Jennifer O'Neill had a game-high 19 points in UK's comeback victory over South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell had settled into using a two-post player lineup all season. After he had built his Kentucky program to unprecedented prominence largely on the strength of four-guard looks, the Wildcats had played much more conventionally in 2012-13.
Nonetheless, when his team found itself down double digits and searching for answers at halftime against South Carolina, he couldn't help but pull a throwback move in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.
"We just felt like if we could change it up a little bit and get some energy out there, so we went four-guard lineup - sort of went back old-school Kentucky there and went four guards and one post," Mitchell said.
The Cats had just delivered their worst performance in a half since November and were down 44-30 at the break. South Carolina shot 56.3 percent from the field over the first 20 minutes with many of the Gamecock makes coming on wide-open layups off dribble penetration. Thanks to the Mitchell-mandated four-guard set, Kentucky rallied from 16 points down to win 78-74 - the largest comeback of Mitchell's UK tenure.
"We had a hard time in the first half, but you have to give our kids a lot of credit for hanging in and overcoming a significant deficit to earn what will be a great, great victory," Mitchell said of the win, which allowed the Cats (22-3, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) to maintain sole possession of third place in the SEC well within striking distance of Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Mitchell knew he had to something drastic. At first, he considered going with five guards - radical relative even to UK's small-ball roots - but his assistants eventually sold him on starting with forward/center Azia Bishop on the floor alongside Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, A'dia Mathies and Kastine Evans. The next decision he had to make was how he would deliver the message.
In her four years playing for Mitchell, Mathies has seen all sides of her head coach. Even she wasn't sure what to expect after such a poor effort.
"We didn't know what he was going to do when he came in," Mathies said.
Oftentimes, such a substantial locker room lineup switch is accompanied by a, shall we say, animated, halftime speech. The Cats, however, pleasantly avoided their coach's ire.
"Coach Mitchell came in with a great attitude at halftime, which I think helped us more than hurt us, and just told us what we needed to do to get it done," Evans said.
Mitchell opted for the calm, pragmatic approach because he knew his team had seen the same thing he just had. He decided to postpone figuring out why it happened until later and address how to rectify it then and there. Mitchell listed what the Cats needed to do better and how they were going to get it done and that was that.
He believed going with four guards would immediately inject energy, and he was right. He thought the smaller lineup would combat the dribble penetration that had been the source of so many of the Cats' ills, and he was right about that too. He saw openings in the SEC's top-ranked defense that could be created by the spacing with more shooters on the floor, and - you guessed it - he was spot on.
Mitchell deserves credit for recognizing all of that - though he says he should have done so sooner - but his players deserve even more credit for executing. Occupying the post, DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker have been central to UK's success this season. Because of that and the depth behind them, the Cats had logged essentially no practice time with the four-guard lineup he was turning to. Thanks to past experience and two uniquely adaptable players, UK pulled it off.
"I do have a comfort level with it because you have some smart kids like Kastine and A'dia that don't have to take a thousand reps there and you can plug 'em in," Mitchell said.
UK quickly began to chip into the lead. After South Carolina scored the second half's first basket to put the Cats in a 16-point hole, they outscored the Gamecocks by seven over the remainder of the first four-minute segment. By the under-12 media timeout, UK trailed just 58-52.
South Carolina, buoyed in part by the confidence of a home win over the Cats three weeks ago, wasn't going to wilt though. The Gamecocks answered when UK cut their lead to four points and led 68-60 with 7:19 left. The Cats' next push, however, finally put them over the top, and the two central players were the ones on whom Mitchell relied to make the four-guard lineup work.
Mathies hit four free throws in a row to highlight six straight points by UK. Then, trailing 68-66 with 3:53 left, she trailed on a fast break and O'Neill found her for a wide-open look from 3. Even though she was just 3 of 16 from the field at that point, she confidently shot. Her teammates were confident too.
