UK Hoops Travels to Top-Ranked South Carolina Sunday

Jan. 9, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky.   The No. 10/11 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team travels to Columbia, S.C., Sunday, Jan. 11 to face undefeated and top-ranked South Carolina at 1 p.m. ET in the Colonial Life Arena. The game will be shown live on ESPN2 and WatchESPN with Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck calling the action. The game also can be heard live on the UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price.

Gameday Central
Kentucky at South Carolina
Sunday, Jan. 11 - 1:00 p.m. ET
Columbia, S.C.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | USC Get Acrobat Reader
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TV: ESPN2
Radio: UK Sports Network
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The Wildcats are looking to do what only one other team in program history has accomplished and that is defeat a No. 1 team. UK is 1-16 in 41 seasons of varsity play vs. No. 1 teams, the lone win coming on Jan. 26, 2006 in Rupp Arena over top-ranked Tennessee, 66-63.

“It’s a big game for us on Sunday,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We are natural rivals with South Carolina, so we do this every year and it’s always a tough game in Columbia. They are always well coached. Coach (Dawn) Staley is an incredible coach. They have a very, very talented group of players this year. They are very big, very physical, very athletic, so it’s a big challenge, but one we are looking forward to preparing for and we will work like crazy this afternoon and tomorrow to try and get ready for a tough SEC road game on Sunday.”

UK (14-2, 3-0 SEC) is coming off a 78-57 win over Auburn on Thursday for its fourth straight win overall. It marks the first time since 2012-13 and third time in the Matthew Mitchell era the Cats have started league play at 3-0.

Leading the way has been the outstanding guard play of senior Jennifer O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.), sophomores Makayla Epps (Lebanon, Ky.) and Linnae Harper (Chicago) and junior point guard Janee Thompson (Chicago). The foursome makes up 61 percent of the overall scoring. O’Neill, who has come off the bench in the last three games, is UK’s leading scorer with 14.9 points per game. She netted a team-high 17 points vs. Auburn with a career-high tying five 3-pointers. Epps and Harper follow with 13.3  and 10.8 ppg, while Thompson adds 10.1 ppg.

The Cats are still without senior leader and guard Bria Goss (Indianapolis) who has missed the last five games with a broken left thumb. Goss, who played in 117 straight games before missing her first at Duke on Dec. 21, is one of the team’s best defenders and she averages 7.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. She is listed as doubtful for Sunday.

Despite standing at just 5-foot-8, Harper is the team’s leading rebounder with 6.8 boards per game. She has pulled down a team-high 52 offensive boards and against Ole Miss grabbed a career-high 14 caroms, the most rebounds for a UK player under six feet since Amani Franklin had 14 vs. Butler in 2009. Harper currently is the shortest player in the SEC to average at least 6.8 rebounds or better.

Senior center Azia Bishop (Toledo, Ohio), who ranks second in rebounding with 6.6 rebounds per game, has swatted a team-high 29 blocks and currently ranks second in the SEC in blocks per game (1.9). She had five blocks and four steals to go along with eight points and 10 rebounds in UK’s last game vs. Auburn.

The Gamecocks are off to their best start in program history with a 15-0 overall mark, including 3-0 in SEC play. USC’s roster features eight players who are at least 6-feet tall, including four who are 6-foot-4 or taller.

Three players average in double figures led by junior guard Tiffany Mitchell with 14.5 ppg. Freshman and 6-5 guard/forward A’ja Wilson follows with 14.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while 6-4 sophomore center Alaina Coates adds 11.7 points and a team-high 8.4 rebounds per game.

South Carolina leads the SEC in several statistical categories, including scoring defense (49.3 ppg), scoring margin (+31.6), field goal percentage (.501), assists (19.8 apg) and blocks (6.2 bpg).

The Gamecocks led by seventh-year head coach Dawn Staley, who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year.

