No. 8 UK Ends Non-Conference Road Schedule at MTSU Sunday

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Fresh off an impressive victory over in-state rival Louisville on Thursday at Rupp Arena, the No. 8 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team hits the road to end its non-conference road schedule when it travels to face Middle Tennessee on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET inside the Charles M. Murphy Athletic Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.  

"We’re very happy to win last night, but we have to stay focused now on a really tough challenge in a couple of days trying to get prepared, go on the road against Middle Tennessee, who has another really good team this year," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Coach (Rick) Insell is one of the best coaches in our profession, and is a person that’s been really great to me and I have tremendous respect for as a coach.  And I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, had a great relationship with him and his family.  So he really helped us get it going here at Kentucky and I have so much respect for Coach Insell as a person and as a coach, and he has another really, really good team.  So we’ll have to work hard and shift gears quickly, can’t get too tied up in the outcome last night and too excited about the victory and not get back to business today, because Middle Tennessee’s always tough down there.  We’ve had a hard time playing down there.  And this will be a real challenge for us.  We have to transition quickly today, have a great practice today and a great preparation tomorrow and see if we can go out and earn a victory in what we know will be a real tough game against Middle Tennessee."

Gameday Central
Kentucky at Middle Tennessee
Sunday, Dec. 13 - 3 p.m. ET
Murfreesboro, Tenn. - Murphy Center
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | MTSU Get Acrobat Reader
Coverage

C-USA Digital Network
Radio: UK Sports Radio Network (630AM WLAP in Lexington)
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The game will be available online through the Conference USA Digital Network and free at goblueraiders.com. For the 11th consecutive season Neil Price will have the call on the UK Sports Radio Network. Fans in Lexington can hear Price’s call on 630AM WLAP. 

Kentucky (8-0) is coming off a strong performance against in-state rival Louisville on Thursday, taking down the Cardinals 72-54 to earn its fifth straight win in the series. Junior guard Makayla Epps paced Kentucky in the game, scoring a game-high 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting with four assists and three steals. Sophomore post player Alexis Jennings had 14 points and eight rebounds, while freshman Taylor Murray had 11 points, four rebounds and one assist. Senior guard Janee Thompson scored in double figures for the seventh straight game with 10, adding three assists. 

Epps leads Kentucky in scoring this season with 17.3 points per game, adding six rebounds per game and 6.7 assists per game. Thompson is second on the team with 14.4 points per game, leading the team with 53 assists and adding 11 steals. Jennings and fellow post player Evelyn Akhator are averaging 11.8 and 11.6 points per game respectively with Akhator averaging 10.9 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Maci Morris is averaging 10 points per game and it hitting 44.7% from 3, while Murray is averaging 9.5 points per game.  

The impressive performance against Louisville continued UK’s high ranking in several national categories. Offensively, Kentucky is ranked ninth nationally and first in the SEC in assists per game with 19.5, while sitting eighth in the nation and first in the SEC in field goal percentage at 49.4 and fifth nationally in and first in the league in 3-point field goal percentage at 41.7. Defensively, Kentucky ranks ninth in the nation and second in the SEC in field goal percentage defense allowing opponents to hit just 32.4 percent, while allowing opponents to score 53.9 points per game to sit 22nd nationally. 

Led by 11th-year head coach Rick Insell, who is the seventh winningest coach among active Division I coaches, the Blue Raiders have a history of making a postseason tournament appearance in each of his 10 years at the helm. Last year, MTSU bowed out in the quarterfinals of the WNIT against Temple.

Middle Tennessee has started the season out with a 4-3 mark, picking up wins over Ole Miss, Nevada, Austin Peay and Xavier. The Blue Raiders are currently riding a three-game winning streak, including a 90-46 trouncing of Nevada on Nov. 28.  

