Makayla Epps had a career-high 16 points in UK's loss to South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
As South Carolina built a big lead, Makayla Epps allowed herself a peek when she checked in for the first time in the second half.
It wasn't pretty, but Epps could only think of one way to react.
"I looked up at the scoreboard once and I was like, 'We're down 20 and it can't get (any) worse so just go,' Epps said. " 'Fight to the finish.' "
When Epps came in with 15:09 left, UK trailed 53-32. Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina had been dominant, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a comfortable margin with a 15-4 run. With no reason for the self-doubt natural for a freshman, Epps threw caution to the win and went on the attack.
Within a minute, she hit a jumper. Later, she scored six straight points as UK showed signs of life and cut the South Carolina lead to 11 with 9:31 left. The Gamecocks, however, were too much on this night.
"We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's extremely talented, plays real hard," Matthew Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight."
Riding an astounding 44-19 rebounding edge, the No. 4/6 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) took down No. 15/15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC), 81-58. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds and South Carolina shot 52.6 percent for the game and 60 percent in the second half to erase any thoughts of a comeback.
Epps, however, wouldn't stop.
"Coach Mitchell, four minutes to go at the last media timeout, he was like, 'Just finish the game. Keep playing hard, keep playing hard,' " Epps said. "And that's what I was trying to do.' "
Epps finished with a career-high 16 points, 14 of which came after halftime. She played point guard for much of her 15 second-half minutes, coping more effectively with South Carolina's physical defense than any of her teammates.
On a night that saw UK's two-game win streak end and a bid at a second straight win over a top-10 team come up short, that was at least one reason to be encouraged.
"She was able to use her size and strength to make some plays in transition that were available to us and I thought played with some good tempo offensively," Mitchell said. "She's a talented player and she'll just keep getting better, but she had a really good night."
Now, Epps and the Wildcats go back to work.
"You have to let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that'll actually impact the game," Mitchell said. "So the score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in tomorrow down and defeated and discouraged."
Sunday's game won't be an easy one, as UK travels to Texas A&M to face the only team that's taken down South Carolina in SEC play. The good news is the Cats have some experience responding to losses.
"We've been here before," Epps said. "It's not like it's our first loss or (anything) like that. So we've been in this position before and we know what we're capable of. All the players, all the coaches, we know what we're capable of. So, like I said, we got Sunday to look forward to. We got Texas A&M and nobody says we can't go out there and beat them. So we're looking for a bounce back."
DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points in UK's 68-59 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 9. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Armed with the experience of facing South Carolina a little more than a month ago, Matthew Mitchell could alter his game plan to reverse a 68-59 result in Columbia, S.C.
Similarly, Dawn Staley could change the approach of her Gamecock team to catch Kentucky off guard in a rematch in Memorial Coliseum.
The two coaches could, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
"They won't see a whole lot different from us and I doubt we see a whole lot different from them," Mitchell said. "We just need to play better than we did over there."
If the last week is any indication, it seems reasonable to expect No. 15/15 UK (19-6, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) will do just that on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are fresh off their first 2-0 week in SEC play, a week that included an upset of Tennessee on Sunday. The win over the Lady Volunteers -- UK's first in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985 -- proved that Mitchell had good reason for keeping the faith that his team is capable of making noise the rest of the season.
He spent last week reminding the Cats of what they accomplished in starting nonconference play 11-0, showing tape of UK's memorable victories over top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. With another such win now in the much more recent past, that confidence Mitchell worked to build goes to another level.
"It's just like a boost," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We knew we could do it and we've shown people that we can do it and now we just gotta go out there and do it."
No. 4 South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) won't make that easy.
The Gamecocks have reeled off seven straight wins in SEC play behind a dominant defense that allows just 53.9 points per game. South Carolina's only loss in conference came on the road against top-25 Texas A&M by just two points, and in overtime to boot.
"We have great battles and they certainly have brought out the best in us over the years and I think it's developed into a good rivalry," Mitchell said.
UK and South Carolina have split their last six matchups with each one decided by single digits. That means Thursday will be a challenge, but one the Cats think they need.
"I think it's really good that we face somebody as good as South Carolina at a time like this to really see where we are," Goss said.
