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Matthew Mitchell is looking forward to Sunday afternoon.
The Kentucky women's basketball program has invited former players back for its annual Alumni Day. It will be a celebration of UK Hoops' past as players are honored at halftime of the Wildcats game against Georgia and celebration of the present and future that wouldn't be possible if not for all they have done.
"We are so fortunate to be in the position we're in right now," the UK head coach said. "We're so fortunate to be experiencing success right now and a lot of that foundation - well, all of that foundation - was laid by the players who've come before us. I love it that they can come back."
Another special group will also be in attendance.
In celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day and the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the seven coaches who first led UK's women's programs will be recognized. Susie Stammer (field hockey), Betty Rider (golf), Leah Little (gymnastics), Dephine Nemeth (volleyball), Claudia Young (tennis) and Harold Barnett (track and field) will receive the Susan B. Feamster Pioneer Award, named after Kentucky's first women's athletics director and basketball coach.
Without trailblazers like those seven, thousands of fans wouldn't come to Memorial every UK home game to loudly support their team. Among those fans will be many children, and Mitchell hopes more than anything that some of them will be inspired to try to become the next A'dia Mathies, DeNesha Stallworth or Kastine Evans.
"It's an important day for us just to try to reach out to young kids and particularly young girls who dream about playing at a place like Kentucky and being in an atmosphere like will be in Memorial Coliseum on Sunday afternoon," Mitchell said. "It's a fantastic day and we're proud to be a part of it."
Oh yeah, and the Cats (19-2, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) will be playing host to a highly ranked conference foe when the No. 13/14 Lady Bulldogs (18-3, 6-2 SEC) come to town on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.
"We have a very exciting game coming up Sunday afternoon," Mitchell said. "It will be a real big challenge for us. Georgia has another very good team as they always have."
Perhaps more than anything else, experience is what jumps off the page when evaluating Georgia. It starts with head coach Andy Landers, who is in his 34th season leading the Lady Bulldogs and is closing in on his 900th career victory. It also extends to his roster, as Georgia has six seniors on its roster including leading scorers Jasmine James and Jasmine Hassell.
"There's not any weaknesses that I see in their team," Mitchell said. "It'll be a talented team that'll be well coached by one of the great coaches of all time in our game and we'll have to play well to win. But it's a good opportunity for our team to get a very, very important victory over a really good team."
It's a victory the Cats will have had to wait a long week to earn.
Kentucky last played on Sunday when the Wildcats rebounded from their first loss in more than two months with a 73-60 win over LSU. During the time off the Cats took advantage of the opportunity to get some rest and focused as much on the mental side of the game as the physical with the second half of the conference schedule on the horizon.
Mitchell has worked with none of his players more closely on that front than Azia Bishop. The sophomore forward/center turned in her best game of the season with 17 points against LSU, doing so after a week of practice she called "rough" and her coach said was a "disaster."
Bishop and Mitchell met on Friday trying to build toward the kind of effort she needs to make in order for those kinds of performances to be the norm, but the results aren't clear quite yet.
"She's been fine this week and we've tried to give a little time off and catch our breath here so it hasn't been a real intense week up to this point," Mitchell said. "So we'll really start finding out more about that (Friday) and (Saturday) and then you all will be able to see on Sunday."
With so many special guests scheduled to be there on Sunday, Mitchell hopes Bishop and her teammates play the way he knows they can.
"I love it that there's a team that - if they choose to show up and play really, really tough - our team will make the alumni proud and really proud of where they played and what their program's doing right now," Mitchell said.
Cory Weigel wrote earlier on Thursday about Kastine Evans and her charitable work. Evans' primary means of service is through "Shooting at Success," a non-profit organization she founded to mentor children between second and fifth grade. Find out more about it in the video above.
Despite spending the majority of her life as a star athlete, including in high school at Norwich Free Academy and now as a member of the No. 8/7 Kentucky women's basketball team, Evans has always made it a priority to give back to the community and make an impact in children's lives.
In January, Evans started a non-profit after-school program called "Shooting at Success." The organization's focus is a 10-week program that runs on Mondays at two local churches in the Fayette County area. Evans rotates every other week between Broadway Christian Church and Crossroads Christian Church where she teaches groups of 50 kids from low-income households between the grades of second and fifth life lessons on building character.
"I came up with the idea of 'Shooting at Success' by realizing that basketball or sports in any way are a great tool to get through to young kids," Evans said, who has partnered with the Lexington Leadership and Urban Impact to found the program. "It's very fun, but at the same time you can teach them discipline, you can teach them hard work, you can teach them different things that they will learn in the classroom but also on the basketball court. It's a great way to reach out to kids on a common level and just at the same time be able to be important figures in their lives because they are looking forward to something that's coming up in the week and just being able to relay any message that you try to get through in a sport like basketball."
