No. 17 Kentucky Hosts No. 12 Oklahoma for SEC/Big 12 Challenge
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The No. 17 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team completes a three-game home stretch inside Memorial Coliseum on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET against No. 12 Oklahoma as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
“Well, we have a very tough game tomorrow with Oklahoma,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They are a very good team and, as usual, very well-coached by Sherri Coale, and present a lot of challenges for us. We’re trying to get ready. We’re trying to get better and are seeking improvement everyday on the defensive end and the players are working hard at it. So, tomorrow night will be a great test for us. We’ll have to play extremely well to beat Oklahoma. They’re a very, very good team playing well, off to a great start this season.
“You just look at our record down here (in Memorial Coliseum) and we’ve won some really big games and beaten some really good teams when the Coliseum is full. It makes a big difference and this is the biggest opportunity we’ve had as of yet in the season. It’s a great opportunity for us and we would like Oklahoma to have to face a full Coliseum where the energy is behind the Wildcats. It would be a great boost to this team that has been working so hard to get ready for this game so we would love for everybody to come out.”
Single-game tickets for all Kentucky home games are available through the UK Ticket Office and through ticketmaster.com. Single-game tickets are $9 for reserved seating (all ages), $8 for general admission seating (adults) and $5 for general admission seating (youth 6-18/seniors 65+). General admission seating is free for ages five and under.
The game will be broadcast live on the SEC Network with Courtney Lyle on play-by-play and Rebecca Lobo as the analyst. The action can also be seen through WatchESPN on computers, smartphones or tablets. Now in his 12th season, Neil Price will have the call on the UK Sports Network. Fans in Lexington can hear Price’s call of the game on WLAP 630AM. Live stats and free audio will be available online at ukathletics.com.
Thursday's game will be part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which will feature 10 squads from the SEC against every team from the Big 12. This season marks the first in which 10 games will be played. The format consists of five home games on campus sites for each conference from Dec. 1-4. A complete schedule can be found at SECsports.com. Two teams from each league participated in the challenge the past two years with the conferences splitting the games each season for an overall 2-2 series record.
Kentucky is coming off two home wins last week over Morehead State and Samford, defeating the Eagles 74-47 before taking down the Bulldogs 80-57. Kentucky dominated inside the post against both teams, outrebounding MSU 46-34, including a 40-6 advantage in points in the paint, while UK outrebounded Samford 36-21 and had 20 more points in the paint than the Bulldogs.
The two wins moved Kentucky to No. 17 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 and No. 20 in the latest USA Today/Coaches Top 25. The Wildcats sit 5-1 overall on the season with all five wins coming at Memorial Coliseum. UK has defeated the only ranked opponent it has played this season with its season-opening 82-66 win over then-No. 14 Miami (Fla.).
Kentucky, which is averaging 77.8 points per game this season, has been paced by its senior leaders Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. Epps, who has 1,310 career points, is averaging 17.2 points per game with a team-high 31 assists and nine steals, while Akhator is just behind her with 16.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. Both players were recently named to the Naismith Preseason Top 50 Watch List, which annually honors the national player of the year.
Two other Wildcats are averaging double-figure points this season in sophomore guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game and is second on the team with 10 3-pointers made this season. Murray, who has scored in double figures in three straight games, is averaging 4.8 rebounds per game and is second on the team with 13 assists.
Oklahoma enters Thursday's game with a perfect 5-0 record, including a 4-0 mark at home and 1-0 record on the road. Most recently, the Sooners defeated Colorado State 70-55 last Sunday in Norman. The Sooners shot 42.3% from the field in the game, hitting 6-of-21 from 3. Both teams had 17 turnovers and Oklahoma scored 17 points off those CSU miscues. Senior guard Maddie Manning and freshman guard Chelsea Dungee paced the Sooners with Manning scoring 16 points with nine rebounds, while Dungee had 10 points and one block. In total, 11 players scored for Oklahoma while the Sooners played 13 players in the game.
Senior guard Peyton Little leads the team in scoring averaging 12.6 points per game with 2.8 rebounds per game and nine steals. Junior center Vionise Pierre-Louis is averaging a double-double with 11.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Manning is the final Sooner averaging double figures with 11.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Junior guard Gabbi Ortiz leads the team with 17 assists.
Oklahoma returns four starters and 12 letterwinners from last year’s squad that finished with a 22-11 overall record and a 11-7 mark in the Big 12 standings. The Sooners made their 17th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, which ranks as the fifth-longest active streak in the nation.