The first time around, UK wasn't ready to cope with South Carolina's physical defense for 40 minutes. In that game, the Cats charged out to an early lead before going ice cold from the field. They shot a then-season-low 31.5 percent, putting them in a 22-point hole that a late rally could not overcome.
"I think it was because of us, because of our shot selection," Goss said. "But we're a whole different team from when we played them a little (more) than a month ago, so I'm really excited."
With DeNesha Stallworth back at full strength, UK looks different from a personnel perspective though their approach remains the same. The loss at South Carolina was the senior forward's second game back following a knee injury that sidelined her for a month. With 11 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, she played well given the circumstances at South Carolina, but Stallworth is at another level now.
"She's a completely different player now, playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of toughness," Goss said.
Over her last three games, Stallworth is averaging 16.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Stallworth's emergence has corresponded with that of point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the reigning SEC Player of the Week. After the junior scored just 12 points in 32 combined minutes against Georgia and LSU, O'Neill has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive outings.
"It's real simple with Jennifer, we want her to attack off the ball screens and look to score there and we want her down and ready when she doesn't have the ball, prepared to shoot," Mitchell said.
O'Neill didn't hesitate to shoot the first time around against South Carolina, but the shots certainly didn't fall. She was just 1 for 13 on Jan. 9, scoring five points. With the way O'Neill has played of late, Goss isn't doesn't see a repeat performance coming.
"I'm not expecting 30 points, 40 points, but, you know, for her she's playing with a lot confidence and she has every right to," Goss said. "She should feel like every shot's going in because I know every time she shoots it I know that it's going in."
It's no coincidence that Stallworth and O'Neill have played their best basketball since early in the season as the Cats have done the same. It's also no coincidence that the reasons are the same.
"I think just our mindset has changed," Goss said. "We're just more aggressive, we're confident, we're believing in ourselves, we're playing as a team and I think that's really key."
Aggressiveness and confidence will be even more important considering South Carolina's strength inside. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots in the first matchup and rank third nationally with 7.1 blocks per game.
"I don't think we did a good job playing through that last time," Goss said. "But shot-blocking's part of the game and we just gotta go out there, you know, get your shot blocked, we'll go get another board or go get a defensive stop or make the stop or something like that."
UK coped well with Tennessee's length on Sunday and will look to do the same against Elem Ibiam and Co. If they do, the Cats could be celebrating their second top-10 win in five days.
Matthew Mitchell celebrates with his team following UK's first win at Tennessee since 1985. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell boasts an unmatched list of accomplishments as UK head coach.
On Sunday, he added another line to his resume.
For the first time in his seven-year tenure and the first in school history since 1985, the Wildcats won at perennial Southeastern Conference power Tennessee.
"Anytime we do something we haven't done before or in a really long time is good, but I am just happy for these players," Mitchell said. "They have worked real hard over the last few weeks so they could get their minds in the spot where they could come in and win a big game like this today."
The victory touched off a jubilant locker-room celebration. Surrounded by current Wildcats as well as Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies and Carly Morrow -- three players who played central roles in building the UK program -- Mitchell climbed a chair to dance after a 75-71 victory.
But it wasn't surprise that was drove the team's reaction. You see, Mitchell knew No. 18/18 UK (19-6, 7-5 SEC) was capable of taking down No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-5, 9-3 SEC) for the first time in Thompson-Boling Arena. In fact, he spent the early part of the week reminding his team why.
"We have a good team, and we knew that. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been focusing on making sure our players know we have a good team. What they did today is something they have already done this year.
En route to an 11-0 start, UK took down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. The Cats won four true road games and ascended to the top five of both major polls in the process. To remind his players of just how good they can be, he opened up the archives and showed them tape of those early-season performances.
Watching themselves, the Cats saw what they can be when Jennifer O'Neill keeps it simple and attacks. They saw what they can be when DeNesha Stallworth shows the All-American form typical of her pre-injury self.
In a dominant win over Ole Miss on Thursday, the Cats proved they still have that ability within them. Against Tennessee, they showed they might just be on the way to showing it consistently.
"We were questioning ourselves, but we came down here and played a good game and got a victory," O'Neill said. "That is all that matters."
UK led 38-34 at the end of a back-and-forth first half, but the Lady Volunteers retook the lead, 46-42, by the first media timeout of the second. As recently as a week ago, the Cats may have been derailed in that moment. Instead, they rallied to take their largest lead at 60-52 with 9:09 left.
