No. 9 Kentucky Hosts No. 2 South Carolina on Thursday

LEXINGTON, Ky. – After starting league play with two of its first three games on the road, the No. 9 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team begins a stretch of four of its next five games at home when it plays host to No. 2 South Carolina on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET inside Memorial Coliseum. 

Single-game reserved tickets are $9 for all ages, while adult general admission single-game tickets are $8. For those aged 6-18 or 65-and-over, general admission costs are $5 per ticket. Children age five-and-under are admitted free in the general admission seating area, and UK students, faculty and staff are admitted free with valid identification.

Gameday Central

#2 South Carolina at #9 Kentucky
Thursday, Jan. 14 - 7 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky. - Memorial Coliseum
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | USC Get Acrobat Reader

Coverage

SEC Network
Radio: UK Sports Radio Network (630AM WLAP in Lexington)
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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 on computers, smartphones or 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. Live stats and free audio will be available online at ukathletics.com. 

“Well, we renew our rivalry with South Carolina on Thursday,” Matthew Mitchell said at his weekly news conference. “They are our rival that we get twice each and every year. It’s a great test for our team always. We have a lot of respect for them and how talented and hard they play. Our team will have to prepare well and really play with a lot of ferocity tomorrow night. A lot of heart. We’ll have to execute well and we’ll just have to give a great, great effort. And that’s what our M.O. needs to be, and that’s how we’ll be successful against this team in tomorrow night’s game and any game that we play. So it’s a really great opportunity for us to go out and compete against a really fine South Carolina team.”

Kentucky (13-1) started conference play with a setback at Auburn, but has responded since with a home win over Alabama and a key road win at Georgia. The Wildcats took down the Crimson Tide last Thursday in Lexington, 73-48, before defeating UGA, 64-53, for UK’s first win in Athens since 2012. 

Sophomore forward Alexis Jennings has been a star the first three conference games for Kentucky, averaging 11.3 points and 11.0 rebounds per game in league action. Jennings is the first player in the Matthew Mitchell Era to record three straight double-doubles to start conference play. Fellow post player Evelyn Akhator had a double-double against Georgia, scoring 10 points with 10 rebounds and is averaging 12.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game this season. 

Junior guard Makayla Epps is the leader in scoring for Kentucky, averaging 16.1 points per game behind 5.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Senior Janee Thompson is averaging 12.8 points per game and 5.5 assists per game. 

Kentucky continued its school-record streak of being ranked in the top 25 this week, coming in at No. 9 in both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches Top 25 Polls. South Carolina enters Thursday’s game ranked second in both polls, a position it has held the entire season. 

South Carolina is one of three teams in the nation with an unblemished slate, entering the game with a 15-0 record. The Gamecocks’ roster is highlighted by Tiffany Mitchell, the two-time reigning SEC Player of the Year and 2015 Naismith Trophy Finalist. A First Team All-American in 2015, Mitchell is second on the team in points per game (14.9), assists (37) and steals (25).  South Carolina is led in scoring by All-American forward A’ja Wilson, who is posting 15.6 ppg.   Wilson is ranked 18th in the nation in blocked shots per game, with 2.77, and double-doubles, with eight on the season.

Also notching eight double-doubles is Alaina Coates, who is third on the team in scoring with 12.9 points and leads the team in rebounding with 9.3 boards per contest. Notably, Coates leads the nation in field goal percentage with a .696 clip and is one of just 15 NCAA Division I women’s basketball players, including UK’s own Makayla Epps, to have recorded a triple-double this season.

Thursday’s meeting will be the 56th meeting between the two teams.  UK holds a 33-22 advantage, including a 20-6 edge in Lexington. Kentucky has won 10 of the last 12 meetings at home between the two teams, including the last meeting on March 1, 2015, 67-56. Eight of the last 10 meetings have been decided by 10 points or less. Matthew Mitchell is 10-7 all-time against South Carolina.

Last year, UK split the series with USC, falling in a 68-60 decision on the road before upsetting the Gamecocks on Senior Day, 67-56. UK bounced back with a win at home in early March, handing USC its lone conference loss of the season. Makayla Epps scored 14 points in the game, while USC’s A’ja Wilson had 16 points and 19 rebounds. The Wildcats forced USC into 20 turnovers and scored 19 points off those turnovers. 