For 20 straight seasons, UK and USC have played twice each season as South Carolina is UK’s permanent SEC home-and-home opponent. UK leads the all-time series 31-21 but trails 15-9 when playing in Columbia. UK has dropped two straight games in Columbia, the last win coming on Jan. 15, 2012 (66-58). UK also dropped both regular-season games last season but upset top-seeded and No. 5/7 South Carolina in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, 68-58.

Seven of the last nine meetings have been decided by 10 points or less. The Cats went 4-3 in those games.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - January 9, 2015

Opening statement …
“A big game for us on Sunday. We are natural rivals with South Carolina, so we do this every year and it’s always a tough game in Columbia. They are always well coached. Coach (Dawn) Staley is an incredible coach. They have a very, very talented group of players this year. They are very big, very physical, very athletic, so it’s a big challenge, but one we are looking forward to preparing for and we will work like crazy this afternoon and tomorrow to try and get ready for a tough SEC road game on Sunday.”

On what South Carolina does so well …
“I just think they have an unbelievable group of kids there and it’s really a lot of good players from the state of South Carolina. They’ve been able to keep all of those kids home and then they’ve done a great job in Charlotte in being able to get Tiffany Mitchell out of there and so they’re just doing a really good job of collecting a great group of players first and foremost. And then they added A’ja Wilson, who just makes them bigger and more talented and they’ve just done a great job of building their team. Dawn is a really tough competitor. That’s really what I’ve admired about our relationship since we are in this thing together each and every year. When you play somebody twice a year, you get to know them, and no matter where they’re ranked, if they’re ranked No. 1 or we have played them when they are unranked, it just doesn’t matter. They’re always real tough. Always play together, always play real hard, always make it tough on you to score, so really, they’re doing the same things that South Carolina has become known for. I just think all of those players coming back are a year older and have obviously gotten better and then you add a talent like (A’ja) Wilson into the mix and they’re a real formidable opponent and one that we have great respect for.”

On developing a post presence against a bigger South Carolina team …
“For where we are right now, it’s a big challenge. We have a different set of gifts that we’re trying to bring out of our team and we will play a little bit differently than they will play. I think what you have to do at this point in the season so early in the conference season – we’re still trying to become what I think we can become – and so this is just an excellent test for us to go over and compete and earn a victory the way that we are going to have to earn victories when we finally become a finished product. We are going to have to play real strategically sound basketball, which you can’t do in the post against them. You just can’t go in there without a plan. You can’t just go in and shoot the ball around the basket. You’ve got to have some focus on some technical things you need to do to guard the post. You can’t just go chest-to-chest with them and challenge them. You’re just going right into shot blockers. You just have to be technically sound and strategically sound. One thing that I don’t think that you can do is shy away from the paint. You’ve got to go in there and try and get paint points and be strategic about it and be technically sound. For me, we are trying to boil it down there for this young post group who lacks in height – we’ve got to be able to use our skill to make some free throw line jumpers which are still scored in the paint, but maybe you’re not going right into all of that great size. (Alaina) Coates – I just think that she is going to reach up and touch the rim standing still, she is so tall. Then they’ve added (A’ja) Wilson and then (Aleighsa) Welsh is so tough, and then (Elem) Ibiam is so tough and such a big, big group. It’s a tough group and we’ll have to play - . We’ll have to prepare well and then take it to the court and earn a victory through being technically sound and have great focus.”