Thursday’s meeting between Kentucky and Oklahoma will mark the fourth contest in program history. The Wildcats own a 2-1 record against the Sooners with Thursday’s meeting being only the second regular-season game between the two programs.
The Wildcats and Sooners first met on March 30, 2010 in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight with OU posting an 88-68 victory over the Wildcats in the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The two teams met again on Nov. 28, 2014 in the Paradise Jam with the Wildcats winning a wild 92-88 contest.
Kentucky and Oklahoma last met in the 2016 NCAA Tournament Second Round on March 21, 2016 inside Memorial Coliseum with the Wildcats earning a 79-58 victory. Kentucky had five players in double figures in the game, including 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists from Epps. Morris had 12 points in the game, while Akhator recorded 11 points with four rebounds. Senior guard Janee Thompson scored 16 points in her final game inside Memorial Coliseum with four assists.
For more information on the Kentucky women’s basketball team, visit UKathletics.com or follow @KentuckyWBB on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, or Kentucky Women’s Basketball on Facebook.
- New spectator parking options include the High Street Lot, located at the corner of East High Street and South Martin Luther King Boulevard, and the Alumni Center Lot on Linden Walk, resulting in nearly 200 additional parking spaces.
- Spectator parking is located in all of the E-lots surrounding Memorial Coliseum, all lots are off control 3 hours prior to tip. Additionally, the South Limestone Garage (PS#5) and the Rose Street Garage (PS#2) are available 2 hours prior to tip. See the shuttle map and route information diagram below for all available women’s basketball spectator parking options.
- Parking is prohibited in any R (Residential) lots. Vehicles parking in R lots without a proper permit, along yellow curbs, grass spaces, or other non-specified and unapproved areas may be subject to ticket and/or tow.
- Disabled spectator parking is available with a valid, state issued disabled hang tag in the E-Lot (Employee Lot) north of the Joe Craft Center. These spaces are available on a first-come, first-served basis until full.
- A parking map can be found, here.
Transit Center Parking Garage
- UK women’s basketball fans can avoid traffic and congestion around Memorial Coliseum and park for FREE at the Transit Center Garage – available after 5 p.m. ET on weekdays and all day for weekend games.
- The Transit Center Parking Garage is accessible from Vine Street of High Street.
- Push the green flashing button upon entry, take the yellow token and store it in a safe place. Park in the garage and find the UK Athletics event staff member at the entrance of the garage near Lexington Avenue for a free parking token to use after the game when you exit the garage. Staff will remain on site until 20 minutes after tip.
- Please do not lose your token. If you lose your token, you will be charged an $8 fee for a lost token fee. If you lose your token, visit the pay on foot station located in the 7th floor elevator lobby of the garage and choose “lost token.” You will be charged $8.00 and given a new token that can be used to exit the garage.
- Shuttles are available beginning 2 hours prior to tip and pick up and drop off near the South Limestone Garage (Parking Structure # 5) (blue route) and near the Transit Center Parking Garage and High Street Lot (green route).
- Shuttles will start back up after halftime to return guests to their parking areas, the shuttle will discontinue service 1-hour postgame.
- A shuttle map with route information is available here.
Game Day Information
- Doors to Memorial Coliseum open one hour prior to tip.
- UK Athletics encourages women’s basketball fans to arrive early to ease traffic and parking congestion around the Coliseum.
- For more information on parking around Memorial Coliseum and other game-day questions visit ukathleticsgameday.com/wbb/
Matthew Mitchell Pre-Oklahoma News Conference
“Well, we have a very tough game tomorrow with Oklahoma. They are a very good team and, as usual, very well-coached by Sherri Coale, and present a lot of challenges for us. We’re trying to get ready. We’re trying to get better and are seeking improvement everyday on the defensive end and the players are working hard at it. So, tomorrow night will be a great test for us. We’ll have to play extremely well to beat Oklahoma. They’re a very, very good team playing well, off to a great start this season.”
On how the SEC/Big 12 games are set up…
“It’s just an effort from the Power Five conferences to get together and grow the game, to have some games of great interest early in the season. You know, so often times these games are maybe hard to put together, and if different schools or different conferences won’t get together, it’s just a way for us to get organized and it’s good for women’s college basketball. It’s great for two really good women’s basketball conferences, the SEC and the Big 12, to promote the game. So, there’s some really exciting match ups, and I was out recruiting the other night and a coach mentioned, ‘Hey, I know the Big 12/SEC Challenge is coming up,’ and you could tell that there’s some excitement about it. So, the conferences work really hard. Leslie Claybrook in our conference really spearheads these kind of efforts for us and she does a great job. So, there’s some terrific match ups. We play who they tell us to play, and Oklahoma is our opponent and they will be tough tomorrow night.”
