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.
A record 23,706 fans were in attendance for UK's annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Earlier in the week, Matthew Mitchell allowed himself to reflect on how far his program had come as UK neared a sellout for its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena.
But on Sunday, Mitchell had coaching to do, so he didn't want to let his mind wander.
In the final moments before UK's matchup with No. 2 Duke neared, Mitchell couldn't help himself.
"I really tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn't help it there right before tipoff," Mitchell said. "It was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to see where it had started and where it's culminated. We need more days like this."
The day was the first of its kind in Kentucky women's basketball history.
UK announced on Friday that the game was a sellout -- the first ever for a women's game in Rupp -- but not even that fact could have foretold what the atmosphere would be like. A record 23,706 fans filled Rupp, the fifth most to ever watch a regular-season women's game.
"It was a great crowd, a super crowd for women's basketball and I think that's really important to have those," Duke head coach JoAnne P. McCallie said. "So we were thrilled to be here. Last time we came, there wasn't that crowd. There was a big crowd, but there wasn't that crowd."
The crowd was there every step of the way as UK tried to battle back from a Duke lead that grew to as large as 14 points early in the second half. Tricia Liston scored 29 points, coming up with seemingly every big basket the Blue Devils needed to stymie UK's various runs.
The Cats (11-1) cut the deficit to four points with 6:07 left on a pair of Janee Thompson free throws -- two of her team-high 12 points -- but the Blue Devils (12-1) had the answers in a 69-61 victory.
"Just giving credit to Duke, they played a really strong game," Bria Goss said.
UK, meanwhile, was left ruing 11 missed free throws in 19 attempts, as well the numerous points Duke scored in transition after beating pressure. The Cats, facing a substantial size disadvantage, knew they would need to speed the pace, but found themselves unable to do it consistently enough.
"You need to score so you can get them sped up," Mitchell said. "I think you saw the few times we were able to really get the speed where we needed it we could affect them."
UK managed just 25-of-75 (33.3 percent) shooting against Duke's confounding zone defense, a significant departure from the first 11 games of nonconference play when the Cats averaged 96.2 points. Kentucky played without 6-foot-3 star DeNesha Stallworth -- who is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery -- but Mitchell wasn't overly interested in playing the what-if game.
"You can talk about that all you want to," Mitchell said. "It's not anything that--We won't know unless we play them again and DeNesha is in the game. So it's just not valuable in my mind to talk about it."
What is valuable to talk about is what the Cats can take from the defeat, because there's plenty of that. "We learned that we've got some things to work on," Thompson said. "We just gotta be ready to play. I don't think we were as sharp and as focused as we needed to be today."
As disappointing as that may be, it doesn't erase all UK has accomplished so far this season.
Playing one of the toughest December schedules in the nation, the Cats sit at 11-1 with victories over a pair of top-10 opponents in Louisville and Baylor and three more road wins over teams that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago.
"I don't want to beat ourselves up too much," Mitchell said. "We lost to a good team. They're a really excellent basketball team. But, gosh, I sure wanted to reward that great crowd with a victory. I think they know what our program is about. I think they know what our kids are about and how hard we'll work."
Sunday is the last time those fans will see UK play in Rupp this season, but they still have nine more opportunities to pack the Cats' real house: Memorial Coliseum.
"We're just blessed to be able to have the fan support that we do," Goss said. "We are so thankful that it was a sellout game we really appreciate people coming out. Hopefully we opened up some hearts today to where they can come back to Memorial and see us play there."
UK will take on Duke at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday in its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's not official just yet, but Matthew Mitchell couldn't help but talk about the sellout UK Hoops expects against No. 2 Duke.
The last two seasons, UK has impressive crowds for its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena. Nearly 33,000 combined fans were in attendance, but Rupp wasn't completely full for either.
So when it does happen at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, the meaning won't be lost on Mitchell. That's why he'll be thinking about the three people who laid the foundation for what women's basketball has become at Kentucky: former UK President Dr. Lee Todd, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and former head coach Mickie DeMoss.