On the mindset of not having anything to lose versus the No. 1 team in the country …
“I don’t think that we ever go into that game – I don’t know – Maybe it’s my fault that people don’t regard us very highly. We are rated 10th in the country and are two or three in the RPI and we’ve played a murderous schedule and we’re missing our top defender right now and so I guess I just don’t promote our team very well. To think that we are some prohibitive underdog here and we don’t have a chance to win – now could we go over there and lose? There is no question. If we don’t play well. We are certainly not going over there to just give it all we’ve got and hopefully hang in there with them. We’re going in there to win. Now, are we a mature enough basketball team to be technically sound and to execute the strategy on Sunday? I don’t know about that. But, we’re certainly not going over there to give it the old college try and hang with them. We’re going to go over there to win. It’s a tall task, but we have a plan. I think if we go over there and execute our plan and work our tails off, we’ll have a great chance to win. If we don’t it’s not much different than any other game in the league. I just said that that is where our team is right now. We can only play with one type of energy level for us to really be successful in this league. We’ll have to play with tremendous effort and energy because they do have some tremendous advantages inside that have carried them to an undefeated record so far. They are a very tough opponent, but we are going to approach the game from one of preparing to win. I think that’s just the general sense. I don’t know exactly why that is. I just get the sense that nobody is really talking about us right now. I don’t really care about that, but it’s puzzling with the challenges that we’ve had and the record that we have. We’re in good shape. I will say this – a loss there on Sunday doesn’t do much to hurt you. I don’t know where they are in the RPI. I would say they would have to be top-20 or so, and a road loss just doesn’t hurt you against a really good team a lot. From that standpoint, for the players to go in there and play with some attitude of let’s turn it loose and give it everything we have – I think that would be a good attitude to have because I don’t know when we’ve won there, I think we’ve lost the last two there. It’s been real difficult the last couple of times we’ve played there. I don’t go into it with the mindset that we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country. We’re playing South Carolina who is our natural rival, who we have to go over there every year – it’s a root canal for me going over there every year because they’re so tough. That’s a compliment to South Carolina, not a dig at them. It’s a tough, tough game. So I think the familiarity for me – I know what’s in store. I know how we’re going to have to play to win and we just have to try to go over there and get that done.”

On Bria Goss’ availability on Sunday …
“I don’t know that it’s in our best interest long-term for her to go. I think that we’ve got to check her today. If it was the last game of her career, would she go? She probably would. I’m sort of in the mindset that if the doctor thinks next Thursday or next Sunday would be better, I think we really have to think about who we want to be at the end of the year while still trying to improve and win games without her. I want her feeling good about going into a game. I would like for her to look me in the eye and say that I’m 100 percent ready to go back. If she does that, she will play. If we are anywhere less than 85 or 90, I don’t think I’ll think about it. I’ll say this, she’s not going to be a real big part of the game, I wouldn’t think Sunday either way. I think her first game back in, if you think about DeNesha’s (Stallworth) injury back then, it’s a little bit different because her knee limited her cardio a little bit, where Bria’s cardio really hasn’t been limited. I think she’ll be better. She’s going to be sore. This is not going to be like “Oh, wow, I’m all good and everything.” She is going to have an adjustment period to come back. No matter whether she gets some minutes on Sunday or not, I don’t think it’s going to be a major factor in the game. I’ve been wrong before. She could be a tremendous factor in the game, I don’t know, that’s just my sense this afternoon.”

On rebounding against a bigger team …
“We’ll just try and make it an overall point of emphasis. We clipped our lack of effort and lack of intensity (vs. Auburn). We’re teaching a certain thing in rebounding, and when you don’t do it – we’re just going to run after the game the next day. We’ve got all the clips pulled up, so if you didn’t box out three times, you’re going to run three penalties. If you didn’t box out 11 times, you’re going to do something a little bit worse. That’s just how we’re going to try and drill it into our heads, that we are not some spectacular, athletic, leaping team that just can turn around, look at the ball and go and get it. Cal and I were talking the other day and he was in practice and he said “You guys are doing it a little different than I am.” And that’s because they can stick somebody, go up and find the ball and jump up and get it because those guys are bigger. Those guys can really leap, and we’ve had some teams where maybe box outs were really not that important. When Victoria Dunlap was just a glass eater and an out-of-area rebounder, it wouldn’t matter where the ball was, she could just go up there and go get it. A’dia Mathies was a great leaper. Samarie Walker was a great leaper. We just don’t have that element this year. It doesn’t mean we have a bad team, it means we have to be technically and mentally sound, mentally strong and we have to put a greater emphasis on doing it the right way. We can get there. I just have to work hard as a coach. I have a real solid focus and discipline on it every day and it’s just got to be a daily habit and we’re not there yet. Some of that is on me, and some of that is on the players. We’ve just got to figure out a way to be a good box-out team. Listen, if we don’t rebound well Sunday, it’ll be a long day. They can just reach over you and go get the ball, so rebounding will be really important and we’ll do everything that we can today and Saturday morning and Sunday morning to remind them and we’ll go out there and see if we can make some improvements from Thursday night into Sunday afternoon. This group has shown some ability that once they start focusing in on something, that they can do some things and correct some things. We’ve corrected our turnovers so far in league play, so hopefully, we can have that kind of improvement on rebounds. If you can get the turnover margin as big as we got last night, I think it was +13 for us, you can give up a little bit on the boards. You don’t have to win the boards, but I don’t know how much we’ll be able to turn South Carolina over. They are a tough team. They just don’t turn the ball over. They never have. They just do a great job in that area. So in that game, when you can’t affect them with a lot of turnovers, you’ve really got to pay attention to the boards.”