The Wildcats will be the third Southeastern Conference opponent that Middle Tennessee has faced this year. After taking down Ole Miss in Murfreesboro on Nov. 22, 84-75, Middle Tennessee dropped a 64-46 contest to Alabama on Nov. 27.

MTSU has a clear scoring leader on the floor in senior Brea Edwards, who has upped her production from 7.7 points per game last season to 21.9 ppg in this year. Edwards currently ranks 13th in the nation in scoring, and leads the nation in 3-point field goals made per game, averaging 4.29 triples per contest. She is also the 11th-best 3-point shooter in the nation, connecting on 50.8% of her shots from downtown. 

As a team, the Blue Raiders rank in the top-25 nationally in offensive rebounds per game, as the No. 12 team on the offensive glass with 18 rebounds per game. Edwards is also a large contributor to that factor as she has pulled down the most offensive rebounds on the team to help with her 7.0 rebounds per game to rank second on the team behind Rebecca Reuter’s 7.1 rpg.  

Sunday’s contest will be the 18th matchup against the Blue Raiders. UK holds the advantage in the all-time series, taking 13 wins against Middle Tennessee while only conceding four losses.  The Wildcats have had their least success when traveling to Murfreesboro, with a 4-3 record against MTSU on the road.  

When UK and MTSU last squared off on Dec. 12, 2014, the Wildcats picked up a 78-62 victory in Memorial Coliseum, led by 22 points from Jennifer O’Neill. UK is riding a three-game winning streak against the Blue Raiders, having last lost a contest on Dec. 28, 2011, when MTSU topped UK, 70-58 in Murfreesboro.
Coach Mitchell is 5-2 against MTSU during his tenure at Kentucky, with the only losses coming in the 2011 setback as well as a 57-51 setback two years prior on Dec. 28, 2009.

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-Middle Tennessee News Conference 


Opening statement…
“Well, we had a great result last night from our game, and I’m real proud of our players for earning the victory.  Great outcome.  What we really tried to focus on before last night’s game and as we head into conference play is just continual improvement and trying to get better. So we’re very happy to win last night, but we have to stay focused now on a really tough challenge in a couple of days trying to get prepared, go on the road against Middle Tennessee, who has another really good team this year. Coach (Rick) Insell is one of the best coaches in our profession, and is a person that’s been really great to me and I have tremendous respect for as a coach.  And I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, had a great relationship with him and his family.  So he really helped us get it going here at Kentucky and I have so much respect for Coach Insell as a person and as a coach, and he has another really, really good team.  So we’ll have to work hard and shift gears quickly, can’t get too tied up in the outcome last night and too excited about the victory and not get back to business today, because Middle Tennessee’s always tough down there.  We’ve had a hard time playing down there.  And this will be a real challenge for us.  We have to transition quickly today, have a great practice today and a great preparation tomorrow and see if we can go out and earn a victory in what we know will be a real tough game against Middle Tennessee.  Very good team.”