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

Spectator parking is located in the following areas:
  • All E-lots surrounding Memorial Coliseum are off control beginning 3 hours prior to tip.  This includes the College of Education E-lots, located off Scott Street.
  • The South Limestone Garage (PS#5, adjacent to Kennedy's Bookstore) and the Rose Street Garage (PS#2) are available 2 hours prior to tip-off. 
  • Lexington Authority Transit Center Parking Garage is available after 5 p.m. ET on weekdays and all day on weekends.
  • When parking in the Transit Center, pull a yellow token from the dispenser and keep in your vehicle.  See the event staff attendant at the entrance near Lexington Avenue/High Street to receive a free parking voucher before the game.  When exiting the garage after the game, place your yellow token in the machine, then scan the barcode on your free parking voucher to exit.
  • Disabled parking is available in the E-Lot (Employee Lot) north of the Joe Craft Center, adjacent to the metered spaces running along the front of the Craft Center with a valid, state issued disabled hang tag.  These spaces are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis until full.
Please note: parking is prohibited in any R-lots (Residential). Vehicles parked in Residential 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.

Shuttle Information:
  • Free shuttle services are available beginning 2 hours prior to tip off from the South Limestone Garage located off Limestone and Upper Street and the Transit Center Parking Garage located off High Street and Vine Street.
  • The Parking Structure #5 shuttle (blue route) picks up/drops off on Administration Drive, at the end of the pedestrian sky bridge accessed from the 3rd floor of the parking garage.  The pickup/drop off point near Memorial Coliseum is at the Euclid entrance.  
  • Transit Center Parking Garage (green route) picks up/drops off near the corner of High Street and Martin Luther King.  The pickup/drop off point near Memorial Coliseum is near the Ticket Office at the Lexington Avenue entrance. 
  • Shuttles will start back up at halftime and continue until 1 hour post-game to return guests to their parking areas.
Game day Information:
  • Doors to Memorial Coliseum will open one (1) hour prior to tip-off.
  • UK Athletics encourages women's basketball fans to arrive early to ease traffic and parking congestion around the Coliseum.
  • Surface lots (i.e. Joe Craft Center North, Rose Street lot and the Alumni Center lot) reach capacity approximately 1.5 hours prior to tip-off, at which point vehicles should proceed directly to the South Limestone Garage (PS#5), Rose Street Garage (PS#2), the E-lots near the College of Education or the Lexington Authority Transit Center Parking Garage near High Street and Lexington Avenue.
For more information on parking around Memorial Coliseum and other game-day questions visit ukathleticsgameday.com/hoops.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Pre-South Carolina News Conference 

Opening statement…
“Well, we renew our rivalry with South Carolina.  They are our rival that we get twice each and every year.  It’s a great test for our team always.  We have a lot of respect for them and how talented and hard they play.  Our team will have to prepare well and really play with a lot of ferocity tomorrow night.  A lot of heart.  We’ll have to execute well and we’ll just have to give a great, great effort.  And that’s what our M.O. needs to be, and that’s how we’ll be successful against this team in tomorrow night’s game and any game that we play.  So it’s a really great opportunity for us to go out and compete against a really fine South Carolina team.”

On Alexis Jennings and what has clicked for her in SEC play…
“I think she’s definitely trying really hard. She just has to make certain that practice is valued and that her attitude stays positive as much as possible.  She’s trying to grow in that area. And so, I think the biggest difference for her – she still has moments when her attitude is not where I want it to be, but she’s able to bounce back better than she was as a freshman.  I really got onto her hard in the game against Alabama.  During the game, I really got on to her hard about her effort and just her body language.  And she responded. She listened to that during the game and went out and made that adjustment. Saturday before we left for Georgia, we had a tough patch in practice that I really confronted her about after practice.  She responded with a great attitude that night when we went into Georgia’s gym and shot.  And she had a great attitude on Sunday with a lot of good effort.  So I think that’s maturity and growth.  What you’re trying to get to in a complete product is just not letting things get you down or sink you.  And that’s where we are, not only Alexis, we’re having a harder time in the conference.  Things really went well for us in the non-conference. You’re seeing our team having to make a major adjustment from an attitude and effort standpoint, things that were a little bit easier in the non-conference just aren’t happening for them now.  Where you might play a Duke and follow it up with a Tennessee State, and Tennessee State is a fine team and they’ll have a fine season, but they’re not at the level of Duke…you don’t have that kind of get up for a game and then find your way through the next game.  It’s game after game.  And I think that’s the big thing for Alexis, or any of us right now, is that this inexperienced SEC team, we’re just not a real experienced SEC team.  And we’re having to find out that for us to be successful, attitude is at a premium.  Resilience is at a premium. And trying to win games, as we figure it out, the toughness, the physicality. I mean Georgia, Alabama and Auburn, if you made some type of mistake or if you stood straight up and didn’t get in a tough stance, you’re getting the ball taken from you.  And that’s an adjustment for our players right now. It’s all part of our maturation as a basketball team and we have a lot of opportunity for growth in that area.  But, back to your question on Alexis.  She is maturing.  There’s no doubt about it.”