"Bria was just saying the play was just too perfect," said Mathies, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and four steals. "She knew it was going in so she already started getting back (on defense)."
On the other end, Ashley Bruner hit 1-of-2 free throws to tie the game. Evans had the answer, draining a 3 to give UK a 72-69 lead, just as when she hit a go-ahead basket with 25 seconds left to give the Cats a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Counting the two free throws she hit with less than 10 seconds left to ice the win, Evans scored seven of her 11 points in the final 193 seconds.
"We're really fortunate that she decided to come to Kentucky because she's one of these kids that helped us change the culture here," Mitchell said.
Much of that culture was established playing a smaller lineup, but the two-big look has had plenty of success as well this season. How much Evans is asked to muscle up and play power forward at Texas A&M on Monday and beyond remains to be seen.
"Tonight's good to know that we can shake it up a little bit and we can do something a little bit different and throw something different at you," Mitchell said. "That's a positive, but it's too early to tell what we'll do there."
Matthew Mitchell leads UK into a rematch with South Carolina on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Going into a trip to South Carolina on Jan. 24, Matthew Mitchell knew his team was in for a physical battle. The Gamecocks' reputation and ranking was built on defense and rebounding, so there were no mysteries about how the Wildcats would have to play to win.
Unfortunately, the Cats just didn't react as well as they needed to and their first Southeastern Conference followed. Three weeks later, they will have another chance.
"When we went into Columbia we won 17 in a row and they came out extremely aggressive, very, very physical, and we just never responded," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It was a disappointing game for us, but now we have the benefit of that experience and we've had much tougher practices and we should be at least aware of what is coming (Thursday) night."
This time around, it will be the No. 16/14 Gamecocks (20-4, 8-3 SEC) who have to travel as No. 9/7 UK (21-3, 9-2 SEC) wears pink Nike uniforms for its annual Play4Kay game in Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Just a week and a half removed from a disappointing home loss to Georgia, Mitchell had already ratcheted up the intensity in practice as the Cats enter the final five games of conference play. Things have been taken up another notch with the rematch looming.
"The thing for us is we've tried to highlight the hustle plays that South Carolina defeated us on," Mitchell said. "That was really all it was. We got a ton of stops in the game. We disrupted them a bunch of times. It was not a masterpiece from South Carolina from an offensive execution standpoint. They just flat out wanted the game more."
UK held South Carolina to just 37.7-percent shooting for the game, but shot 32.2 percent from the field and failed often to finish through contact. The Gamecocks grabbed 14 offensive rebounds for a 42.4-percent offensive-rebounding rate and repeatedly beat the Cats to loose balls. Because of how solid South Carolina is defensively, UK can't expect to explode offensively even though the Cats are more than capable of doing just that against most any opponent.
"That's what you try to say is that this is a mindset," Mitchell said. "It's not a talent issue. We have plenty of talent. It is a mindset: Are you going to get pushed around or are you going to get knocked down? Are you going to try to really, really be strong; stay on your feet, stay on balance? You have to be real tough in this game because they are extremely physical."
Due in part to an inability to match intensity with intensity Columbia, S.C., Mitchell opted to move to a 2-3 zone. It was effective, as UK cut an once-eight-point deficit to two with less than 30 seconds left before losing 55-50. That doesn't mean the home crowd should expect to see more zone in its second-to-last opportunity to see the Cats play in Memorial.
"That's generally more dictated by the flow of the game and what we feel like will be important," Mitchell said. "I think we can be very disruptive to them and our man-to-man defense, if we work hard at it and hustle, I think we can do some things there. We'll use whatever we can to try to get the victory tomorrow night. It's a very important game."
Among other reasons, it's important because both the Cats and Gamecocks are in the thick of a conference race. UK is in sole possession of third place. South Carolina, meanwhile, is tied for fourth at 8-3 with a chance to pull into a tie with UK by sweeping the season series.
