sometimes when you have one player, one really, really super ball-handler that is explosive, sometimes if you're not sharp in the press one player can really, really hurt a press."
She wouldn't match up with Bonds regardless, but Sunday could mark Stallworth's return from injury. It has now been more than three weeks since her surgery and Stallworth will be evaluated in practice on Friday.
"Our goal is to try to work her back in the first chance she can play," Mitchell said. "And so if that's Sunday, that'd be great."
But with the way players like Walker, Azia Bishop, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have played, Mitchell has no plans to rush his star forward/center.
"Even if she were back Sunday, I still think the team's mindset has to prepare for her role to possibly not be that big, which means we have to do what to do what we've been working on and we have to be successful without her," Mitchell said.
For UK, that means ratcheting up the pace and relying on Walker to patrol the paint.
When Stallworth first went down, Mitchell said it offered an opportunity for the Cats to improve in the long term. With Stallworth now on the cusp of coming back, Walker believes UK has done that.
"I think the main thing is us just coming closer together as a team, including with her," Walker said. "I think we've realized we don't have to necessarily count on just one person to do anything and everything."