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."
The Kentucky Wildcats couldn't have asked for much more in their run through nonconference play.
Playing a challenging schedule, the Cats won 12 times in 13 games to establish themselves among the nation's elite. They took down Louisville, their archrival, in a top-10 matchup and used four overtimes to best Baylor in another.
Nonetheless, the Cats believe the best times are ahead of them in Southeastern Conference play.
"Some of the best memories go through the SEC season and now is really when the fun starts," Bria Goss said.
UK (12-1) kicks off conference play at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday against Alabama (7-6). The Crimson Tide is playing its first season under head coach Kristy Curry, but memories of the last two years won't be far from the Cats' minds.
"We have a lot of veterans on our team and they understand the challenge that is ahead of them," Matthew Mitchell said.
In somewhat of a scheduling quirk, UK will travel to Alabama for the third straight season. The Cats won last season, 87-70, on the strength of a late-game burst, but fell in 2011-12 even though they would go on to the league crown. To Mitchell, that's a testament to the strength of the SEC.
"They didn't have a great record, but they had great players and played well that night and beat us," Mitchell said.
The same is true two years later.
Leading the way are Shafontaye Myers and Daisha Simmons. Myers is shooting 44.0 percent from 3-point range, while Simmons is averaging 14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
"There are some good athletes on that team," Mitchell said. "They push the tempo, so we definitely need to do a good job in transition defense against them. They have really explosive guards."
The life of a freshman under Matthew Mitchell is not always easy.
The demands placed on newcomers in terms of effort and execution, particularly on the defensive end, make playing a major role from day one very difficult at Kentucky.
It didn't happen immediately for Linnae Harper, but the Chicago native is getting there 13 games into her collegiate career.
"I definitely think it took a lot of work, transitioning from high school to college," Harper said. "The speed is really different, but I'm now starting to get in my groove."
In a nonconference finale -- a 109-46 blowout win over Grambling State (3-8) -- Harper had 15 points and seven rebounds for No. 6/6 UK (12-1). After she scored in double figures just three times in her first nine games, the former McDonald's All-American has done so in three of her last four outings to boost her scoring average to 7.7 points per game.
The ability has always been there -- Harper, after all, is the highest-rated recruit in UK Hoops history -- but she is only now figuring out how to push through inevitable miscues.
"Really I think my mentality, just coming from high school to college and making a mistake and holding your head down," Harper said. "But I think each day in practice and the games and just having more experience is helping me with that. If I make mistake, just to know to push through it."
Harper's emergence has coincided with the absence of DeNesha Stallworth, who is targeting a return in the next two weeks. An injury to the star senior forward cut UK's rotation down to 10 players and opened up an opportunity for additional playing time. Harper, as well as fellow freshman Makayla Epps, has capitalized.
"We've had some injuries on this team and I think Makayla and Linnae have really stepped up," said Bria Goss, who posted a career-high 23 points against Grambling State.
Epps joined Harper in double figures with 10 points and added seven rebounds, showcasing the bright future, in both the short and long term, of UK Hoops as the Wildcats enter Southeastern Conference play next Thursday at Alabama.
"I think both of them have so much ability, so much talent and that's why we're so optimistic about their future here and so glad they're here," Mitchell said. "They're going to be really good players."
Neither Harper nor Epps, however, is hiding from the fact that there is a great deal of work ahead. That may be daunting, but it's also reason to be encouraged.
"I think that there's still a lot of room for improvement, although they're both doing so well right now," Goss said. "I think that just tells you where the team is. I'm really excited to see where they can be and where they will be. They're both very competitive and that's what we need on the court every day."
UK will play its final nonconference game of the 2013-14 season on Sunday vs. Grambling State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Of course he wanted to beat Duke on Sunday, but had you offered Matthew Mitchell a 12-1 run through a challenging pre-conference slate before the season, he would have taken the deal without hesitation.
On Sunday, UK Hoops will have a shot at exactly that.
"It'll be important for us to practice well to get ready for Grambling State to see if we can close out," Mitchell said. "If we are able to earn a victory it will really be a great nonconference season for us."
The No. 6 Wildcats (11-1) will play host to Grambling State (3-7) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET in their final tune-up before Southeastern Conference play. The opponent might not have the name recognition of Louisville or Baylor -- both of which UK has defeated this month -- but the Cats will have to be ready.
"Grambling State is a very quick, athletic team," Mitchell said. "They really like to push the ball in transition, so that will be a challenge for us to sharpen up our transition defense that we had some breakdowns in, in the last game, so we're going to be working hard on that."
Grambling State uses a deep rotation, but guard Joanna Miller is on the floor most all the time. The senior is averaging a team-high 18.2 points and 36.6 minutes, while senior forward Victoya Ricks is averaging 11.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
The Cats, however, are focused on themselves more than anyone else.
UK is entering a vital portion of its schedule during the semester break. The Cats returned to campus after a short break for Christmas and now will be focusing on basketball and basketball alone until classes resume.
Mitchell reported on Friday that his team posted a cumulative grade-point average of 3.1, the result of hours of work during the fall semester. They'll get back to it in the classroom on Jan. 15 but until then the Cats will look to make strides on the floor in the additional time they will spend together.
"... I think what will really tell the tale for us in conference will be how good can we practice over the next couple weeks because we need to make up some ground defensively and we need to sharpen up our press," Mitchell said. "We're going to work really hard on that today."
UK will devote individual practices to work on both ends of the floor, also spending plenty of time working on free throws. The Cats are shooting just 66.6 percent from the line through 12 games, including 21 for 48 over their lost two outings.
Against Duke in particular, missed free throws were costly. UK missed 11 of its 19 attempts in a game that was ultimately decided by just eight points.
"You're not going to beat a team of Duke's caliber shooting 8 for 19 many times," Mitchell said. "You may shoot poorly, it happens; you can win games shooting poorly sometimes, but over the course of the season we need to shoot free throws better."
Mitchell was sure to say he believes his team is capable of shooting well from the line and his solution to recent woes is simple.
"This morning they're lifting right now and then we'll go right into the gym and have a free-throw session," Mitchell said. "It's nothing but holding them accountable."
He will do that by setting goals.
For example, the Cats were called on to him 80 percent from the line on Friday morning. If they fell short, they would have to shoot more free throws following evening practice. The ultimate goal is to shoot 78 percent as a team in games.
"We're just trying to get reps, mental focus, and mental preparation," Mitchell said.