For Kentucky, games against first-place Tennessee and second-place Texas A&M are still on the horizon. Those will be big no matter what, but how big depends largely on what the Cats do before then as they defend last season's SEC title.
"Trust me, I want to win it," Mitchell said. "I want to win the league. We've made no bones about that. ... It's gonna be a grind to do and that starts with a 40-minute grind (Thursday) night."
South Carolina, as pretty much every UK opponent in SEC play has, will be ready to play. Mitchell said last week that he is finally beginning to understand what his coworker across the hall - John Calipari - means when he talks about Kentucky being "everybody's Super Bowl." That makes every game hard, but it makes the wins all the more rewarding. What Mitchell wants is for his team to rise to the occasion every time, much like Coach Cal's Cats did en route to a 2012 national title.
"I think if you embrace and if you understand it and you don't shy away from it and back down from it, I think it's tremendous," Mitchell said. "Because it's really what I've tried to tell our team: If we will play with maximum effort and maximum intensity and we'll play together, we're hard to beat. I don't care who it is in this league or this country." Conwright's recovery from knee injury 'ahead of schedule'
On Dec. 26, Maegan Conwright was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Just over a month later, she underwent surgery to repair her knee. Today, she's off crutches and wowing doctors and trainers during the recovery process.
"She is ahead of schedule and that's a credit to how hard she's worked and her attitude," Mitchell said. "These first few weeks out of surgery are so difficult, painful physically, taxing mentally and emotionally and she has just done a fantastic job."
The topic is a timely one after Wednesday's news that Nerlens Noel had sustained the same injury. He will hope to move similarly quickly through the recovery process and Jen Smith of the Lexington Herald Leader has a story about Conwright planning to reach out to her fellow Wildcat. Check it out here.
Men's basketball - Kentucky earned a hard-fought 72-62 win over visiting Auburn on Saturday to push its win-streak to a season-long five games. - The Wildcats received another double-double effort from freshman Nerlens Noel who posted 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. - Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer led five players in double-figures with a team-best 14 points. Sophomore Ryan Harrow and freshman Willie Cauley-Stein both notched 12 points, with senior Julius Mays pitching in with 10.
Women's basketball - Kentucky improved to 21-3 overall, 9-2 in the SEC with hard-fought road wins at Arkansas and Vanderbilt last week. - Against the Razorbacks, the Wildcats rallied from an 11-point first half deficit for an 80-74 overtime win. Sophomore guard Bria Goss scored 16 of her team-high 17 points in the second half and overtime after not starting the game for the first time in her career, a stretch of 57 consecutive starts. - On Sunday vs. Vanderbilt, A'dia Mathies put on quite the show by charting a season-high 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 5-of-9 from beyond the arc. She also dished out a game-high five assists and three steals. She has now reached double figures in 22-of-24 games, including 15 in a row. The 28 points moved her up to No. 3 on UK's all-time scoring list with 1,815.
Gymnastics - No. 18 Kentucky tied No. 6 Georgia 195.825 on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum. - The team score was a season-high for the Wildcats. - Audrey Harrison won the individual all-around title for the second straight week with a career-high 39.3. - Harrison also won floor exercise, and she now has eight individual titles this season. - Harrison has four all-around crowns this season, and they all have come in SEC competition. - Jill Chappel, Shelby Hilton and Shannon Mitchell all tied or set new event career highs on Friday.
Softball - The UK softball team started its 2013 season in style, going 4-2 against some of the best teams in the nation at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. UK got the season started fast with a nine-inning, 3-2 victory over No. 3 California in its season opener before defeating No. 20 Stanford in the weekend finale. UK also defeated Oregon State - who was also receiving votes in both preseason polls. - Junior pitcher Lauren Cumbess was the difference in the huge UK victory, pitching all nine innings, allowing only six hits and two runs while striking out six. Cumbess also went 2-for-4 at the plate with two RBI - including the game winner. - Five Wildcats closed the opening weekend with a batting average well over .350, including freshman Nikki Sagermann, who leads the team with a .429 mark. Junior Ginny Carroll leads the team in RBI with six, while senior Alice O'Brien has scored a team-high seven runs. - On top of Cumbess' pitching performance against Cal, freshman hurler Kelsey Nunley was UK's star pitcher on the weekend, going 3-0 with wins against WMU, OSU and Stanford. In all, Nunley threw 17.1 innings, allowing seven earned runs while striking out a team-high 19.