On his relationship with Sherri Coale…
“Well, I have tremendous respect for Coach Coale. I can remember when I was coaching at Morehead State, and Coach (Mickie) DeMoss was still here at Kentucky, and our seasons were over. We both drove up to Dayton to watch and support Coach (Pat) Summitt at Tennessee and Carol Ross who had Ole Miss in the Sweet 16 being played up in Dayton. And I can remember going up to that game and watching Oklahoma live, really for the first time that I’d been around them. And this was early in my career as a head coach, and I just loved the way that they played the game, but more so how they supported each other. The bench was always really… always behaved the way I want our bench to behave. Always into it for the players on the court. Run out to meet the players at timeouts, and I learned a lot from observing them that day. So, she’s always impressed me and I’ve always been a really great admirer. And then, you know, the first run in that I had with her, we had a good lead in an Elite Eight game and they came storming back and beat us, and they went to the Final Four in 2010 instead of us. And that was heartbreaking for our team, but that was a great, great team that really turned our program in a direction that’s been remarkable for us. And then we played them here last year in the second round and it was a great, great team victory for us last year. So, a lot of respect for Oklahoma. Huge admirer of Coach Coale. She’s taught me a lot. Although we’re not personally close, I’ve learned a lot from observing her teams and she’s always been very nice and very kind to me and really respect her a lot.”
On his frustrations with the team not huddling and getting together during games…
“Yeah, we’re just a very quiet team. They’re hard workers. They come to work every day, but they struggle to talk on the court. Now, that’s a function of a couple things: You’ve got a couple of quiet people, then you’ve got a lot swirling around where people are trying to think of, ‘What am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing?’ So, it’s hard to talk when you don’t know exactly what’s going on. So, that will get better. We just have to keep coaching it. But I have to just demand it from them, and early in the season, I just know how together this group’s going to have to be. We’re going to have to really be together. We’re going to have to play it real clean. We’re going to have to take no shortcuts. We’re going to have to be sharp, focused, execute well on both ends of the court and when we do that we can be a very good team. If we don’t do that, we become mediocre very, very quickly. So, we’re just trying to bring it together and it’s a hard and tough process but they are working every day. I just watched film from yesterday’s practice early this morning and they worked really hard to talk better. It just is a process that takes a little bit of time. A person like Taylor Murray, who’s playing so terrific and really is an example I can point to of playing defense the way we want to play defense, is just a very quiet person. She’s not real talkative, but she’s working hard at it and even when she’s talking it’s not real loud. So, you know, you’ve got all sorts of things going on there. But they’ll get it and it’s my job to make sure that they do it. You’ve got to make sure they do it.”
On being able to teach communication to the team…
“Well, the short answer is that you have to make it in their interest to talk. So as a coach, you have to do that in a variety of ways. It is all a part of holding them accountable. So, we just make sure that they understand. Here is one thing I have found out about the team: If they practice it and they know it is important, they’ll do it. There are just so many things going for us right now that we are trying to get better at doing, that it is just not happening as fast. It would be more fun if it were happening faster. But it is just not. So, talking is one of those things that just comes along slowly. They interact really well with each other. They talk well with each other. It has just been a real process with me, as a coach, to try to figure out how to get them off phones. I used to equate them as having their phones out as them not communicating and not getting together. I used to be on a personal crusade to outlaw smartphones, but that didn’t go very well. They are pretty popular right now. I lost that battle. So, I have had to figure out how to try to coach in this environment and what I have noticed is, when I relax just a little bit and observe: Do they care about each other? Do they look after each other? Instead of the only definition being their phone out. This group was over at the house the other day. We had some food over there the other day. They’re sitting around and they are having a great conversation and people had their phones out and they were having a great conversation, and I just sat back and watched that, and it is just a different time. I think you do have to, as a coach, if you want them to talk to each other, you have to spell out some pretty plain guidelines like, ‘OK guys, we are going to put our phones up right now and we are only going to have time where we interact with each other.’ We try to do that. Maybe a pre-game meal or the bus riding to or from games or practice. You know, just try to carve out little time where you are not just hooked to your phone and you guys talk to each other. So, I’m sure it’s an issue all coaches are trying to figure out.”