On if he knows before a game that Makayla Epps will be aggressive on offense…
“We’re trying to get it turned on and keep it on.  Keep the lights on.  Who does that, Motel 6?  They leave the lights on for you; that’s what we’re trying to do for Epps is to leave the lights on at all times and don’t turn it on and off.  But she, again, as good as her sophomore year was, we had some room for growth there.  She’s just trying to learn responsibility, and learning, like what you just said, even the casual observer could tell a difference between her body language in Louisville and her body language in Tennessee State.  That’s people who aren’t following it like you are or watching it like I am.  That’s noticeable.  So again, we go back to that’s why I say it’s a team issue.  We have really great kids.  Makayla, I’m as proud of her growth as a person as anybody I’ve coached and I’m really proud of her.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have areas for growth.  And I just think that figuring out that if something goes wrong, that just cannot deflate you.  She was so good on (Georgia’s) Shacobia Barbee defensively, and that was a huge challenge for her that I was like, ‘this is something that you really haven’t shown while you’ve been at Kentucky.  That you can go against someone who’s as important to her team as you are to your team.’ The matchups just fell.  There was no one else who could guard her for as long as Epps did.  And she didn’t have a field goal until like four minutes left in the game.  And as soon as she made that one field goal, Makayla got very upset with herself and her reaction to that play was not where I want it to be.  So we are talking about those things, and we’re talking about trying to make it as fun.  She said after the Louisville game, ‘that’s the most fun I’ve ever had on the basketball court.’ That’s where she needs to be.  She can’t be all – and I’ve got to know this as her coach – she can’t be all tied up in a straitjacket and have a furrowed brown and be dead serious.  I’ve got to find a way to have her play hard, be responsible, do what she needs to do for her team.  But she’s got to have some fun while she’s doing it.  And I think all of us right now need to do that.  I think that the great start can’t add pressure to this team.  We could have lost some of those games.  We didn’t, so that was great. But that can’t start weighing on them.  Maci (Morris)’s got a lot to learn in the league.  Taylor (Murray)’s got a lot to learn in the league.  Batouly (Camara)’s got to learn.  Evelyn (Akhator).  You just go right down the line.  And they can’t play with a lot of pressure on them.  We’ve got to be thinking about how good can we become and how good can we be.  And I need to do a good coaching job in those areas.”

On Maci Morris’ development…
“What I love about Maci is she’s definitely in a spot where she’s going to get better physically.  She’s going to get stronger, going to get more explosive, going to get quicker, faster.  That’s just what happens in our program.  We help players develop physically, mentally, emotionally. That’s one of the things that I really have a strong focus on with our coaches and all of our support staff. We’re wanting to develop these young women and help them get better.  Not come in one way and leave that way.  We want them to get better. So she’s got a lot of room for growth, but she’s contributing right now because, one, she shows up and works really hard.  She has a great attitude.  She has shown a great ability to make shots when she’s open.  And she has improved as a defender.  Now, she has to keep fighting. And it’s even more important for her to be low and ready to catch and shoot.  The game has sped up just a little bit for her. And I think she’s done a good job.  This is a perfect example of Maci:  she goes 0-for-7 with two points against Auburn.  And what does she do?  Well, her grandfather passes and she’s not able to practice as much as she would have in a normal week, but mentally, she gets herself in the Alabama game and figures out some way to find her way and make a contribution.  She was ready to catch and shoot on those 3-pointers at Georgia and made a big contribution. So she has a great knack for mentally being able to figure out, ‘How can I function in this game while I’m not physically mature, I’m not as strong and quick as I’m going to be when I’m a junior or senior?’ And that’s a great quality.  I told her and Taylor (Murray) yesterday.  You can see the worry get on their face when things go wrong in these games.  And they’ve really got to shift to more positive.  We’d be sunk without those two kids. We wouldn’t be anywhere close to the team that we have a chance to be without Taylor Murray or Maci Morris.  They’ve got to view that as a positive, and they have to stay encouraged.  And I’ve got to do a good job as a coach of that. When you’ve been here a while, and the program has gotten to the level that it’s gotten to, you have to make sure you don’t impose that on players that have to go through their process of development and learning.  And so as a coach, you’ve got to try to uphold the standards of the program, which all these kids are doing.  They’re doing a great job.  But you also have to understand that Maci Morris wasn’t here in 2010 or 2012 when we won the SEC.  We’ve got to do it all over again with this group.  So it’s a fun group to coach.  They’ll drive me crazy sometimes because they’re so young and they don’t know what to do.  But they’re a good group of kids, and we just have to keep fighting for maturity and improvement every day.”