Men's tennis - The Kentucky men's tennis team climbed to No. 7 in this week's ITA rankings, after starting out the season 6-0. The Wildcats dropped their first match of 2013 in a back-and-forth affair 4-3 on Saturday night at No. 19 Illinois. - In the loss, No. 94 Anthony Rossi upped his record to 6-1 on court one singles with a 6-4, 6-4 win, while Charles Minc improved to 4-0 on the season with a 6-3, 6-3 win on court five. - The Wildcats won the doubles point for the seventh time in seven tries with wins on courts two and three.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team fell to No. 59 Tulane 6-1 on Saturday in New Orleans. - Freshman Kirsten Lewis recorded Kentucky's lone win of the match, defeating Caroline Magnusson 0-6, 7-6 (1-0) (7). - Freshman Nadia Ravita lost her first match of the season, falling 6-0, 6-4 to Klara Vyskocilova in the No. 1 slot.
Track and field - Cally Macumber won the 3,000 meters at the Husky Classic on Saturday. - Macumber's time of 8:59.98 set a new indoor school record. - Chelsea Oswald took eighth with a PR 9:06.64, third-fastest indoor time in school history. - The rest of the Wildcats spent the weekend competing at the Tyson Invitational on the Arkansas campus. - Bradley Szypka finished second in the shot put with a PR-tying throw of 18.50m/60-08.50. - Keffri Neal took second in the men's 800-meter final with a PR, team-best time of 1:49.79. - Allison Peare ran a season-best, team-leading 2:09.04 in the women's 800 meters to finish fourth - Keith Hayes produced a season-best time of 7.79 in the 60-meter hurdles finals to place fourth.
Women's golf - The UK women's golf team began their 2013 spring season at the Lady Puerto Classic in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico at the Rio Mar Beach Resort River Course. - The Wildcats opened up the invitational on Sunday carding a 13-over-par, 301 and are currently in seventh place. Senior Ashleigh Albrecht recorded the low round for UK with a 2-over-par, 74. - The tournament will resume on Monday at 7 a.m. ET and the tournament is scheduled to wrap up with a final round on Tuesday beginning at 6:30 a.m.
Monday, Feb. 11 Women's golf at Lady Puerto Rico Classic (Puerto Rico)
Tuesday, Feb. 12 Men's tennis hosts Notre Dame - 1:00 p.m. Women's tennis at Ohio State - 4:00 p.m. Men's basketball at Florida - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis hosts Eastern Kentucky - 7:00 p.m. Women's golf at Lady Puerto Rico Classic (Puerto Rico)
Thursday, Feb. 14 Softball vs. Cal Poly - 6:30 p.m. (San Diego, Calif.) Women's basketball hosts South Carolina - 7:00 p.m. Softball at San Diego State - 9:00 p.m. (San Diego, Calif.)
Friday, Feb. 15 Baseball vs. UNC Asheville - Noon (Spartanburg, S.C.) Softball vs. Washington - 2:15 p.m. (San Diego, Calif.) Gymnastics hosts Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis at ITA National Indoor Championships (Seattle, Wash.)
Saturday, Feb. 16 Softball vs. UC Riverside - Noon (San Diego, Calif.) Men's basketball at Tennessee - 1:00 p.m. Baseball vs. USC Upstate - 4:00 p.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Softball vs. Oklahoma - 4:30 p.m. (San Diego, Calif.) Rifle hosts NCAA Qualifier Men's tennis at ITA National Indoor Championships (Seattle, Wash.)
