Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."
Courtney Raetzman scored the game-winning second-half goal in UK's win over South Carolina on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Rain falling, wind blowing and two tough losses on their mind, the Kentucky Wildcats returned to their home field.
The matchup with a tough South Carolina team was a big one, with precious few opportunities remaining for resume-building wins ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the conditions were far from ideal, the Cats weren't about to be deterred. The result was an important victory.
"It was definitely huge for us," Courtney Raetzman said. "It showed a lot about our character and coming out here to fight. That's what we came to do."
To Michelle Rayner -- filling in for Jon Lipsitz on Friday night as the head coach served a one-game suspension for a red card given in a loss at Texas A&M on Sunday -- it was that fight that made all the difference for UK (8-5-0, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) in a 1-0 win.
"Loved it. Loved it," Rayner said. "And I think that's really kind of what we've been lacking, is not only the fight but winning the first and second balls and the battle in the midfield and primarily up top, to keep the ball for us. And I think we did a much better job of that today."
The fight was on display in a tough first half, as UK managed to make it out in a scoreless tie with South Carolina (9-4-1, 2-3-1 SEC) in spite of playing into the wind and rain. In the second, Raetzman put away the winner in the 66th minute.
"Cara Ledman crossed it, it goes past everyone and I slid to get it before anyone," Raetzman said. "But big credit goes to my team for that because they built that whole play up."
Raetzman deserves some credit too. She executed the game plan to perfection with her finish.
"As you can see by the goal, Cara Ledman got into the final third, slipped a ball through and we were talking about sliding and diving in the final third to get on the end of things and (Raetzman) did the exact same thing to them," Rayner said. "A good couple adjustments and they did it well."
Kentucky began the bounce-back process on Friday night.
On the heels of back-to-back overtime defeats, the Wildcats took care of business in a 3-0 win over Mississippi State. Their mission for the weekend, however, was far from complete.
On Sunday, UK finished the job with a 2-1 win against Auburn.
"Pepperdine and Arkansas really stung," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "We needed to find a way to not only win two games, but win a game like this. This is exactly the kind of game that we've been letting get away from us. To play a great team like Auburn and such a well-coached team and to find a way says that there's something in us that we want to find a way to respond."
The game, as Lipsitz said, was hard-fought from start to finish, but UK came out on top. In doing so, the Cats (7-3-0, 2-1-0 Southeastern Conference) swept a crucial conference home weekend.
"We had to," Lipsitz said. "Sometimes your back is up against the wall and you have to find out who you are. When you fall, the question is, are you going to continue to fall or are you getting up?"
UK claimed a first-half lead when Jade Klump scored her fifth goal off a rebound from a shot by Arin Gilliland. It was the second goal the Cats scored off a loose ball in the box this weekend.
"It's not an accident," Lipsitz said. "We do a lot of drills that work on that."
But less than three minutes later, the Tigers (6-4-1, 0-2-1 SEC) responded with a game-tying goal. For the next 36 minutes the two teams would battle to a standstill before Zoe Swift headed in a Cara Ledman corner kick that Alex Carter served back in front of the net.
"I was wide open," Swift said. "I was like, 'If I miss, Jon's going to yell at me.' No, I'm just kidding. I saw I had to put it in the goal, do the details that we talk about in practice."
Open as she may have been, Swift delivered on a week of hard work with the game-winning goal.
"Zoe's been in a little bit of a lull right now and she's very hard on herself," Lipsitz said. "So we've been building her up and saying, 'Look, we know you can do this,' but it comes from work, it comes from doing the basics and she's really had an amazing week of training. I'm not surprised at all that she got one."
UK wasn't surprised to win either, but the Tigers - a "great team," according to Lipsitz - didn't make it easy. In the tougher moments, the Cats remembered they were playing for something bigger on Sunday.
"We just knew that Auburn was a great team and we've been training hard all week," Klump said. "We really enjoyed battling against them, but this was a Kick Cancer Match so we really wanted to come out and battle like those who have battled with cancer."
As part of the annual Kick Cancer Match, UK wore special Nike Volt jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit the Dance Blue Clinic at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. The team also honored cancer sufferers by placing yellow roses on the goal line after the game.
The postgame ceremony was the second of the night, as UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Honda's manager of corporate community relations Erik Wedin were in attendance to present Arin Gilliland with the Honda Inspiration Award.
Entering the weekend, Lipsitz didn't hide from the importance of games against Mississippi State and Auburn to his team. What happened after the game served as a reminder that there are more important things still.
"Win or lose, that is secondary," Lipsitz said. "The game is secondary."
When the Kentucky took the field Friday night, the Wildcats weren't thinking about the heartbreak they felt last week in back-to-back overtime losses to Pepperdine and Arkansas.