On how to neutralize South Carolina…
“Well, listen. They are one of the top teams in the country for a reason.  They have a great coach and they have great players.  So in a game like that, you just have to play extremely hard.  You have to play extremely sharp.  And you have to fight every possession on the boards and you have to take care of the basketball.  Just go out there and take it to them.  I don’t know, this is my ninth year and it’s Dawn (Staley)’s eighth year, and we’ve been going at it a long time, and I don’t remember any real pretty games versus the two.  I mean, they are really, really tough games.  And we’ve beaten them by a big margin before and they’ve beat us by a large margin before, but those kind of stand out.  Usually it’s just a really tough game and it comes down to who plays harder and who fights harder and who’s able to get the rebounds and who’s able to make shots.  You’ve just got to make some shots against them.  I don’t know what unit from ours is going to exploit South Carolina.  We’ve got to do it together as a team. We’ve got to fight for defensive possession.  We’ve got to take good shots and make shots.  It’s going to be a great test for us right now.”

On how to mentally prepare a young team…
“Well, as a coach, you have to stay really organized.  You have to realize who you’re coaching.  You have to present it to them in a fashion where they can understand the game plan. And then you have to present it to them in a practice structure where they can practice what they’ll have to do.  And you have to be really sharp.  You can’t assume anything, you can’t just roll the ball out there and let them go.  You have to stay really organized and focused and you’ve got to boil it down to what’s really, really important.  So in a game like this, you can’t get overwhelmed with anything the opponent is doing.  You have to really boil it down to toughness in this game, rebounding, they are so powerful at rebounding the ball.  All of them are really aggressive rebounders.  (Alaina) Coates and A’ja Wilson really present tremendous physical challenges for you because they’re so big, but their other post players are very aggressive and big and physical.  Their guards are athletic and aggressive and veteran.  So you have to really pay attention to rebounding, you’ve got to try to make smart decisions with a ball.  And then I think the most important things is that there are going to be times in the game where it does not go well for us just because it’s a great opponent and they’re a great team.  And you have to find some way to try to prepare them to let it go and keep playing.  And so, if we want to be one of the best teams in the country, this is a game that we need to be in.  And if we want to be one of the best teams in the country by the end of the year, we need to figure out how to function in a game like this.  So this is why this is a great game for us tomorrow night.  And I’m really excited to see how this team plays.”

On saying that going to USC is like going to the dentist versus what he would call when they play in Lexington..
“The root canal …  Columbia, the root canal.  (On what to call when South Carolina comes to Lexington) I don’t know.  Maybe something less.  What’s less than a root canal?  Maybe you’re getting a filling or something.  Is a filling not as bad as a root canal?  I just have such excellent dental hygiene that I don’t have any type of those procedures.  But it’s tough.  Root canals are tough, and South Carolina is tough.  And they always are tough.  They play real hard and real tough, and we’re familiar with each other and the game means something.  Over the last few years, we’ve both been competing at high levels in the conference.  We’ve both won championships in the last few years.  So it’s a big game.  A tough game. It wasn’t always that way.  Kentucky and South Carolina weren’t always teams that people were really worried about.  So it’s tough.  It’s going to be tough.  We’re going to go out and try to play real, real tough basketball and rebound real hard and run the floor and see if we can make it tough on them.”

On if he is worried about Janee Thompson going into the game because her injury occurred a year ago against South Carolina…
“I’m worried about a lot of things on our preparation and what I need to do as a coach. There’s not much I can do other than be there for her.  We’re passing a year (since the injury), so really, I’ve always told her I’m amazed at how well she’s done and we’re just now crossing that threshold of a year post-injury.  So I think what I’m seeing from her is she’s getting better.  She’s getting better, she’s moving better.  She played better defense against Alabama.  She played better defense against Georgia.  I think she’s starting to feel better.  She looks better. It’s funny, we put a few games on from before the injury.  And it’s clear that she’s not moving the way she was from before the injury.  Not quite as good, but she’s getting better.  And these things just take a while to fully recover from.  I think I will be more concerned of dealing with her emotions going back into that building (Colonial Life Arena).  That was a tough day.  Those folks were so good.  I mean, they made as good a situation as they could have over at South Carolina.  I’ve said that many times.  That was just a day that I’ll always remember for it being a terrible situation with Janee, but the way those folks responded at South Carolina was really something. I’ll never forget.  But I think I’ll be more concerned about her dealing with those emotions.  I just can’t imagine that that’s just going to be inconsequential.  I think that will be tough. But I will speak with her.  I talk to her every day about different things.  And I always ask her how she’s doing because I am concerned with her recovery, because it was not minor. It’s not a sprained ankle.  There’s a piece of metal in her leg. So we’re always talking about those things.  I’ll check in with her and see how she’s doing. She has a good poker face.  I don’t know if she plays a lot of poker or what but it’s always, ‘I’m doing well, Coach.’ In practice, she’s good about saying, I’ll say, ‘Do you need a break?’ and she’ll say yes.  But she’s been real positive and upbeat. And I think she’s excited, not because it’s South Carolina, but because it’s our next game at home and I know she wants to be really good her senior year and have a great year.”