Sunday, Feb. 17 Women's tennis hosts Indiana - 11:00 a.m. Baseball vs. Niagara - Noon (Spartanburg, S.C.) Women's tennis hosts Northern Kentucky - 6:00 p.m. Rifle hosts NCAA Qualifier Men's tennis at ITA National Indoor Championships (Seattle, Wash.)
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 10:
Softball: Lauren Cumbess
Outstanding opening weekend for Cumbess, sitting first in ERA with a 2.50 mark and fourth in batting average on the team. Her season started with a bang when she threw nine strong innings against No. 3 California, getting the win over the highly ranked squad. Against Cal, Cumbess went the distance, allowing only six hits, two runs, two earned runs while striking out six. Her performance at the plate against Cal is what won UK the game, going 2-for-4 with two RBI, including the game-winning hit in the ninth inning against Jolene Henderson, who is the two-time defending Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year. Ended the weekend with a .368 batting average with seven hits, including one double and five RBI.
Gymnastics: Audrey Harrison
Audrey Harrison won the individual all-around title for the second straight week with a career-high 39.3 on Friday inside.
The junior also took the floor exercise crown after posting a career-best tying 9.9 to help spark an improbable comeback as the Wildcats would tie then-No. 6 Georgia.
The Knoxville, Tenn., native now has eight individual event honors this season and 15 in her career. Her four all-around wins in 2013 have all come against Southeastern Conference competition.
Track and field: Cally Macumber
Cally Macumber won the women's 3,000 meters at the Husky Classic on the Washington campus in Seattle on Saturday.
Her time of 8:59.98 smashed three-time 5K NCAA champion Valarie McGovern's school record of 9:05.74.
Macumber set a new personal-best by more than 10 seconds, and the time currently leads the SEC. The performance is also third-fastest in the nation this season, and she is in elite company as one of just three collegiate women in America to break nine minutes at 3K this season.
Women's basketball: A'dia Mathies
Senior guard A'dia Mathies led UK to road wins at Arkansas and Vanderbilt last week.
Averaged a team-high 21.5 points, along with 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals in the two wins.
In a tough, come-from-behind overtime win at Arkansas, she scored 13 of her 15 points in the decisive second half, including four in overtime play to give the Wildcats their first win in Fayetteville since 2010.
Hit four of her last six shot attempts in the overtime win and grabbed a season-high tying nine rebounds and team-high five assists.
Had an all-around impressive performance vs. Vanderbilt by netting a season-high 28 points on 10-of-17 from the floor, including 5-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Holding just a slight five-point lead with seven minutes to play in the first half, Mathies scored the final nine points for the Cats, giving the Cats a nine-point 31-22 advantage at the break.
Concluded the first half with a game-high 15 points.
The 28 points marked the third-largest point total in her career and the most since scoring 34 points vs. Tennessee on Jan. 12, 2012.
The 28 points moved her up to No. 3 on UK's all-time scoring list with 1,815 career points.
Mathies became just the third player in UK history to score over 1,800 career points.
Tied her career high with five 3-pointers and dished out a team-high five assists against the 'Dores.
Has reached double figures in 22-of-24 games this season, including 15 in a row.
Leads the team in scoring (15.8 ppg), including 18.8 points per game in SEC play ... Also leads UK in 3-pointers made (50) and assists per game (1.3) this season.
Men's basketball: Nerlens Noel
Freshman Nerlens Noel helped lead UK to a pair of wins at home this week to run the Wildcats' winning streak to five games. Noel logged double-doubles in both outings and has now put together a career-long three-game double-double streak. Noel had 10 points and 10 boards in a win over South Carolina to couple with five blocks. Against Auburn, he logged 10 points on a career-best 8-for-13 day at the line to go along with a game-high 12 rebounds. He continued his streak of at least one block in every game this season.
