Kentucky Visits NKU in Intrastate Battle

LEXINGTON, Ky. – After an unblemished four-game home stretch that saw the No. 10/11 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team stretch its record to a perfect 6-0 record, the Wildcats begin a tough December non-conference stretch on Wednesday when they travel to face in-state foe Northern Kentucky University at 7 p.m. ET inside BB&T Arena.  

“They are functioning at a high level offensively,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said about the Norse. “Christine Roush leads them and she has some phenomenal numbers, but they are not a one player show. They can put five players on the floor that can score and just virtually everyone on the floor can make 3s. If you saw us in the Eastern Michigan game, it was more like five guards on the court and we struggled with that. Northern Kentucky does a great job executing their offense, they are scoring at a high level and they are going on the road and beating people, they beat Marquette at home. They are very, very impressive. They are hardnosed defensively and make it very tough on you to get a bucket inside and kind of entice you into shooting 3s. On the road, you have to do a great job and be tough with shot selection. So very impressive team. They play very hard and are very aggressive and are a physically tough team. So this is a real challenge and a big test on the road. I will have to believe that people will be excited. I hope that our fans in the area turn out, that would be great if we could get some Kentucky fans to turnout. There are a lot of them up there, if we could get some Kentucky fans in there to help us tomorrow night that would be a big help. This is a tough game on the road and we will have to play well to win.”

The game will be live streamed on ESPN3 with Andrew Kappes and Kaitlyn Gerrety calling the action. ESPN3 is available through WatchESPN. The game can also be heard live on the UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price calling the action for the 11th consecutive season. Fans in Lexington can hear Price’s call on 630AM WLAP. Live audio and live stats will also be available online at UKathletics.com. 

Gameday Central
Kentucky at NKU
Wednesday, Dec. 2 - 7 p.m. ET
Heighland Heights, Ky. - BB&T Arena
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | NKU Get Acrobat Reader
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Radio: UK Sports Radio Network (630AM WLAP in Lexington)
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Kentucky’s game with NKU starts a difficult non-conference stretch in December that will see UK play two true road games on top of hosting preseason top-10 teams in Duke and Louisville at Rupp Arena. Kentucky ends the month with a home game on Dec. 28 against Tennessee State before opening up Southeastern Conference play in January. 

The Wildcats moved up one spot to No. 10 in the latest USA Today/Coaches Top 25 and No. 11 in the latest Associated Press Top 25. UK has now been ranked inside the top 25 for a school-record 118 consecutive weeks. 

Kentucky (6-0) is coming off one of its best defensive performance in program history, defeating Jackson State on Sunday, 92-24 in Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 15.6% from the field in the game, which is the lowest opponent field goal percentage in program history, while JSU’s 24 points scored was the second fewest points allowed in program history. UK also forced the Tigers into 37 turnovers, scoring 42 points off those miscues. 

Offensively, Kentucky continued to show a balanced scoring attack as five Wildcats scored in double figures paced by junior forward Evelyn Akhator, who had her third double-double of the season with 20 points and 13 rebounds. UK had 22 assists in the game, marking the fourth straight game the Wildcats have recorded 20 assists or more. 

The win over Jackson State completed a four-game home stretch for Kentucky that saw wins over Morehead State, Colorado and Eastern Michigan. On the season, UK is hitting 41.5% from the field which ranks 11th nationally and first in the SEC, while the Wildcats are limiting opponents to just 31% from the field, which ranks ninth best nationally and third in the SEC. 

Junior guard Makayla Epps leads Kentucky in scoring averaging 16.2 points per game, while senior guard Janee Thompson is averaging 14 points per game. Both players rank top-10 in the nation in assists per game as Kentucky ranks fifth in the nation as a team in assists per game. Akhator is averaging a double-double this season with 12.5 points per game and 12.0 rebounds per game, while sophomore Alexis Jennings and freshman Maci Morris are also averaging double-figure scoring. 

