UK Hoops Takes on LSU Sunday in Baton Rouge

Jan. 16, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky.   The No. 10/11 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team will travel to Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, Jan. 18, looking to snap a two-game losing skid on the road to LSU and chart their first win in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center since 2010. The game will tip off at 2 p.m. ET and be televised live on ESPNU and WatchESPN with Roy Philpott and Brooke Weisbrod calling the action. The game also can be heard live on the UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price.

Gameday Central
Kentucky at LSU
Sunday, Jan. 18 - 2:00 p.m. ET
Baton Rouge, La.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | LSU Get Acrobat Reader
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TV: ESPNU
Radio: UK Sports Network
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“It’s a big challenge for us,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Baton Rouge is always a tough place to play. LSU’s always well-coached, always has good players and this year’s no different. They won a big game last night, showed a lot of toughness on the road against Mississippi State and so it’ll be a huge challenge for our team to go on the road and see if we can earn a victory. It’ll be tough.”

The Wildcats (15-3, 4-1 SEC), one of just three teams with one loss in league play, is coming off a 62-56 win over Florida at home on Thursday. In their first game since losing starting point guard Janee Thompson (Chicago) to a season-ending leg injury, the Cats struggled to find their groove offensively. UK shot just .397 percent from the field, including .136 from beyond the arc but its defensive prowess once again saved the day. The Cats forced the Gators into 27 turnovers on 13 steals which resulted in 21 points. The sophomore guard duo of Makalya Epps (Lebanon, Ky.) and Linnae Harper (Chicago) led the way as Epps netted a game-high 20 points to go along with five rebounds, four assists and three steals, while Harper added 14 points, a game-high nine rebounds and a career-high six steals.

Another highlight of the game was the return of seniors Bria Goss and Jelléah Sidney. After missing six straight games with a broken left thumb, Goss returned to the starting lineup on Thursday, charting two points, two rebounds and two steals in 23 minutes. Sidney, who had missed 13 straight games with soreness in both knees, saw just five minutes of action but grabbed two crucial rebounds and a steal in the back-and-forth battle.

Senior guard Jennifer O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.) is the team’s leading scorer off the bench again this season with 14.4 points per game, while Epps and Harper follow with 13.2 and 10.9 ppg, respectively.

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 56 offensive boards and is the only player under 5-9 to rank in the top 14 of the SEC rebounding statistics. In SEC games only, Harper also leads the league in steals with 3.2 per game. Senior center Azia Bishop (Toledo, Ohio), who ranks second on the team in rebounding with 6.4 rpg, has swatted a team-high 32 blocks and currently ranks second in the SEC in blocks per game (1.8).

LSU enters Sunday’s game at 9-8 overall, 3-2 in conference play after upsetting No. 15 Mississippi State in double overtime on the road Thursday, 71-69. Three players are averaging in double digits led by senior guard DaShawn Harden with 11.9 ppg. Sophomore guard Raigyne Moncrief and junior guard Danielle Ballard, an All-SEC First-Team selection, follow with 10.8 and 10.7 ppg, respectively. Ballard returned to action against Vanderbilt on Jan. 8 after missing the first 14 games due to a violation of team rules. Since her return, the Lady Tigers are 2-1.

LSU, coached by fourth-year head coach Nikki Caldwell, is 1-3 vs. ranked teams this season, falling to No. 22 Rutgers (64-57), No. 1 South Carolina (75-51), No. 9 Texas A&M (55-48) and defeating No. 15 Mississippi State (71-69, 2OT).

LSU leads the all-time series with Kentucky 31-12, including a 13-3 advantage when the game is played in Baton Rouge. The past five regular-season matchups have been decided by the home team. UK won last year’s game in Lexington, 63-56. UK has lost two straight in Baton Rouge, the last win coming on Jan. 28, 2010 (71-62).

Seven of the last 10 meetings have been decided by 10 points or less. UK went 4-3 in those close contest.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - January 16, 2015

Opening statement …
“It’s a big challenge for us. Baton Rouge is always a tough place to play. LSU’s always well-coached, always has good players and this year’s no different. They won a big game last night, showed a lot of toughness on the road against Mississippi State and so it’ll be a huge challenge for our team to go on the road and see if we can earn a victory. It’ll be tough.”

On Makayla Epps’ development …
“Well, she really had a good second half last night and did a good job making her free throws. That was very important. That’s an area we’ve struggled in this year. So her free-throw shooting was good and she finally got to the basket and made some aggressive plays in transition that sparked our team. And points were at a premium last night so anytime a player scores 20 points in a game where it’s really tough to score, that’s productive. I think—I believe this: I think in 30 days’ time you’ll see one of the best point guards in the SEC, if not the best, and I think that’s what our goal and our mindset needs to be. Now whether that happens or not, I don’t know, but we need to set a goal for constant improvement, constant growth because she certainly has a lot of tools. And far as the transformation she’s made, it shows you that she’s capable of improvement because she is one of our most fit players and she went from a freshman being one who lacked fitness to now being one of our most fit. So anytime you can do something like that, that shows you have some inner strength and I’m just very committed to trying to work with her and help her and coach her to be one of the very best because I think she has that capability.”

