Cats Taking the Wheel Entering SEC Tournament

On the face of things, not much has changed for Kentucky women’s basketball over the course of a year.

A season ago, the Wildcats had 21 wins entering the SEC Tournament, overcoming a midwinter lull to finish the regular season strong.

A year later, the situation is identical. The circumstances surrounding it, however, are much different.

“I have really enjoyed going to practice with them and they have really taken great ownership of the team,” Matthew Mitchell said. “This time last year, I had to really step in and take ownership.”

The defining moment of the 2014-15 season came when UK’s seniors called a meeting with Mitchell, asking him to take firm control and hold players accountable. He responded by coaching more aggressively and the team responded by playing better before falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

UK only has one senior -- Janee Thompson -- this season, but she took similar initiative with her team coming off a three-game losing streak and an underwhelming win over LSU. 

“The fourth quarter of LSU, we weren’t a happy locker room,” Mitchell said. “And they knew I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t rant and rave. I think probably my reaction there, they knew I was fed up with my lack of focus and intensity and effort.”

Thompson was fed up too, but she didn’t address it by asking for a meeting with her coach. Quite the opposite in fact. With Mitchell out of town during UK’s bye week, Thompson asked for a meeting with her team.

“I did not know that was happening,” Mitchell said. “That was one of those players-only meetings that actually work. You know, you hear it all the time that players are getting together and meeting and we have had it here in the past. I think the fact that I didn’t know it was meeting was why it worked. It was genuine and it was between them.”

Since the meeting and entering this week’s SEC Tournament, UK has won five straight. The Cats have won each by double digits and a school record six in a row in SEC play including that LSU victory. UK has taken down three ranked opponents during the stretch, capping it with a dominant win at then-No. 11 Texas A&M to close the regular season at 21-6 (10-6 SEC).

“These have been games full of hustle, full of effort,” Mitchell said. “And they haven’t been easy teams. Vanderbilt, I know, hit a slide, but Vanderbilt in Nashville is really, really tough. The Mississippi State game was really tough. These were some difficult games. Missouri was just a dogfight. I thought they played extremely hard. And then you go to Texas A&M and beat them on Senior Day.”

Five different players have led UK in scoring during its season-ending winning streak, a reflection of exactly how much the Cats are sharing in success.

“I was talking to them in the locker room on Sunday that they are a real team and playing for each other,” Mitchell said. “Janee scored 24 on Thursday night and scored eight on Sunday and I couldn’t tell one difference in her demeanor and attitude. She just wants to win and her leadership was doing whatever was required.”

Thompson is setting the tone in exactly the way a senior point guard should. With her setting that tone both on and off the court, Mitchell is able to focus his attention more on the strategic side of things.

“This time last year, I was having to provide the leadership for the team and that is never fun for a coach,” Mitchell said. “Right now, I am able to really free my mind up about how can we prepare and how can we do a little bit better on the court. And you always want to try to provide steady leadership about the choices that they make, but I am not having to follow behind them and look over their shoulders.”

That makes Mitchell a confident coach heading into the postseason. When UK opens the SEC Tournament on Thursday at approximately 2:30 p.m. against LSU, Mitchell believes the Cats will be ready to go.

“I think we are taking a team to Jacksonville and if we are to lose down there it is probably because a team has outplayed us,” Mitchell said. “I don’t look for us going down there and not hustling and giving a great effort.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

“We are excited about playing in the SEC Tournament this week,” Mitchell said. “It is one of the premier sporting events in the country and always identifies a really good basketball team that has played great basketball over consecutive days.”