NKU is in its third year at the Division I level since transitioning in the 2012-13 season. The Norse made an immediate impact in the Atlantic Sun Conference, finishing runner-up in their most recent outing at the 2015 Atlantic Sun Tournament. Head coach Dawn Plitzuweit has guided the Norse to three-straight Women’s Basketball Invitational appearances.

The Norse are 5-1 on the season, with the only loss being a tight 71-68 setback to nearby foe Cincinnati. Northern Kentucky is riding a three-game winning streak, and has yet to lose a contest inside its home venue at BB&T Arena. As a team, the Norse shoot 44.3% from the field and allow their opponents to convert on 41.5% of their shots. The team has a slight statistical edge in most categories, holding a +2.3 rebounding margin, committing 94 turnovers compared to forcing 112 miscues, and swiping 53 steals while having their pockets picked 44 times.

Christine Roush leads the team with 18.7 points per game, and has proven to be a sharpshooter for the Norse with 16 3-pointers on 35 attempts. The senior guard is hitting 91.7% from behind the charity stripe, missing just two free throws on 24 attempts. Rebecca Lyttle is averaging a double-double per game, putting up 13.7 points and pulling down 10.0 boards through the first six games. The 6-foot forward also leads the team in blocks with nine rejections, and shares the ball well with 14 assists to her name.  

Wednesday’s meeting will mark the 16th all-time between Kentucky and Northern Kentucky in women’s basketball. The Wildcats hold an 11-4 advantage in the series, winning six straight in the series. Kentucky leads the all-time series in games played in Highland Heights, 5-1, winning five straight road games in the series. UK’s lone loss in the series on the road came Dec. 16, 1975, while Wednesday’s game marks Kentucky’s first trip to NKU since Feb. 10, 1981. Kentucky defeated Northern Kentucky last year in Memorial Coliseum 82-64.  

For more information on the Kentucky women’s basketball team, follow @UKHoopCats on Twitter and Instagram, or like Kentucky Women’s Basketball on Facebook. 

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Pre-NKU News Conference


Opening statement…
“Well, it’s an important game.  But let’s just start with Kyvin’s departure yesterday and we can answer any questions you have there.  And then we need to talk about a very important game against Northern Kentucky.  So Kyvin came to me yesterday, she and her mom came in.  Said she was going to transfer and not happy here at Kentucky.  So I was sad to hear that.  We’ve been through a lot together during her two-plus years at Kentucky.  I think a lot of Kyvin.  So personally, I was sad that she is not happy here. But our goal is every single day to create an environment where a young woman can be her very best and be very successful.  And I just think that it’s our job if it’s not the place for a player to be, and she doesn’t feel like she can become what she wants to be here, we just want her to be in a place where she can be successful.  So we wish her well and she is a young woman who I have a lot of love and affection for.  She is a very, very good young woman.  I hope she can find success somewhere wherever she lands.  So I’m happy to any questions you may have pertaining to that, and then we can move on to Northern Kentucky.”

On if there is anything going on within the program causing players to leave…
“Listen, I understand the timing of all of it is very unusual.  And the volume of departures that far into the semester, usually these decisions are made at different points in time.  So I certainly understand questions about it.  All I can tell you is that we are off to a 6-0 start with a team that has demonstrated, through this portion of the schedule, some cohesiveness.  So what I see from our players and practice and on the court, are positive things happening.  And I just have a different view, being on the inside, that I think the departures are positive if that’s what the players needed to do to be successful.  So if you’re only thinking of Kentucky’s interest and you’re thinking selfishly of my interest and would I like to have a deeper team and would I liked to have had those players stay, then it’s a negative.  If you’re thinking about you want an environment where if people don’t think they’re getting what they need, they have the courage to say, ‘I’m not gonna stay here, I’m gonna move.’ So I actually think it’s healthy.  The timing’s unusual.  If Kyvin thought that she needed to not be here, she actually had the courage to make the decision.  She knew she didn’t want to be here, so she left.  So what I really would say to people is that the 10 players that are here on scholarship went out yesterday afternoon and had a fantastic practice.  And we continue to progress.  We have a lot of flaws as a team that we need to get better at doing.  But the atmosphere around the players in the locker room seems to be really good.  And if people think things are off the track and falling apart, then time will tell whether that’s true or not.  I feel better about our program and our culture right now than I have in a long time.  I think we’re making real progress as a basketball program. So the timing of them all, I know was unusual.  And I understand if people question that, but that would be my answer to everyone.