On what he has done to improve the team’s offensive efficiency…
“Well, it’s an interesting evolution of what’s happened here.  When we went to the up-tempo style, it was really…all along the way I’ve just been so blessed by God, he’s given me some strength to make some decisions that we look back on and we’re like, ‘how did we figure that out?’ And that’s why I give credit to God on that, is that we just out of desperation had to go to the style that we ended up with.  And then you have some success with that, so you’re sort of committed to that, and you keep going.  So our practices were very frenetic and really all about effort and energy and tempo, and that doesn’t always lend itself to great offensive execution.  And so I’ve really had to grow as a coach, because when they changed the way that they were calling the game, the second touches and automatic foul, and you just can’t play the way we were playing three or four years ago. My first thought was, ‘let’s just work a little bit harder and play within the rules and continue along with our identity.’ And then we started figuring out what kind of kids we really need here.  You need to go after high character, hard-working kids.  Principled people who will make a sacrifice for the team that are willing to prepare.  So that may not always be exactly the best way for them to play.  So a kid like Maci Morris, who did a great job last night, but as a freshman is still just trying to get her feet underneath her on defense, a full court press is not the best way for her to be successful right now.  It doesn’t mean she won’t be a good player in the press.  But all of these things factor in and you have a team that again, now it’s like we were seven years ago.  What does this team need to do to be successful?  And we need to be really solid on defense; we need to rebound the ball every night. We do have some offensive skill and talent.  So it was just a shift in how you allocate time.  So now we are just spending more time on, ‘that screen was not set correctly.  Stop.’ So it’s been different for me as a coach. I just like to go, go, go and play real hard and play harder than the other team.  So it’s been fun to sort of see the kids really develop because of our approach in teaching and how we’re doing that.  So it’s really just as simple as that. We’ve spent more time in setting the screen or coming off a screen.  I sort of used to have the attitude that offense is really easy and we should be able to pick up on this and run the plays well.  And they need reps, just like they need reps in the press when we’re really good at pressing.  We spent a lot of time on pressing. So it’s been a really great experience to see the players. Like we just watched the film this morning of the Louisville game, and we turned the ball over too much.  But you can start to see little pieces of it coming together. And I think it’s because of the repetition and the time that we’re spending.”

On Maci Morris’ improvement and what was done before last night…
“Well, she just answered a challenge.  She just answered a challenge.  I mean, I got after her at Northern Kentucky and I was very blunt and up-front and honest, because her team needed to know it, too.  There was no question in my mind that Louisville’s coming after her.  They were going to pick on her, they were going to try to single her out.  And it happened.  It happened.  So she needed to know it, and her team needed to know it.  And a lot of times, if you’re that blunt—that’s what I love about this team.  We’ve got a team now that will accept coaching and they will accept constructive criticism, and they won’t make it into something that’s a personal attack.  It was a fact that Louisville was coming after her.  And instead of hanging her head and shrinking from the challenge and saying, ‘no, you shouldn’t have said that to me,’ she was able to meet the challenge.  And I get fired up thinking about it, I really do.  I mean, she has a long way to go.  She knows that.  I know it.  Everybody knows it.  But you have faith in that kid because she’s just going to meet the challenge.  And she’ll be a great player here because she loves Kentucky.  She loves being here; she loves her teammates. And she’s a battler.  So she’s committed every day, to answer your question.  I got off on a tangent there about Maci Morris.  But what she’s gotten better doing is she’s moving her feet and her positioning’s better.  So she’s got to play with her smarts right now until she can get a little bit quicker in our program.  She will.  John Spurlock does a great job for us with footwork, and she’ll get quicker and stronger and faster.  That’s no doubt.  But right now, she just really was in great position and just hustled and battled, and just gave supreme effort.  She played as hard as she could play last night.  And that’s all we’re asking them to do. So she’ll have to do it again.  If she thinks she’s arrived last night and she goes down—because she’s going to be back on Middle Tennessee’s top scorer.  When we tip the game in Murfreesboro, she’ll be on their leading scorer, who’s one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.  And Maci Morris, that’ll be her assignment.  So she’ll have to meet that challenge again.  So she’s just got to stay with it.” 

On if they’re putting Maci Morris on Brea Edwards on purpose …
“No, it’s the matchups so their three player can really take her down in the post and really go to work on her, so Epps has to guard their three. And the way that we organize our defense, Janee (Thompson) or Taylor (Murray) is picking up the ball so that’s the point guard and that’s what I’m telling you about Maci, it’s really not a good option for us if she’s a liability on defense. We’re not going to be a very good team so she has to figure it out and she has to do it. Last night you were asking me if I was thrilled that it was Maci Morris on (Mariya) Moore, who’s one of the best scorers in the country. But that’s how Kentucky had to guard them so she’s got to figure it out. She did an unbelievable job, but it’s going to be because she prepares, she’s smart, she takes coaching, she gets in the right position, and she hustles. Then her teammates help her out, so we have to play team defense now. A bunch of busted assignments last night, we were not perfect, we have room for growth, and we have got to go to work every single day. But if we’ll do that we’ll be alright.”