Softball: Kelsey Nunley
Impressive in her first collegiate action, going 3-0 with wins over Western Michigan, Oregon State - who is receiving votes in both major preseason polls - and No. 20/21 Stanford. Nunley's first action of the season came against Western Michigan, where she posted a complete game, allowing only one run and four hits with nine strikeouts. She also came on the next day in mid-innings against Oregon State, throwing 2.1 scoreless innings with two strikeouts, allowing UK to take a late lead and get the win. Her most impressive performance of the weekend came against Stanford, where she limited the top-20 Cardinal to four hits and one earned run while striking out eight. In fact, Stanford's leadoff batter reached on an infield single but Nunley would not give up another hit until the bottom of the fifth inning. In her two starts against Western Michigan and Stanford, Nunley went 12 innings, giving up only eight hits and two earned runs while striking out 17.
Bria Goss scored 16 of her 17 points after halftime Thursday night in UK's overtime win over Arkansas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell was never a big believer in John Calipari's adage of "We are every team's Super Bowl."
Ten games into the Southeastern Conference schedule and Mitchell is now a certified believer.
"I was very skeptical about that because I had never been through it," said Mitchell. "People can think I'm crazy. I thought people were crazy for talking about it, but I'm a believer now. It is unbelievable what our players are going through right now as far as what they're facing game after game from an effort level and an execution level."
Kentucky sits at 8-2 in the conference, 20-3 overall. Two of those SEC losses have come to top-15 teams in the country. So, in the grand scheme of things, the Wildcats are sitting pretty. But they've had to work at it, and they will continue to have to work at it to get where they are trying to go this season.
After a bye week in which the Cats played no weekday games, Mitchell gave his team the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate to get ready for the stretch run in the SEC.
The game after the resting period, UK hosted No. 13 Georgia. Kentucky seemingly had the game in hand before a late Georgia surge and failed execution down the stretch doomed the Wildcats in a 75-71 loss.
Mitchell looks back now and wonders if easing up allowed his team to lose a bit of its edge.
"We played like a really, really talented team on Sunday, but a soft team when it got tough and Georgia just wouldn't go away and smacked us there at the end," said Mitchell.
After the loss, Mitchell decided to shake things up a bit with two-a-day sessions including 6 a.m. practices to try and increase the intensity and urgency of his players.
Early returns were bleak Thursday night at Arkansas, but in the final 10 minutes it appeared Mitchell's message had finally gotten through.
"We just played as hard as we could down the stretch after we were able to withstand that poor play early and we were terrific," said Mitchell. "I just think that's what we need to get used to and it's probably something we're going to see the rest of the season."
Despite Arkansas' 3-7 record in the league, they brought their very best in a date with the No. 10 Wildcats. With a chance to make a statement and get a much-needed win at home, the Razorbacks played one of their best games of the season against top competition, further proof that the Wildcats are a hunted breed.
"I'm just telling you now," said Mitchell. "Arkansas is 3-7 in the league and has played real tough games against opponents, but they were unbelievable last night. From an execution standpoint they were so sharp.
"They made shot after shot that you put the tape on and you didn't see them making. It was an absolute battle last night and we embraced it."
While they embraced the pressure and competition on Thursday night, they wilted against Georgia. In fact, the two games were mirror images of each other. After a slow start against the Razorbacks, Kentucky stormed back, forced overtime, and earned a road victory in the SEC, an always-notable feat.
Sophomore guard Bria Goss played a large role in the comeback effort. In fact, the come-from-behind victory was just as important to the team as it was for the return of Goss to her old ways.
After struggling offensively over the last few contests, Mitchell opted to sit his talented sophomore to see if she would respond as a reserve. Goss exceeded expectations coming off the bench for the first time this season.