On if he’s questioned any systemic issues upon reflection of the departures…
“Of course.  Yesterday with Kyvin, I tried to talk to her about what could I do to make her situation one where she felt like she could be successful here.  I did not ask her to go.  Didn’t want her to go.  Love her.  And of course, when you have four situations in a short period of time, it certainly looks like it’s connected.  And it’s hard for people, if they’re not in it and don’t know each individual, they’re four individual situations.  So one’s a dismissal.  So a player chose not to live up to the standards of the program, so I had to make that decision.  The other three are all separate individual decisions that you need to talk to those individuals, I don’t want to speak for them.  But it’s unusual, it’s never happened here before in this timing.  But I reflect, as I try to develop as a leader of this program, I’m constantly trying to evaluate what I need to do better and how I need to become a better coach.  This is my ninth season, and I hope I’m getting better as a coach.  I hope we’re doing things that are going to build the program for the long haul.  We’ve had some great success here on eight-plus years, and we want to have more success and we want to do better.  But I can assure you, I’m not sitting around thinking that we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.  I think it was Tony Dungy or somebody said there’s 32 ways to win a Super Bowl, and it’s the team that believes in their way the most.  So I’m not saying that our way is the only way that you can be successful, but it’s the way that we’re going to do it.  We’re going to be really honest with our players, extremely honest and try to get them to give an honest effort.  We’re going to work real, real hard and we’re not going to compromise that any.  We’re going to work hard in the classroom, we're going to work hard in our community, and certainly on the court we’re going to work hard.  And we’re going to have a disciplined program, a disciplined approach to how we play defense, how we play offense, how we study in the classroom.  And so those three things, that’s our method and that’s our way.  And if that’s not the way a player, this particular way, is not the way you need to do it, there’s a lot of different ways that you can be successful.  There are a lot of successful different programs out there.  I certainly don’t think we have the market cornered on how you’re going to be successful, but we have been successful.  And I believe in the way we’re doing things.”

On if the transfers could hurt the program’s image in terms of recruiting…
“I don’t worry about it hurting recruiting because the message I just gave you is what I’m going to tell parents.  And we have a lot of people we’re involved with who are very interested in Kentucky.  And I can’t mention them by name, but it’s out there on who’s interested in our program.  So certainly you communicate with those folks, and if they have questions you just hit it head on. And we’re honest with them walking through that.  You can’t be concerned about your guiding principles if they’re honesty, hard work and discipline.  I just believe that the 10 players that are on the team are benefitting from those three things. So as far as worrying, there’s plenty of stuff to worry about as a coach.  I don’t find that productive.  I try to make sure that we are recruiting high character people, that we are living up, as coaches and players, living up to those principles and that we’re preparing every day and willing to make a sacrifice for Kentucky.  I’ve been so blessed here at Kentucky for the success because no one really thought it was going to happen.  And there were days when I thought it wasn’t going to happen.  And I just really trusted in God to give me strength to make good decisions.  So that’s a real important part of my life.  So when you get strength that way, you try to set worry aside because it’s really counterproductive.  It just doesn’t help you.  So when you’re concerned about things, you can find a solution.  If you worry about things, you’re letting negativity hang in the air.  The best way to handle those concerns that it might impact recruiting is to just be honest with people and let them know what’s going on. But it doesn’t seem to be affecting it so far. We’ll see what happens. 