Tennessee, however, responded again with the kind of stretch that has made it so difficult for UK to win in Knoxville, Tenn., over the last three decades. With 3:57 to go, the Cats found themselves trailing by three.
After Kastine Evans had a layup blocked out of bounds, UK came to the sideline for the final media timeout. On the ensuing possession and with the shot clock running down, O'Neill pulled up from the right wing and banked in a long 2-point jumper. It was a bit of good fortune for the Cats and just enough to give them the confidence they needed to close out the kind of game Mitchell worked so hard to show his team it could win.
Less than a minute later, Stallworth -- who battled all game with a physical UT front line to post 17 points and nine rebounds -- came up with a steal. O'Neill then went on the run and scored in transition to stake UK to a 70-69 lead the Cats would not relinquish.
After another UK stop, O'Neill scored the final two of her game-high 24 points on a jumper. O'Neill has now scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games.
"My coaches are being positive with me," O'Neill said. "They have just been telling that I need to shoot the ball and not keep hesitating. They also told me not to overthink things. It is just a matter of coming out and playing my game, not just myself but for them too."
Kastine Evans would go on to hit three clutch free throws and come up with a game-clinching steal in the final seconds to prevent Tennessee from getting off a potential game-tying shot.
The win provides a lift to UK's position ahead of next month's SEC and NCAA tournaments, but it's much more important for what it says about the Cats as a team. As Mitchell will be quick to remind everyone, the issues with UK's confidence and mentality that led to five losses in nine games don't disappear after a history-making Sunday.
Then again, UK hasn't looked this much like a potential Final Four team since December.
"This something that you look back at after the season when you
highlight some things, but this team needed to win today because they
could," Mitchell said. "They needed to believe in themselves, and they did. That is the
significant thing in my mind."
Matthew Mitchell will lead his Kentucky team into a trip to No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell doesn't typically make a habit of looking back, but this week was an exception.
His team facing a crisis after five losses in nine games, he pulled the tape on UK Hoops school-record-tying 11-0 start. He showed the Wildcats clips of their wins over top-10 opponents Baylor and Louisville. He reminded them of their four hard-fought road victories.
"I just tried to show them that we're not sitting in some rah-rah session where I'm making things up and trying to make you look good," Mitchell said.
Since that start, optimism about UK's Final Four chances has faded outside the program. Inside the walls of the Joe Craft Center, the Cats' confidence followed a similar trajectory. Mitchell, however, has remained steadfast in his faith.
"I just wanted to tell them the reason that I believe we can move forward and be a great team and be heard from in this league and beyond, is because they have already proven to me that they can do it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's only goal was to encourage a similar belief on the part of his players.
"Whether we ever get there or not is not the point, the point is that you believe that and then prepare that way," Mitchell said. "We just need to know that we can show up every day and if we choose we can be the best team in the country. That mindset is what I was trying to get them back to."
Early returns suggest the film session may have worked.
In a dominant 108-78 win over Ole Miss on Thursday, UK looked closer to its early-season form than at any point in Southeastern Conference play. DeNesha Stallworth (19 points, 11 rebounds) rediscovered her All-American form from before a December knee injury and Jennifer O'Neill (27 points) combined with her to form a potent inside-out duo.
The performance was another shot of confidence.
"I think that most of our problems, while we had some physical problems with injuries and some of what has been going on has been physical, but to me the lion's share of it has been mental and emotional," Mitchell said. "I think that confidence is very important for this team right now."`
It will be particularly important as No. 18/18 UK (18-6, 6-5 SEC) travels to No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-2, 9-2 SEC) for a matchup at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. As good as the Lady Volunteers may be, Mitchell knows his mind needs to be on his own team more than anything else.
"My concerns are about Kentucky right now," Mitchell said. "I just want to get ready to do the things that we need to do to beat Tennessee, and that is more about Kentucky than them."
That begins with tempo.
"I think we need to get our minds ready on playing Kentucky basketball," Mitchell said. "That means a fast-paced game."
In half-court offense, UK will need to be ready for a UT defense that features a great deal of zone. On defense, UK's bigs must be prepared to battle with the likes of Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves.
