No. 8/8 Kentucky Hosts No. 13/11 Duke on Sunday at Rupp Arena

LEXINGTON, Ky.—The No. 8/8 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team will host its second of two regular-season games inside Rupp Arena on Sunday, welcoming No. 13/11 Duke to the Bluegrass for a 7 p.m. ET tip.  

“I’m proud of the players for completing final exams.  We’re looking for a strong semester academically.  They had to work hard this week, and we finished up last night. Maci Morris took her last one last night at 6.  So the team’s done with exams.  That clearly has been the main focus of this week. So now we’re turning our attention toward Duke,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They are an outstanding team.  Very, very talented. A well-coached team.  And really, with a lot of players who played in the game last year returning, we had a bunch of problems.  So it’s a real challenge for us.  I think that (Azurá) Stevens and (Rebecca) Greenwell are a tremendous 1-2 punch that pose real problems, and the rest of the players are very talented and can do a lot of things offensively.  And defensively, just their size—a very big team. They’re disruptive with different combinations of zone and man-to-man, so just a really tough team.  A big challenge for us.  I thought our players had good preparation today. We have to have good preparation tomorrow and Sunday morning, and see if we can come out and win what would be just a huge game for us.  We need a big crowd out there too, we need to sell it out.”

Single-game tickets are available online through Ticketmaster at $9 for lower-level reserved seats (singles only) and $8 for upper-level general admission. Senior citizen (65+) and youth (6-18) tickets are available for $5 while children age five and under will be admitted free (based on availability) in upper-level general admission. In lower-level reserved seating, all patrons require a ticket regardless of age. UK faculty and staff can receive up to four complimentary tickets for the game if purchased in advance at the Joe Craft Center Ticket Office with valid employee ID. Group tickets are also available in advance starting at $2 by contacting the UK Ticket Office. 

Gameday Central
Duke at Kentucky
Sunday, Dec. 20 - 7 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky. - Rupp Arena
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | Duke Get Acrobat Reader
Coverage

SEC Network
Radio: UK Sports Radio Network (630AM WLAP in Lexington)
Game Center (free audio, live stats)
Twitter
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The game will be televised nationally on SEC Network with Paul Sunderland, Carolyn Peck and Steffi Sorensen calling the action. The game can also be seen through WatchESPN through computers, smartphones and tablets. For the 11th consecutive season Neil Price will have the call on the UK Sports Network. Fans in Lexington can hear Price’s call on 630AM WLAP. 

More than 10,000 convenient parking spaces are available within a 10-minute walk of Rupp Arena. In addition, most surrounding parking lots and parking garages offer spaces for individuals with disabilities. A parking fee will be in effect for most all Rupp Arena events. A parking map is available here

Kentucky (9-0) is off to one of the best starts in program history, becoming the fifth team to start the season off with nine consecutive wins.  The Wildcats are ranked No. 8 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today/Coaches Top 25 for the second consecutive week after cracking the top 10 in both listings the week prior.  The rankings extend UK’s school-record rankings streak to 120 weeks.  Duke also reprised its rankings from last week, holding the No. 13 spot in the AP Top 25 while ranked No. 11 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll.

Sunday’s contest will be the first action the Wildcats have seen in a week, as they picked up their previous victory seven days prior on a road trip to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to battle Conference USA title contender Middle Tennessee.  Makayla Epps paced the team with 17 points, four assists and three steals in the 68-52 victory.  Her stat line from the 72-54 victory over in-state rival Louisville on Thursday was even more impressive, going 10-of-11 from the field for a season-best 24 points and the most efficient performance by a Wildcat since 1987.  For her tremendous week, Epps was named both the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week and the espnW National Player of the Week.

The Wildcats have used strong defense and an efficient offense to post some impressive numbers this season and rank high nationally in several categories. Defensively, Kentucky ranks ninth in the nation and second in the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage defense at 32.6%, while allowing opponents 53.7 points per game, which ranks just outside the top-25. On the offensive end, UK sits in the top-10 nationally in field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage, and is fifth in the nation in scoring margin.

Epps’ last week was far from an outlier for the junior, as she leads the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game to go with 5.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.  Janee Thompson is second in scoring with 13.8 ppg to go with 6.5 apg, while UK’s other three starters of Evelyn Akhator, Alexis Jennings and Maci Morris are all averaging 10 or more points per contest.

Duke enters the game as the No. 13/11 team in the nation, marking the 303rd straight week that the Blue Devils have been ranked in the AP Top 25.  Duke is 9-2 on the young season, with losses to No. 18/18 Texas A&M and No. 2/2 South Carolina.  The Blue Devils most recently picked up wins over UMass and Liberty with an average margin of victory of 31.0 points.  