On what the team should be talking about in huddles…
“What defense we are in, what the match ups are… We are changing defenses more now than we ever have. So, that used to not be that big of a deal. They knew what defense we were in. So, they need to communicate what defense we are in or what just happened on a breakdown on defense and communicate, ‘Hey, this is what I saw,’ and then get the offensive play called if we are going to set it up or if we are going to run in the transition, whatever that may be. So, there is just information. And then the point guard needs to get them together, and Taylor is great about that. Taylor has a great feel for the game. She understands we need to go, or we need to calm down, or we need to pep up or whatever it may be. She has good information and I really trust her from a leadership standpoint there, and Makayla (Epps) as well. It is just that if you don’t get in that huddle people, like Evelyn (Akhator), get real upset with themselves, and she will wander off and it’s not a bad thing. She is really upset that she made a mistake or something. It is just that you really have to get that time to get them together and they are connecting with each other and you are not worried about what just happened to you personally. It has got to be about the team. The only way to make sure that happens is to huddle every time. We had a situation in practice yesterday when they didn’t huddle and we just had to get them on the line and run. We just have to build that into the fabric of the team and make sure that they understand that it is important.”
On importance of communication on the road…
“It is important. When you are on the road, you have five players against you, and then you have whoever is in the stands as well. So, that energy is another thing that you are dealing with and you really have to stick together. We have been in a lot of buildings when the tide starts going against you and that is a real thing. The energy in the building and the momentum is a real thing and it can be really, really powerful. So, the only chance you have against the five players on the other team and then that other X factor of being on the road, is that you have to be really in-touch, but that you have to stick together and that’s why these challenging early-season games are good for us right now, because one person won’t beat Oklahoma tomorrow night. It will be a team effort. If we are able to get it done, it will be because everybody has been able to stick together and get it done for each other. So, it is vitally important.”
On whether the huddle problem has been an issue with his teams in the past…
“Sure. Listen, this is not uncommon. Last year’s team, you know, that was a culmination of four years of trying to get Janee Thompson to lead and get a huddle together. Taylor Murray is the primary point guard. When she is on the floor, she is the point guard usually. Makayla is kind of point/forward. We will kind of give her the ball and let her run the team, but it is Taylor. Tomorrow night will be her seventh game of her sophomore season. So, it is always… you are very fortunate as a coach if you find someone who is naturally just a chatter box and is really naturally talking all the time on the basketball court. It is a dynamic game. You have to do a million things. Your mind is going in all directions. You’re winded. You’re fatigued. The first thing you want to do is just catch your breath you know. It is not natural to just, boom, come together. Five people come together. So, this is just not really… I have fixed that before many times. Virtually every year you have to focus them on that, the importance of that.
On offensive challenges vs. Oklahoma …
“Oklahoma is really tough and forces their opponents into season high turnovers with a combination of defenses. They are very energetic and aggressive and give you multiple looks and that’s hard for a team this early in the season. You haven’t had a chance to see and go against a lot of different things. They have a 1-3-1 trapping zone in the half court that we had some success with last March in the NCAA tournament. It was very aggressive and we were able to make a few plays that helped us, but we were barely holding on and turned the ball over too. They play really hard and really aggressive and we have to win the turnover battle to be successful in this game. We aren’t forcing a ton of turnovers, but we’re taking care of it so far. This by far will be the most difficult defense we’ve gone against. It will be tough.”
On approaching this challenging month …
“As a coach, you look at the month, it’s a very, very difficult month and the schedule is challenging in every way, but we must seek improvement every single day and play our guts out every night. We know how to win basketball games and what it takes. We just have to continue to seek improvement. The kids have worked really hard the last two days. I think we’re better than when we woke up Tuesday morning. We’ve had a couple individual practices for everybody and had a really good practice last night. We’ll work our heads off in game day practice and go out and play a very difficult Oklahoma team. I know that this team is improving and they need some more time to improve, but as a leader you need to give them the opportunity to do so. What we need is just to get better and I believe that through December we will. We have so many opportunities to learn about our team-- we just have to fight every day for improvement.”
On having a full Memorial Coliseum…
“You just look at our record down here and we’ve won some really big games and beaten some really good teams when the Coliseum is full. It makes a big difference and this is the biggest opportunity we’ve had as of yet in the season. It’s a great opportunity for us and we would like Oklahoma to have to face a full Coliseum where the energy is behind the Wildcats. It would be a great boost to this team that has been working so hard to get ready for this game so we would love for everybody to come out.”