"They have some really powerful interior post players that they try to get the ball in there to," Mitchell said. "It will be a great battle and a great opportunity for us to beat a quality opponent."
Senior guard Meighan Simmons spearheads the attack for Tennessee, averaging 15.2 points.
"She's real fast, really fast, explosive and an explosive scorer," Mitchell said. "She's one of the fastest players with the basketball that I've coached against. When she's on, she's one of the most explosive scorers I've ever been around."
That description doesn't sound much different from UK's O'Neill, a player with whom Mitchell describes his relationship as "complicated."
"She's a joy in my life because she has brought so much to us and so much to our program," Mitchell said. "She's a kid that's done a lot for me in a lot of different ways and hopefully I've helped her, but she's just real, real stubborn."
Her stubbornness comes from her cerebral nature. O'Neill has a tendency to overanalyze, while Mitchell wants her to keep it simple.
"You need to attack every time and when you don't have the ball you need to be ready to shoot," Mitchell said. "Every time you need to be down, whether you do or not, but you need to be ready because it's a threat. Defensively, you need to be in a stance getting after the basketball every time. It's not complicated."
O'Neill made it look pretty simple against Ole Miss on Thursday. If she can repeat that performance on Sunday, Mitchell might not need to go into the archives to find tape of a big win any longer.
DeNesha Stallworth had 19 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Six days ago, Matthew Mitchell offered a prediction about DeNesha Stallworth, the star forward who was then still trying to find her form after a December knee injury.
"One of these nights she's going to go for 18 or 20 (points) and eight or 10 rebounds and that's when you'll know she's back," Mitchell said last week.
The night was Thursday.
Stallworth nearly hit those forecasted numbers on the head in a 108-78 Kentucky victory. In just 22 minutes against Ole Miss, Stallworth posted 19 points and 11 rebounds.
"It feels good to have our All-American back," Jennifer O'Neill said.
Stallworth made 7-of-12 field-goal attempts in her best performance since her injury, registering her second straight double-double in the process.
"We need to get her the ball a little bit more because we're missing her, but just the effort and the willingness to go to the boards is important," Mitchell said. "It's being talented and being able to get up there and have strong hands."
The senior said afterward that she feels "a hundred percent," an encouraging sign for a UK team trying to shake off a prolonged slump in SEC play during which the Wildcats (18-6, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) lost five times in nine games.
"I think I was kind of a big piece that we were missing, but this is not always all on me," Stallworth said. "I think we all have out little parts as a team. But it just feels good to be back out there and playing hard and playing with a purpose. It's just a great feeling, especially to get a win."
When Stallworth had it going pre-injury, UK was one of the best teams in the country. The Cats sprinted to a 9-0 start with her in the lineup, taking down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor in the process. Since then, UK has never looked better than they did against the Rebels (10-16, 1-11 SEC).
"It was exciting to see that we could get back to playing the way we were once before," O'Neill said. "Even though we still have a lot of stuff to work on, it was really good just to get a win."
The win started with entry pass after entry pass.
UK built a first-half lead by getting the ball to Stallworth and she delivered with 10 points and six rebounds. At halftime, Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell -- a Mitchell assistant at UK until last season who received a big ovation when he was introduced in Memorial Coliseum -- had no choice but to adjust.
The inside game established, O'Neill -- the sharp-shooting point guard -- had ample room to operate.
"D's always preaching, 'Throw the ball inside, throw the ball inside,' " O'Neill said. "And we try to play inside-out and sometimes we miss the post a lot -- not sometimes -- we miss the post a lot and it was just good because it made her draw more attention and it allowed me to get open easier."
Taking advantage, O'Neill was dominant in the second half. She poured in 19 of her 27 points after the break, drilling 5-of-6 shots from the field and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
Watching O'Neill and Stallworth playing well together, it's not difficult to remember why UK was so good to start the season.
"They're real good when DeNesha Stallworth plays," Insell said. "They're even better when Jennifer O'Neill plays. And so you get both of those clicking together on the same night like they had tonight, that's a team right there that has a chance to play in Nashville."
The Cats have a trip to the Volunteer state on their mind, but to a city about 180 miles east of this year's Final Four site.
"It just felt fantastic, especially going into the next game versus Tennessee," Stallworth said of UK's Sunday trip to Knoxville, Tenn.