Duke has two players on both the Naismith and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) National Player of the Year watch lists in Azurá Stevens and Rebecca Greenwell.  Stevens enters the game averaging 18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, and is also 10th in the nation in blocked shots, with 27.  Greenwell is averaging 14.5 points per game, with almost half of her points coming from behind the arc.

Sunday’s matchup will be the seventh meeting between the two programs, with Duke holding a 5-1 advantage in the all-time series.  Under head coach Matthew Mitchell, the Wildcats are 1-3 against the Blue Devils, with the lone victory coming on Dec. 8, 2011, when the Wildcats took down Duke, 72-65, in Rupp Arena.

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

Matthew Mitchell Pre-Duke News Conference


Opening statement…
“I’m proud of the players for completing final exams.  We’re looking for a strong semester academically.  They had to work hard this week, and we finished up last night. Maci Morris took her last one last night at 6.  So the team’s done with exams.  That clearly has been the main focus of this week. So now we’re turning our attention toward Duke.  They are an outstanding team.  Very, very talented. A well-coached team.  And really, with a lot of players who played in the game last year returning, we had a bunch of problems.  So it’s a real challenge for us.  I think that (Azura) Stevens and (Rebecca) Greenwell are a tremendous 1-2 punch that pose real problems, and the rest of the players are very talented and can do a lot of things offensively.  And defensively, just their size—a very big team. They’re disruptive with different combinations of zone and man-to-man, so just a really tough team.  A big challenge for us.  I thought our players had good preparation today. We have to have good preparation tomorrow and Sunday morning, and see if we can come out and win what would be just a huge game for us.  We need a big crowd out there too, we need to sell it out.”

On the difficulty of preparing for a team like Duke amongst finals and the holidays…
“I think this group really wants to do well, and they pay attention and they practice real hard.  It’s definitely and rightfully so, their mind has been on their studies and their exams.  It’s such an important week.  And so it’s a challenging game to schedule.  Duke’s played a couple times this week with exams last week, so they’ve been in basketball mode. So if that gives them an advantage then that’s one we’ll have to overcome. But our players are hungry and have worked hard.  They’re really paying attention and trying to do the things we’re asking them to get better at.  They’ve been very coachable.  But to say our minds have been 100 percent on basketball this week is not the case.  They’ve really worked hard in finals.  So we’ll see what we can do.  I thought they had very good energy this morning, and we’ll have to try to do it again tomorrow. But it is a challenging game given the time of the year.”

On Alexis Jennings being left available in the high post…
“She’s done well. She made some down in Murfreesboro at Middle Tennessee, and it really helps our offense because I think that people respect our ability to get to the basket and they respect our skill around the basket.  And maybe they don’t have as much respect for our skill from 15 feet.  So we were just kind of picking what’s the higher percentage play here.  And it’s not unlike what we’ve been seeing over the years, at some point, to make progress.  That’s why we’ve really tried to focus on shooting percentage.  We want them to go, 39 percent (last year), we thought if we could get them to go 42 percent this year that would be a huge step.  And 45 (percent) is what sort of is the baseline for a championship type team, the teams I’ve mentioned before that are going to the Final Fours.  The 45s are the low end and the 50 is the high end.  UConn shoots 50 or 51 percent.  In order for us to make progress, I thought we needed to make those shots because we won’t give up those shots. And for her to make those, and all our players to continue to shoot the ball well, continues to make us more dangerous offensively.  And we’re also really trying to develop a post game.  We need to be able to catch the ball, throw it inside, finish as well no matter what the defense is.  Alexis Jennings, her good shooting was a real key in both victories last week.”

On Jennings changing her attitude from last season and if he has seen any steps backwards…
“No, I haven’t.  She’s done a great job of communicating with me where she is, so if she’s feeling a little down or something’s not going right, she has communicated that with me.  We have been taking a major step there with just being able to have open and honest communication.  Honest feedback with one another.  And I appreciate that about her, and her family’s very supportive, and that’s what you need. You need everybody helping a player be her best.  So I have a lot of respect for her family, and she’s trying to rise and make a challenge of growing up and becoming an adult. And one thing that’s holding her back is sort of the raincloud mentality, maybe looking at the glass half empty.  And we want to flip that, we don’t want to have those kinds of attitudes.  We want to be looking for opportunity, and we want to have our eyes open to the possibilities that life can present to us.  And I think you’ve got to be overwhelmingly positive to be your best. So she’s made some strides there, and we’re all a work in progress.  She’s only 19 or 20 years old, so there are times where it’s still a struggle for her, yes, but she’s clearly trying to do a good job.  And then I try to do a better job.  I think one thing for me is my nature sometimes is to battle, and her nature sometimes can battle, and in the heat of the moment—like in the Louisville game, we got frustrated.  I got frustrated first, she didn’t do what I asked her to do.  And I could tell it was a battle.  So last year, we would get in one of those and I would just leave her on the bench for 10 or 15 minutes, and I was going to make my point that way.  I think trying to just understand that sometimes her passion comes out as maybe being a bit stubborn, and it’s not something she can’t bounce back from. And I’ve got to give her the opportunity to bounce back.  So it’s all a learning process, trying to coach better.  She’s definitely done her work trying to improve her attitude.  So I’m real hopeful for her future, because she needs to get better defensively, she needs to get better rebounding.  She needs to think of herself as more of a complete player.  I think she’s sort of identified offensively, so there’s still room to grow.  But she’s shown a willingness to grow, so I’m optimistic about her future.”