On if there might be any more players leave the program…
I don’t anticipate it.  But that’s what we talked about in the team room yesterday.  Let’s talk about it, let’s just have the lines of communication.  I’ll tell you, there was a time here at Kentucky when I was just so focused on getting it where it needed to be that I probably didn’t communicate with the players as much as I needed to.  And I think that’s one of the parts where I’ve really tried to grow is intentional player connection, and that’s something that we’re trying to do right now.  We will see.  I would not have predicted that Kyvin was going to leave, but she did. So I’m certainly not going to tell you that I can predict the future now.  We went out and had a great practice yesterday, they practiced real hard.  I think they all cared very much about Kyvin, so if there was going to be a day where maybe the energy was low and they’re sad that their teammate was leaving, I would have expected that maybe it would have been yesterday.  But they responded well.  So I just have to make sure that I’m investing in them every day, communicating with them every day, making sure they know how much I want them to succeed.  That’s what I have to do as a coach. 

On if he has considered adding walk-ons to provide depth…
“Well, what helps us in the women’s game is that we have a male practice squad. Especially when you’re at home in the first part of the season that first semester, you are installing a lot and they’re a huge help.  And so on the men’s side, I think it might be a little bit more of a dire situation. And then once you get into conference play, even on the road, you can get through concepts in preparation defensively.  You can break those down into four on four situations.  And so it’s not to that point yet.  If we lost anybody else, you might start thinking about it.  But we have 10 really valuable players right now.  Nine are eligible, 10 are practicing every day.  And everybody has something they can bring to the table.  And that’s a pretty deep team.  We’ll have nine when Ricey (Alyssa Rice) gets back.  We’re expecting her back next week.  So you’ll have nine players that can go on the floor and do something and contribute in some shape or form.  I think there are probably a lot of teams that would like to be nine deep.  We’ve got to do a great job now of being focused in on our responsibility to each other.  We can’t foul, we can’t make silly mental mistakes.  We have to defend every night, rebound every night, and we’ll have a chance in every game, I believe, if we do those things.“

On last year’s seniors asking Coach Mitchell to be harder on the team, if there has been progress that carried over to this year…
“I think that’s a fair question.  You would have to ask that to the people that left; I don’t want to speak for them.  I will tell you this, we are fighting for our culture every day to be a place where a young woman can come and develop as a total person.  That’s my goal.  I want this to be something that impacts them positively now.  During their basketball career, I want them to be very successful.  That means developing their game and winning games and being great students.  We’ve had four straight semesters with a team GPA above 3.0. So excelling in the classroom.  But here’s the thing, the average life expectancy for a female in the United States is 82.6 years.  So if they play 10 years of professional basketball and are wildly successful as a basketball player, they’re 32 years old.  They’ve got 50 more years on the planet if they just live to the average age.  They’ve got to be a person that has no value as a basketball player.  So I really think for us, as teachers and people in education, we must create an environment where they’re developing as total people.  It can’t just be about basketball and there can’t be any shortcuts in that process.  That is what I want Kentucky to be.  And I can’t speak for people who don’t want to be here, because you would have to run them down and ask them that question.  But I am grateful to the seniors from last year.  I communicated very clearly to the returners last spring what we were going to do, and we were not going to be back in a situation where we were losing three straight at the end of the year because I didn’t know we were not focused in the locker room and we weren’t warming up right.  There definitely has been a dedication to what has made us successful here, and I think the 10 players that are on the team right now, you are seeing us grow and develop.  Last year this time, we were assisting on about 40% of our baskets, and right now we’re assisting on almost 70% of our baskets.  That is team basketball.  That is growth for a Kentucky program that many people have said that we can’t execute offensively and things like that.  Some of the knocks on us are starting to look a little bit better for us.  And I give the players on the team credit for that. They’ve worked hard to get to this point.  We have a long way to go, but I think that’s a fair question to be asked.”