In an effort to build character in the kids, Evans repeatedly references honesty, discipline, sacrifice and opportunity - the four pillars of the UK program instilled by head coach Matthew Mitchell. She even brings in guest speakers to talk to the students about the meaning of each word. What this does is give the children a viewpoint from student-athletes and other college students who have persevered through trying circumstances themselves.
"Being able to talk to these kids at a very young age where they are very vulnerable to different things and situations that are going on in their lives right now may make a difference for them later on in life," Evans said.
Her charitable efforts extend well beyond serving children in the Lexington area.
Last summer, Evans went on a service trip to Ethiopia with seven other female UK student-athletes and members of the athletic department staff. The group spent a week dedicated to serving the citizens of the African nation and Evans returned stateside with a new outlook on life and an inspiration to give back.
What stood out most to Evans from the trip was coming to understand the everyday struggle of the people she served. Even in the face of poverty, the natives always found joy in their lives through faith and a sense of community.
"You see these people who have nearly nothing," Evans said. "They don't have running water, they don't have toilets, they don't have food, they don't have clothes, they don't have any of the basic necessities to life but they still smile every day and they were happy that we were there. You could just see that sense of hope and joy in their heart and that's something that's stronger than any struggle you'll have as long as you have that faith and keep a strong mind and heart."
Evans says she began realizing it was her duty to help the world at a young age; her mom and dad always raised her to look beyond her own existence. Since Evans and her siblings graduated from high school, her father still gives back to their community. For the last three years he has coached a local AAU team comprised of players who have gotten cut from their local high school teams. He makes the two-hour drive to New York every other week to showcase his players' talents against some of the best competition in the state. Since he began the team, nine of his players have gone on to play collegiate basketball.
Evans put her parents' lessons into practice with teammate Samarie Walker last summer, volunteering one day a week to clean rooms at the local Ronald McDonald House, a "home away from home" for seriously ill children and their families. Even with the jam-packed schedule of a student-athlete, Evans has always seemed to find time to lend a helping hand.
When it came time to deciding where she would attend college and play basketball, Evans' decision was an easy one. After getting to know Coach Mitchell, she recognized in him and his program the same beliefs and morals that she learned from a young age.
"Anybody that asks me why I came here, a lot of the decision came down to the coaches and their principles and how they care about you," Evans said. "It's not just about basketball and that's what is going to develop us into great women."
Evans plays a key role for the Wildcats, being primarily the first player off the bench and averaging the most minutes among the reserves. Her character shines through on the court, as Coach Mitchell calls her "the glue that holds the team together."
Evans hopes to bring back the life lessons she learned from Africa and influence the young kids of her "new hometown" of Lexington, where she has spent the last three years of her life. Her intimate involvement with "Shooting at Success" demands hours of her precious time, but will all be made worthwhile by achieving one simple goal.
"One thing I hope that comes out of this is to be able to at least reach one kid," Evans said. "It's going to be real hard to reach all 50 kids, but to at least be able to get one or maybe two that's the best thing to be able to reach out to them and know that somebody else is there looking after them even when they go home. To know me personally and the people through Lexington Leadership and Urban Impact are here to work with them and hopefully they will take different strides than maybe some of their older siblings or parents have taken and become successful within themselves."
As his team prepared to put that streak on the line at South Carolina, Matthew Mitchell knew how the Gamecocks would attack. They were going to be tough, they were going to be physical and, just like any of UK's previous 17 outings, it was about responding.
Unfortunately, they were unable to answer the bell effectively enough and the Cats lost for the first time in two months, 55-50.
"It was just physical contact on every play," Mitchell said. "We have no control over that. That is totally out of our hands on how the rules are administered in the game, so we have to do a better job of adjusting to that."
When the Cats got bumped, their reaction was to wonder why there was no whistle.
"That was the most disappointing thing for me," Mitchell said. "Just the look in our eye last night was not one that says, 'Hey I'm going to get determined and respond.' "
With a game against LSU (12-7, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) coming up on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, No. 5/4 UK (18-2, 6-1 SEC) won't have to wait long for another chance to respond under similar circumstances. The Tigers twice defeated the Cats last season - 61-51 in the regular season and 72-61 in the conference tournament - using a rugged style UK couldn't overcome.
"They were really, really physical and tough games," Mitchell said. "A lot of contact in both games and we didn't do a great job then."
The Tigers lost four of their top five scorers from last season's NCAA Tournament team, but have actually increased their scoring average by more than nine more points per game in 2012-13. Forward Theresa Plaisance - the SEC's top scorer - leads the way at 18.3 points per game, up from her 4.5 average from last season, to go with her 7.9 rebounding average.
"They are well-balanced and can score a lot and are capable of putting points on the scoreboard," Mitchell said. "I think they're a really good SEC team with good athletes, good players, very well-coached so it will be another tough one Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum."
It might be tough, but it's a challenge Mitchell is glad his team will have to take on.
"I think we'll do better and I think last night can be real valuable for us if we can adjust and make sure that we learn the lesson that needs to be learned from that tough loss," Mitchell said.