On Duke’s Rebecca Greenwell…
“Oh, I think she just continues to improve.  It’s her third year in college, she missed her first year so this is the second year playing. But I see improvement everywhere in her game. She looks just physically stronger, she’s really developing into a great looking athlete.  You know, I watched her play a ton in high school, so I’ve known her for a long time.  And she just looks like she’s in great condition.  She plays real hard.  She’s started making more plays off the dribble, more effective off the dribble, still a good shooter and great offensive player.  Relentless offensive rebounder, just goes to the boards and is aggressive.  Really concerned about her talent and her tenacity.  It will be a major challenge for our team. I don’t know if we have one person that can do it; we’ve really got to play great team defense and help each other, because she is playing terrifically.  I hate to see her play so well right now, because it’s been kind of a headache trying to prepare for her.  And she’s a good kid, a good person.  You can tell she’s worked at it.  That makes me admire her; that makes me respect her.  She’s really looking right.  She’s improved her game.”

On whether there are common threads in Duke’s losses …
“Well, I just thought both games had a little run where it just flipped in the other team’s favor. I don’t see—South Carolina matches up better with them size-wise. We don’t. We’re not as a big as Duke so we really gotta pay attention to that and do things well. But I think that it’s so important with them to try and make sure you don’t let their offense get into a rhythm. Because once they’re in a rhythm, they’ve got multiple things happening and multiple options and if all of them are available and they’re clicking on offense, they’re really, really dangerous. So I think you’ve gotta disrupt to take them out of rhythm, but that’s easier to talk about up here than it is to do. I think that doing your best to keep them offensively out of rhythm is really—gives you a chance to win because, boy, they can really score a lot of points.”
 
On what they enjoy about playing in Rupp …
“Well, one is we’re just so fortunate here that people care and people will show up and people will get out of their home and get in the car and find a parking spot and get into the arena. Just as simple as that. That’s just amazing. It just doesn’t happen everywhere and to me just being at a place like Kentucky where people care so much about our program and will come out and support. And so if you’re a player and you run out there and the place is filled up and you got a lot of people cheering and standing on their feet and supporting you, that does get you fired up and helps you out. And so, you know, the building’s big, it’s got a lot of history, it’s one of the iconic buildings in the country where it can go by just one name and people know the game’s at Rupp and pretty much everywhere in the country a basketball fan would know you’re talking about playing at Kentucky. It’s a great, great privilege and honor for us to get to play down there and we would really love to see a big crowd. It would be a great way to start the holidays and get a big crowd down there would help us out a lot.”
 
On whether Makayla Epps’ growth has surprised him …
“I wouldn’t say the word would be ‘surprised.’ It would be ‘grateful.’ I’m grateful that it worked out and is working out because she had a choice to make. Was she going to work on herself as a young person and start developing into someone who was mature and responsible or was she going to leave? That was a very painful option to lay out there because I really did not want her to leave, but she had to know that’s what it was. It was a choice she had to make and there wasn’t any in between and there wasn’t anywhere soft to land here. You had to go through it. That’s what I’m so proud of her. She probably out of anybody on the team had the most work to do and she’s doing it. And so listen, she’s still got a ways to go and we all do. We’re a work in progress and she’s a young, young woman, 20 years old. But the thing about her is, anytime that there’s any feedback I need to give her now, I just go right to her, tell her exactly what it is and she just says, ‘Yes, sir,’ and we go at it and you see some type of response. She needs to really step up here defensively. There was no doubt who the best offensive player on the floor in Rupp Arena versus Louisville was. There was no doubt. She was the best offensive player, but the message—she needs to be the best player on the court. And that’s defense, rebounding, leadership, offense, all of it. That’s what she needs to feel like. ‘I’m going to be the best player no matter what. I’m going to be the best defender. I’m going to be the best rebounder.’ And that’s the mentality she needs to have. Whether it’s true or not in the game, that’s what her mentality needs to be. And I talked to her about that this morning and it looked to me like she came out and tried to do that in practice today. So real proud of her and she just needs to stay very humble, hungry, focused, more concerned with what kind of person she is than what kind of player she is because if she’s a good person basketball will be fine. When I think back to April and where we are now, just gratitude. Very grateful.”