On how he feels about Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Linnae Harper sitting behind the bench at last night’s game…
“I can’t speculate on what people are thinking, you’ll have to try to track those folks down and talk to them. I don’t know anything about it. I’m just not familiar with what you’re talking about. We had a great crowd down there last night and I’m happy that people came to the game. Anyone that was cheering for us, I appreciate that very much. Those young people are making decisions that they didn’t want to be here and are going somewhere else, and we wish them all the best. They have some connection to the team, which I’m sure they do, they’re good friends and everything, and I wish them nothing but the very best. I hope they are very successful and have very great experiences and it was not working here for them so we wish them well and hope they do very good things moving forward.” 

On what Makayla Epps revealed to him last night…
“It’s funny because the coach in you is watching the tape and you’re always trying to figure out how we can make them better, so we start focusing on that she had some tough times on defense, she’s not boxing out and rebounding the way that I wanted her to, so you start getting caught up in all that stuff and then sometimes you miss, she just wanted to win that game, she understood the rivalry aspect of it, and she came to play. She showed up offensively and just was phenomenal. One pass she made that Taylor missed the 3-point shot, but it was just, there’s not a lot of players that can make that play because she was locked in, playing hard, and except for a couple of missed box-outs and getting beat on the back door a few times, you know, somethings I get all worried about. She needs to get better on defense and she knows that and we will address that. But she came to play, stepped up in a big time. We needed that game, it was an important game that we had to prepare for because they’re not easy to play against, and she showed up big time. I think what she needs to understand is that she can be a complete basketball player, she can be one of the best players in the country, but she has to get it done in all phases. She cannot just be an offensive player, she has got to be solid on defense, she’s got to start boxing out better. She’s the first one to tell me, ‘I missed that box out, coach’ and so we just have a lot of room for growth there. But, boy did she show up last night and I think this about her: the most positive, the more vocal she can be, the more prepared she can be, it benefits our team because everybody attracts to her. The team loves her, she and I were out there late last night signing a bunch of stuff for people that stayed very late after the game, she was out there. The fans love her, I would ask kids ‘what was your favorite part of the night?’ And it would almost always include something that Makayla did. So she has to understand her responsibility to the team and just work hard every day and keep making strides as a person. It was a great performance by her last night in so many ways, but still it’s exciting that there is still room for growth and we will just keep trying to get better.”

On Epps’ vocal leadership role on the team…
“She’s just got to pay attention. Listen, I think that it is important for all of us in leadership roles with young people today is that there are so many distractions and I don’t want to be one of those people that rails against our time right now. There are a lot of wonderful things about the technology and the way we can stay connected on different things, but it does distract young people and it is so easy to just get into your world on all the social media platforms. They are wonderful, they can be wonderful things, but they can distract people. Their attention spans are shorter and in a leadership role you can’t miss that, I don’t think, you just have to address it. This is how simple it was with Makayla, I think I told you all that Tuesday we had a really bad practice because the second unit was struggling to find their footing and not playing good defense, and she said nothing. She sat on the sideline and she was just not engaged. So I got her right after practice and we sat down and talked about it and she understood, she’s a smart kid, very, very smart, and I had one conversation with her and the next day people were at practice, some of the media showed up just to watch practice and a couple of them commented and said ‘Epps looked like a coach.’ And I told her, ‘you’ve got to coach Taylor Murray, you’ve got to coach Batouly Camara, you know what needs to happen.’ She’s a very smart person so I just think you have to make sure they understand how important, because maybe they don’t understand, what’s it going to mean if they say something? It’s just a focus, it’s a commitment that we have to make and we have to work. It’s hard work doing these things that we’re trying to do but I just don’t think she recognizes sometimes how important she is, but we are going to work on that. She did a really good job preparing for that game last night.”