That's certainly a different tune from the one he was singing after the defeat.
"It was a bad, bad mood," Mitchell said. "I was in a terrible mood coming back. We were not happy to lose. The team has done such a great job. We had not tasted defeat in a long time, so it was not a happy occasion."
On the flight back to Lexington, Mitchell made sure to impart to his team how he felt. But no matter how he disappointed he may have been, he wouldn't allow himself to succumb to emotion and undo everything his team has accomplished.
"You have to react appropriately and the players have done a real good job for a long, long stretch this season and so I don't think this is anytime for drastic measures like that," Mitchell said. "I just think the sense of urgency from the players needs to be, let's learn a lesson from a really, really physical, tough game and if we're in that position again, which I hope that we're not, but if we are we have to really respond differently than we did last night."
The Wildcats, however, haven't seen anyone the likes of South Carolina, not in terms of Mitchell's word of the day at his customary pre-game press conference.
"We've played some tough teams, but I'm telling you: I just have an unbelievable amount of respect for their program and how they play," Mitchell said. "I don't know that there's anybody tougher than they are."
In fact, Mitchell doesn't think No. 5/4 UK (18-1, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) will face another opponent quite like the one the Cats will face on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in Columbia, S.C., other than when the Gamecocks visit Lexington for a rematch in mid-February.
"I really think that we will have to play extremely tough against them to have success in the game and I can't think of anybody I'd compare them to," Mitchell said.
Mitchell believes the Gamecocks have taken on the personality of their coach, Dawn Staley, and it begins on defense. No. 18/14 South Carolina (16-3, 4-2 SEC) ranks first in the SEC in both points allowed (47.6 per game) and field-goal percentage defense (34.3). The Gamecocks have held their opponents under 50 points in 15 of 19 games this season and allowed 60 points or more just once.
"I think that this is really becoming one of the most hotly contested rivalries in our conference," Mitchell said. "We play South Carolina twice every year and, as you go back and review the history of these games over the last five or six years, it's two teams that really, really play hard and get after each other."
Mitchell and Staley are each in their sixth seasons leading their two programs, during which time UK holds a 7-3 series advantage. Six of the matchups have been decided by single digits, including the last three. Over that three-game stretch, UK is averaging 60.0 points per game, but never have the Cats brought an offense so dynamic into a matchup with South Carolina.
UK is scoring nearly 80 points per game on the season and has tallied 100- and 97-point outings in its last two SEC games. Mitchell has tweaked his offense to get the most out of post players DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, but most of UK's offensive growth can be attributed simply to having good players all over the place.
"More times than not you have five players on the court that can score," Mitchell said. "I was looking at last year's game (against South Carolina) and we were getting some open shots, but the people who were getting them weren't making them. We're just making more shots this year."
But as it has been established, UK hasn't done any of its scoring this season against South Carolina's defense.
"It'll be a great test," Mitchell said. "I don't know what it will do as far as us figuring out where our offense is. I think we'll have to play well offensively and really place a high value on toughness plays in this game."
No one will be tested more sternly on Thursday than Jennifer O'Neill.
The sophomore has undergone a tremendous evolution over the last month, becoming UK's catalyst at point guard. Since a scoreless outing against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 21, she has scored in double figures in seven of eight games, averaging 13.9 points and 4.4 assists.
Mitchell has regularly praised O'Neill of late for the way she pushes the tempo. The impact of that has never been clearer than on Tuesday as UK prepared for South Carolina.
"She had to leave practice yesterday early for class and our practice was different in that 20 minutes that she had to leave early," Mitchell said. "And it wasn't a bad practice; it was just different. That's a real compliment to Jennifer."
Against a South Carolina team that thrives in the half-court, generating opportunities for herself and her teammates before the defense is set could be particularly valuable.
"I think that Jennifer's role in this game and in every game in the league is very important because I think that she is doing something that I don't see any other guard right now doing as consistently as she is," Mitchell said. "She's really in attack mode whether our opponent misses or makes the shot."
With Kentucky and South Carolina matching up, there will likely be many more misses than makes. The Cats trail only South Carolina in the SEC in scoring defense at 51.8 points per game and their opponents are shooting 37.2 percent from the field.
Missed shots, of course, lead to rebounds, which is where this game could be decided. In that area, South Carolina leads all SEC teams in rebounding margin at +11.6 and has outrebounded conference opponents alone by 7.8 per game.
"That is a staggering number in this league," Mitchell said.
The good news for the Cats is they aren't too bad on the glass themselves. Overall, UK is second in the SEC in rebounding margin at +6.9 and actually has actually been better than South Carolina in conference games with a +8.0 margin.
Replicating that success on the glass won't be easy. But like anything else against South Carolina, it will have to start with toughness.
"Coach Staley I think is one of the toughest coaches to prepare for," Mitchell said. "Her teams are really hard to prepare for because they're going to play so incredibly tough. This will be a real test for us."