"When that happens, and we think it'll happen this Sunday, my mind will be on those three people who have meant so much to this program and who really sacrificed a whole lot and worked really hard so a day like Sunday could happen," Mitchell said. "We're real excited about that part of it."
Mitchell credits that trio for putting the muscle behind the effort to resurrect UK Hoops. Under their leadership, unprecedented support was given to the program in the form of facilities and marketing.
But as important as those investments were and continue to be, Mitchell knows Sunday would not be possible if not for the players getting it done on the floor.
"You can put up all the billboards you want to and run all the promotions you want to, you need to have something on the floor that people can connect with and want to come watch," Mitchell said. "We've been very fortunate to have players that would pay that price over the last five years and make this possible."
Never has UK had a group of players easier to connect with than this one. The No. 5/6 Cats have tied a school record with an 11-0 start to the 2013-14 season, overcoming adversity every step of the way.
"I think that we are a pretty close team," Mitchell said. "I think the girls really care about each other in a way that makes it important for everybody to succeed. And that's extremely valuable, I think, for our team."
Two players (Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Samantha Drake) have already been lost to the season to injury, while star senior DeNesha Stallworth is in the middle of a three-to-four week absence after arthroscopic knee surgery. Another -- Makayla Epps -- played an important role in UK's win over ETSU on Sunday mere hours after walking away from a serious car accident.
All the while, the Cats have been undeterred. They continue to fly up and down the floor, scoring points at a record rate (96.2 per game) and dispatching every opponent that comes calling.
In December alone, UK boasts a win over archrival Louisville, then ranked in the top five, and another over No. 9 Baylor in a quadruple-overtime thriller that captured the imagination of fans and set an all-time record for most points in a women's college basketball game. Less than a week later, UK overcame revenge-minded DePaul -- the team the Cats blew out in last year's "Pack the House" game -- on the road in a victory Mitchell considers even more impressive.
"I thought the DePaul game to me was one of the best wins we've had here ever," Mitchell said.
A victory over Duke would surely join that conversation as well.
The Blue Devils enter Sunday's matchup with a record of 11-1 and the only loss coming against top-ranked UConn. A perennial title contender, Duke is outscoring its opponents by nearly 25 points per game and shooting better than 51 percent from the field.
"Duke has an outstanding team, outstanding players," Mitchell said. "They are extremely dynamic both offensively and defensively, so we'll be tested every way imaginable."
Five players average double figures for Duke, led by Tricia Liston at 16.5 points. The senior guard is a good representative for the challenge UK will face in that the senior guard stands 6-foot-1. Of the eight Blue Devils playing 10 minutes or more per game, all but three are 6-foot or taller.
"They are big and they are bigger than we are," Mitchell said. "It will be a battle of wills there and we will have to make it an up-tempo, fast game. We can't let them impose their will on us and run their stuff and get the ball where they want to get it because they have some really outstanding players."
For the Cats to succeed in ratcheting up the pace, they will need a better effort than they showed in their last outing. UK's dynamic offense stagnated in a 24-point second half.
"It was just a total lack of aggressiveness and totally out of character for this team and it just wasn't a great effort and it just was not where we needed to do," Mitchell said. "We watched it yesterday, some examples of it. And the first half was really aggressive. The first half was real similar to what we've been doing all season and the second half just decision-making went way down, effort went down."
In practice this week, with players balancing preparation for Duke and final exams, UK has gone to work addressing that. Knowing his team and seeing the work the Cats have put in, Mitchell isn't overly concerned the problem will arise again.
"We're trying to explain to them how important their aggressiveness is, and if you're not aggressive against Duke it won't be good," Mitchell said. "We really have to push the tempo. The point guard needs to make a good decision every time down the court."
If point guards Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill can live up to that as they have most of the season, UK could be in position to add yet another signature win to a resume full of them.
Kentucky's ultimate goals can't be realized until March, but Sunday offers a chance to take another step in the right direction.
"We just have to stay more in-tuned to the process right now," Mitchell said. "The way you get a No. 1 seed is you win games. We have a great schedule. We have a great non-conference schedule and great conference schedule and if we win enough games it will happen."