All that mattered now was bouncing back and taking care of business. The Cats were intently focused on the one thing head coach Jon Lipsitz preached to his team all week in practice.
"We've just sort of gone back to the basics, talking about details," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz's team took the message to heart, evidenced by a 3-0 victory over conference foe Mississippi State at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. For Kentucky senior Arin Gilliland, straying away from the basics was exactly what caused the Wildcats to go winless in their previous two matches in spite of mostly solid play in both..
"We're keeping people hanging in the game, we're not doing the details, we're not getting there pressing the ball, and we're not finishing goals that we should be finishing," Gilliland said. "Those are details--those are little things. Today, we came out, we did the basics. To play soccer, you have to do the basics first, and soccer will come. We did that today. (Lipsitz) was right, once again."
Once Gilliland and her teammates implemented Lipsitz's game plan, results quickly followed. Gilliland, a Lexington native, scored her fifth goal of the season off of a perfectly placed cross by Cara Ledman at the match's 52-minute mark.
"It was a great cross by Cara Ledman," Gilliland said. "Every time she crosses the ball, I know exactly where it's going. So, I got to position myself perfectly. That finishing is what we did all week. I did the basics. I stayed over the ball, finished through the goal, and results happened."
After controlling possession for the majority of Friday's game, Kentucky was able to stay composed on the way to its sixth win of the season. Wildcat junior Courtney Raetzman, who scored two of UK's three goals, echoed Lipsitz's back-to-basics mantra.
"What we really focus on is details and doing little things that a lot of other teams don't focus on as much," Raetzman said. "Going back to the basics, we need to keep that simple, and not try to do all these fancy things--like trying to get that game-winning pass or that amazing shot off. More like, we need to play and do the basics. From that, great things will happen."
The Wildcats (6-3-0, 1-1-0 SEC) hope to carry their momentum into Sunday's annual Kick Cancer Match with the Tigers of Auburn University.
"(Auburn is) a great team--very dynamic, very exciting, and very athletic," Lipsitz said. "They're young... and doing great. I'm not surprised that Coach (Karen) Hoppa has them playing well. It'll be a fantastic game, a great challenge and a great event. Obviously, it's a fundraiser for us (to raise money) for pediatric cancer research. We need all of Big Blue Nation here--number one, for a great cause, and as a secondary reason, to root us on."
Freshman Taylor Braun has posted four consecutive shutouts in goal for Kentucky. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Brianna Brents, UK Athletics
Freshmen have a choice in joining a college team for the first time: act their age or take control.
Taylor Braun has chosen the latter.
The goalkeeper is stepping up to the plate as a new freshman on the team that lets hard work speak for itself.
In spite of the attitude, Braun was still a little shocked when she was named Co-Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week only three weeks into the season.
"I have to give credit to my team and my defenders helping me out throughout preseason and through the first couple of our games, but it was definitely an awesome feeling," said Braun.
Braun spent a lot of her summer training and growing to become better at her skill. She selected Kentucky because she wanted to be a part of a team that was continuing to build, and with Jon Lipsitz as the head coach, she wanted to be a part of making a legacy.
Lipsitz said he wasn't surprised at all by the way Braun has stepped up and made big saves.
"Our plan for all of our players is to first get better every day, and she's been looking at a lot of film and seeing the things that she has been doing well, and the things that she's not doing well," Lipsitz said. "We go out on the field and work on it; it's just a part of the process."
Reacting positively to short-term failure is what Kentucky women's soccer is all about.
"We lost a game at the beginning of the year and we learned from it," Lipsitz said. "I'm not a believer in you have to lose to be motivated. I'm glad that we've continued to learn from the first game, and the difference is we're learning in victory rather than defeat now".
UK has done plenty of that since that season-opening 4-1 loss at Washington. The Wildcats have won five games in a row, the last four coming in shutout fashion with Braun in goal.
"I just wanted to come in and make a statement that it doesn't matter what age you are, you can be a factor in the game," Braun said.
UK will look to cap a successful run through nonconference play on Sunday at noon ET at home against Pepperdine. After that, it's on to conference play in the always challenging SEC. The Cats' goals through all of that are simple.
"We want to get better every day and we want to win every game and that never changes," Lipsitz said. "That's a part of the process of being in the culture of our team. We're going to be great teammates to one another, we're going to be a family and we're going to work incredibly hard to get better every day."
At Kentucky, that team mentality is fueled by an individually focused approach, counterintuitive as that may seem.
"We take pride in our girls in this program on the individual development of our players, and because of the players developing so much individually, the team gets better also," said Lipsitz.
UK's precocious goalkeeper is an important part of that process.
"Bigger things are coming for our team individually and collectively," Braun said. "It takes a lot of discipline and work ethic to play at this level and you have to do a lot of work on your own. You have to grind when there are days when you're tired, have a lot of homework or didn't get much sleep; you just have to press through. Every day I go in focused and try to get better and learn the aspects of the game and become a student of the game every day."