On the transfer of Chrishae Smith …
“We’re excited and hopeful for her future here. I think there’s great opportunity for her and when I’m presented with a situation, I just try to get as many of the facts as I can get without weighing too heavily on getting into the details of the situation. And really for me it’s about spending time with the player. I don’t make any decisions until they get here and I can sit in a room with them and look them in the eye and tell them how it’s going to be. We’ve had success with transfers. Really at this point in time, you don’t have to get it right the first time, but you basically, for all intents and purposes, you need to get it right the second time, you don’t need to make a mistake on a transfer. I’m just very blunt and honest with people. Chrishae has some tremendous gifts and I think she wants to try to realize those and reach her potential. It’s a situation that reminds me a little bit of DeNesha Stallworth where DeNesha just felt like there was another level she could reach and she wanted to be pushed and it worked out for DeNesha. Will it work out for Chrishae? It will be in large part (dependent) to her attitude and how much effort she gives. But we’ve had success in these situations. … Does a player want to come in and take advantage of her opportunities because if you leave here, it’s probably not going to be at some place like Kentucky, it’s probably going to be something different. She has a chance to come in here at a program that’s had some success and I think her talent level clearly is on par with what we need and what can be successful in our league. Now we just have to do a good job of just wrapping our arms around her like we do in this program and welcoming her into our family and making sure we do a good job of helping her reach her goals and develop as a person first, which is what we always do, and then when she develops as a young woman and matures, her basketball will be very good if she does the things she needs to do to improve. We had a lot of time we spent together on the phone and then she came out to Lexington and we spent as much time together as you can in 48 hours of really having direct, frank, blunt conversations about what this is going to be like. Don’t come unless you understand exactly what this is. She feels like this can be a place where she can be successful, so we’ll work hard to try and help her do that.”

On the concern of bringing in someone that was dismissed from a prior school …
“It’s always a concern. Anytime it doesn’t work out at a place, and you are presented with it to start off, it’s a concern. I don’t enter into any of it lightly like I don’t want to know what’s going on. I think coaching changes sometimes work and sometimes they don’t. I think in this one, the two styles really, really different and the style here is going to be different. But sometimes when you leave and you understand that it sort of failed at that place and you don’t really have another option, that’s what I bank on in it working out. Just sitting with her. Is it a bad kid or is it a kid who got into a situation where it didn’t work out? A program’s going in a different direction, and I have a lot of respect for both coaches, Coach Westhead and Coach Graves. They’re both very good coaches, just different and so now I think that experience instead of impacting Chrishae negatively, sort of woke her up to knowing I needed to get to a place that’s going to hold me accountable and really try to push me to my limits. We’ll see if it works or not. I’m very optimistic about it. But to tell you that I know situation’s going to work out, I don’t know when we sign them as freshmen. We have had players leave here because it wasn’t working for them. Maegan Conwright is having a great year down at Florida State. She wanted to leave and didn’t think this was good for her. So we investigated and got background and we’re optimistic that this is going to be very positive for all parties and we’ll work like crazy to make sure that it is.”