While Kentucky was quiet as a whole through the first 20 minutes trailing 33-28 at half, Goss torched the Razorbacks for 16 of her 17 total points after the midway point. While she shot the ball well (4 of 8 from the field), she made her biggest impression at the free throw stripe. Goss was rock-solid from the line knocking down 9-of-10 attempts.
The performance was critical in Kentucky's overtime victory, but it may have been even more important in terms of Goss' contribution to their postseason hopes in the near future.
"It's frustrating for our team because the reason you think we are capable of making a Final Four or being a championship-caliber team, you include Bria Goss playing well in that formula," said Mitchell. "You really need her to play well."
But as a coach, it's even more important to see a player who works so hard for her team and the program to have a successful night.
"It is a level of frustration but it really makes a night like last night very rewarding to see the kid hang in there and get rewarded with some good play and a very crucial victory," said Mitchell.
Kentucky will be in for a similar battle when its travels to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Vanderbilt Commodores. Vanderbilt has given UK trouble in the past despite Kentucky's four-game winning streak in the series.
The Wildcats are in the midst of a difficult stretch where they will play five of their last seven games on the road, including Thursday at Arkansas. They've past their first test, but chances are good that UK will see the same type of effort from the Commodores that they have from every other SEC team this season when they square off Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
"We'll need to go out and play real, real hard," said Mitchell. "They are always a difficult team to go against with their defense. They really guard the ball well and make you make great decisions.
"It will be a tough game on the road for us and we'll need to prepare well over the next couple of days to have a chance to win."
Kentucky women's basketball players put their alarm clocks to the test on Tuesday morning.
Two days removed from a loss to Georgia that ended the Wildcats' 34-game home winning streak, Matthew Mitchell summoned his team to the Joe Craft Center for a 6 a.m. practice. Later in the afternoon, UK would reconvene for another.
If you're thinking that two-a-days in the middle of conference play seem out of the ordinary, you're on the right track.
"It hadn't been common, but that was not a common performance from us (against Georgia)," Mitchell said.
A loss against a top-15 team is hardly cause for panic, but the way it happened troubled Mitchell. Against a UK team renowned for defense, Georgia scored 45 points and shot better than 50 percent from the field after halftime.
"Just you look at the film and we had some real chances to put that game away and win that game," Mitchell said. "You had double-digit leads in both halves and it was a series of plays where Georgia ended up being tougher than us. You credit them, but we just can't allow that to happen. We have too good of players and too much talent to perform that way."
It was a performance that Mitchell immediately blamed on himself, at least in part. With a week without a game to prepare for the Lady Bulldogs, the UK head coach had the completely reasonable thought process that giving his team a little rest in the midst of a grueling season was the right course of action.
"When you practice poorly like we did last week, which I take responsibility for, I was trying to hit the reset button and let them refresh at the midpoint, which wasn't the way we should've gone about it," Mitchell said.
UK has had unprecedented success over the last three seasons under Mitchell, but both the Cats and their coach are still learning. Every team is different, and it turns out opponents are treating this Kentucky team differently too. UK is coming off its first Southeastern Conference title in 30 seasons and has found that its foes are coming to play at a consistently higher level when the Cats are on the other bench.
"I think another that we're learning is that - it's a credit to the players and a sign of respect - teams have come to know that they have to play real hard (against UK)," Mitchell said. "I thought you saw a really, really tough effort from Georgia and our players are walking around like we have the game won and it's not that important."
Mitchell's goal in a Tuesday two-a-day was to remind his players just how important these games are. He said the effort in the morning practice was "pretty good," but it's impossible to draw any conclusions until the next time the Cats take the floor when it counts.
That will happen when No. 10 UK (19-3, 7-2 SEC) travels to face Arkansas (15-7, 3-6 SEC). It's the beginning of a six-game stretch during which the Cats will play five road games, including their next two. Of course UK would rather be in the comforts of Memorial Coliseum, but that's not Mitchell's primary worry.
"I'm more concerned right now with how we practice and how the players respond to that than the venue," Mitchell said.