On Linnae Harper’s defensive improvement …
“I think fitness was a big part. I think she’s much more fit. You look at pictures of both of those kids (Harper and Epps) from last year and you can just see the physical transformation. So fitness helps her. Defensive fundamentals. She moves a little bit better now. We’re still working on that with her. I think she can still improve in that area. And I think a commitment to getting better has really, really made differences for her. And then you go into the things you can’t coach. She has great hand-eye coordination, real quick hands, great anticipation. I don’t have anything to do with that. That’s some gifts that God gave her and so she’s, you know, a very good defender at anticipating where the pass may go or she recognizes an offensive player turns her back to the play. She’s very good at making a quick decision. She did it again last night, stole a ball from behind kind of helping up when the offensive player couldn’t see her. So those things all lead to that. The one thing that she has a lot of room for improvement: She is not boxing out. She is not finding players coming in on the defensive boards. We’re struggling with that as a team right now so we’ve got to try to rectify that and get that cleaned up. But I just think she wants to be a good player. I think she tries real hard, works real hard and you don’t make these kind of jumps or huge steps of improvement if you don’t want to. So there’s just a lot to be said for her desire.”

On Harper being down on herself going into SEC play last season …
“I had a lot of conversations with her just about what she needed to do. I never ever was in doubt of what she was capable of. I think the thing that happens here is that we care so much about them as people that we’re always going to put that first. And all of the things that Linnae needed to do to be the player she needed to be were all going to be lessons that were going to help her be the person that she needed to be and she just needed to know that there are no shortcuts to success. It’s uphill all the way to success. There are no free rides in life. There’s some folks that win the lottery; I just haven’t met very many of them. It’s just all about hard work, being honest with yourself, having some discipline, being a high-character person. So I just have a belief that when players really commit to that and engage in that process then they’ll be—they have the talent. It’s just like Jaycee Coe right now. There’s no doubt that she can do it. But will she do it? And so the only time this place isn’t for you is if you’re not willing to be honest, hardworking and disciplined. And then if you don’t want to do that then we can’t help you very much and this won’t be a very good place for you. I constantly tried to encourage her. I think that there’s a lot of pressure on these players at times coming out of high school with these great accolades and honors and there’s a lot of expectations. And I don’t even think it’s the players sometimes. I think it’s the people back home who create expectations that are not based in fact or what you need to do to be a great player. And so she hung in there, stuck with it and you started to see—when she started doing the things that she needed to do on a consistent basis she started improving. Now you see another big step of improvement this year and I think she’ll continue. She still has a lot of room for growth. That’s exciting.”

On how to beat LSU …
“We’re going to have to play a great defensive game. We are going to make sure we take away or disrupt how they want to score. Danielle Ballard last night was really able to keep the ball and score herself and set her teammates up. She really played a beautiful game. We’ve got to find a way to get them all off-rhythm. They have some terrific drivers of the basketball, athletic, explosive, fast and they have some relentless rebounders that can really pound the offensive glass. It’s a big, big concern for us. We are not transferring how hard we are working at boxing out and rebounding in practice. It is not translating onto the court for us, and that has to change. As their coach, I’ve got to find some way to get through to them because last night, we just did not box out. We lost the battle of the boards. We saved ourselves with the high turnover margin.  Plus 10 there gives you a chance to win. LSU is a very tough rebounding team. They’re always real physical. And then when you talk about us offensively, we need to learn how to take another step of improvement. Another area we need to improve is our zone offensive attack. We were very uncertain last night and very uneasy, and LSU is going to make it tough on you to score with a real, real tenacious zone defense. They’ve always been tough to score on. It is an immense challenge for us to go on the road to Baton Rouge and fight for a victory. We really will have to battle for this one.”

On Jennifer O’Neill not playing well last night …
“I think the emotional toll caught up with everybody last night. I was so proud of Jennifer for getting it together at the end. She really did a good job of getting it together and making two big 3s. She made a free throw down the stretch and played some solid defense. She did look a little indecisive last night, and we’ll just move forward with it. I’m just constantly talking to her about what she needs to do and attack  and I don’t think it was anything other than maybe a real taxing three days there and just trying to support Janee (Thompson). She has been very supportive of Janee and happy with how she has been playing and I know she’ll do a great job on Sunday.”

On if this is the hardest thing that he has gone through as a coach …
“It’s hard to rank season-ending injuries and how difficult they are. Right now, this one is the freshest in my mind and it seems awfully difficult and it seems challenging. I’m more optimistic about this team’s ability to cope with it than any other team facing a season-ending injury. One thing that I don’t do a great job of is looking back. I’d have to sit and think for a while. I haven’t had time to think of it that way. It’s real tough right now, but I think we have an ability to deal with it. I think Bria (Goss) coming back helps us tremendously to deal with it. I think if both of them out, we would be in a tougher situation. Thank the Good Lord that it kind of worked out the way it is with Janee going out and Bria coming back, so it’s something you have to deal with in athletics. I’m sure there are teams all over the country that are dealing with injuries to key players. We just are going to attack it as a challenge that can lead to tremendous growth for our players and our program. I’m optimistic we can find a positive way forward.”