Wendell Bell speaks at the dedication ceremony for UK's new soccer complex. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mitch Barnhart came across more new faces than he could count when he came to Kentucky in 2002.
There were two he just kept noticing.
"We came here about 13 years ago as an administration and this couple kept walking around our program," Barnhart said. "And they kept showing up at events and we got to know them a little bit and spent a little time with us and they'd go on trips with us. Next thing I know, they're traveling with the rifle team, the volleyball team, the women's soccer team, showing up at softball."
The faces belonged to longtime UK supporters and K Fund members Wendell and Vickie Bell, and Barnhart couldn't help but build a relationship with them. It didn't take him long to understand why they were always around.
"What we began to realize is that they've invested in the lives of all these young people," Barnhart said.
On Sunday, UK Athletics recognized that investment with the grand opening of the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex before a women's and men's soccer doubleheader.
"It's a really, really cool day," Barnhart said at a ceremony attended by President Eli Capilouto, coaches and players from both teams and fans. "We get to dedicate our soccer complex to Wendell and Vickie. After all the contributions they've made, we tried to find something that would give them the credit they deserve for all the things they've done."
The new $7.7 million complex houses separate facilities for both soccer programs, with team rooms, lounges, locker-room areas, coaching offices and new grandstand.
"You have no idea how much this means for us," women's soccer senior Arin Gilliland said. "Being here for the last four years, I've gotten to see a change from aluminum bleachers to this amazing facility. We have the best field in the SEC. Now we have the best facility."
The women's soccer team is in the midst of the best years in school history under Jon Lipsitz, while Johan Cedergren is building the men's program in his third season. Walking through a typical visit when he hosts a recruit, Cedergren talked about what the new facility means to that process.
"At the end, it's down to me and they're basically, 'Where can I sign?' " Cedergren said. "As a men's soccer program to have the stuff that we have here is absolutely mind-blowing."
The Bells enjoy being a part of it all.
"We've been very involved with the program for so many years and I was talking with Dr. Capilouto and Mary Lynn," Wendell Bell said. "Just the transformation academically and athletically that we have seen and the changes over those years are just amazing. And the vision going forward."
As meaningful as the new soccer facility made possible by the Bells is to that vision, their meaning to UK Athletics goes far deeper. That's why the two teams presented jerseys to the Bells and the ball used to score the first regular-season goal in the Bell Soccer Complex on Friday.
"Obviously something like this doesn't happen without the money," Lipsitz said. "It takes money to do these things and we know they've been incredibly generous. But I literally made a note and I wrote down a dollar sign and I crossed it out and I drew a heart. Because that is my first thought when I think about them."
That makes the tribute to the Bells unveiled on Sunday all the more fitting.
After the speeches were done, Barnhart led the Bells outside, where a new bell and plaque were unveiled next to the field as a surprise. The bell will ring after each UK goal, creating a new tradition that will be part of all game days to come.
Courtney Raetzman scored in UK's 3-0 win over Ohio. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within 14 minutes in the first game after the stadium's dedication, the bell rang after a Jade Klump goal. The Wildcats would add two more from Courtney Raetzman and Alex Carter in a 3-0 victory, moving to 3-1 on the season in the process.
"We talk about how important it is to leave a legacy," Lipsitz said. "This is the beginning of a new legacy for our players to leave and be able to come back years from now and say, 'Remember when? Remember when we started everything here with the new stadium?'
"It's just so special having Wendell and Vickie here and Mitch and the administration and Dr. Capilouto. You can't really ask more than for the environment we had here today."
In the nightcap, the men's soccer team leveled its record at 1-1 with a 2-0 win over Belmont. After dominating play in a scoreless first half, Kristoffer Tollefsen and Ryan Creel scored UK's first goals of the season and Callum Irving posted a shutout.
"It felt really good, the first home game of the season," Creel said. "Coach said, 'We gotta ring that bell today.' "
"I just think that with all the people here, opening weekend, you want to put on a good show," Cedergren said. "And I thought that the guys were really, really good today."
The Bells were there for all 180 minutes of action on a rainy day, cheering passionately, which is exactly what anyone who knows the Bells and what's important to them would expect.
"We've been blessed," Wendell Bell said, "but truly for us we're just appreciative that we have the opportunity to invest in this program and make an impact on these kids because, at the end of the day, that's what counts."
On June 30, Arin Gilliland received the Honda Inspiration Award at the Collegiate Women's Sports Award. The honor recognized the UK women's soccer star's courage in overcoming her mother's passing and a devastating knee injury suffered at the end of her freshman season.
As part of the CBS Sports Network broadcast, the feature video below on Gilliland's relationship with her mother Letita.