On if he feels like his methods have changed…
“Yeah, I think that what they brought to me were parts of the program that I needed to pay more attention to.  And success is the great enemy sometimes of growth.  So you’re in the hunt for the SEC title, you win it one year, you go to three Elite Eights, it’s never happened before.  You win more games in a stretch of time, and the natural thing to do is say, ‘hey, everything’s going great.’ And if you’re not on top of things, if you don’t have great people around you that help you see all of the different…listen, it’s a very complex job.  There are all sorts of things that are going on besides just basketball that I have to be good at here at Kentucky.  So we have to have great people watching everything and making sure that we are a highly successful, highly functioning organization.  So it never dawned on me that players might be checking text messages at halftime. It just never dawned on me that players were looking at Twitter a minute before that game. That’s just not anything that I’ve ever dealt with here, it’s just not anything that I thought that I needed to pay attention to.  It never dawned on me that our players would get on social media and maybe put some questionable things out there.  I’m not on Twitter, I’m not looking at it, I’m not checking it.  That’s not where I’m living my life, but that’s where the kids live their life a lot, so I’ve got to make sure that I pay attention to maybe some things that I’m not all that interested in.  So have I changed my methods?  I’m out there on the court before every game trying to make sure that that’s more like a practice situation.  I don’t see a whole lot of other  people doing that.  But for Kentucky, we have to have an edge to us.  We have to be prepared and we have to start the game with great energy.  So if I have to come out of the locker room and make sure that happens, then that’s a change that I need to make. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure that this is a great environment for us to win basketball games and teach these kids how to be great people.  So I have changed some methods. But I think it’s all for the better. I think that we’re getting better and I think that we will be better.  I think we have a better handle on the kind of players and the kind of people that we want to bring into the program.  And all that happens because we’re trying to grow. And we’re a growing organization. And I hope we will always be vigilant that we stay an organization of growth and that we don’t get stagnant and satisfied with where we are.  We want to win more SEC Championships, we want to win a regional championship and get to the Final Four.  We want to win a national championship, and we’ll have to work hard to do all those things.  

On NKU … 
“They are functioning at a high level offensively,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said about the Norse. “Christine Roush leads them and she has some phenomenal numbers, but they are not a one player show. They can put five players on the floor that can score and just virtually everyone on the floor can make 3s. If you saw us in the Eastern Michigan game, it was more like five guards on the court and we struggled with that. Northern Kentucky does a great job executing their offense, they are scoring at a high level and they are going on the road and beating people, they beat Marquette at home. They are very, very impressive. They are hardnosed defensively and make it very tough on you to get a bucket inside and kind of entice you into shooting 3s. On the road, you have to do a great job and be tough with shot selection. So very impressive team. They play very hard and are very aggressive and are a physically tough team. If you look at our team, we have performed with great intensity and not execution in Tempe. There were no issues of us playing hard. Against Colorado, we were up 23-7 after the first period. Eastern Michigan had us down 22-19 and Jackson State we were up 17-10. So our starts have not been that great against teams that are not in the power 5 conferences. What I have told our team is if we think that Northern Kentucky is not a power 5 team they will beat us. Our approach today is all about trying to get ready for their very efficient offense. I mean, shooting almost 45 percent as a team, that is just phenomenal team offense and almost 40 percent from 3. So this is a real challenge and a big test on the road. I will have to believe that people will be excited. I hope that our fans in the area turn out, that would be great if we could get some Kentucky fans to turnout. There are a lot of them up there, if we could get some Kentucky fans in there to help us tomorrow night that would be a big help. This is a tough game on the road and we will have to play well to win.” 

On what he likes about his team’s defense … 
“Not much. It’s not going too well on defense right now from my standpoint. That is sort of joking, but we need to be better on the ball. We are getting beat off the dribble too much and are not pressuring enough. What they have done is hustled at times when they have needed to. We are just not playing together as consistently throughout the 40 minutes as I would like. We need to start getting some better ball pressure and that is my job to make sure that our team plays hard on defense and our players need to know that is going to be important for us to be a good team. You know, if you play defense every night and you rebound every night this team will have a chance and we’ve got to do those things.”