Top-10 Matchup Features No. 10 Kentucky vs. No. 6 Tennessee Thursday in Memorial

Jan. 28, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The No. 10/10 Kentucky women’s basketball team embarks on inarguably its toughest stretch of the season as five of its next six opponents are ranked in the top 25, including two matchups with No. 6/6 Tennessee. The first meeting with the Lady Vols tips off Thursday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. ET in Lexington, Ky., as the Wildcats look to chart their third straight win over UT in storied Memorial Coliseum. The game will be televised live on the SEC Network and Watch ESPN with Paul Sunderland and Carolyn Peck calling the action. The game also can be heard live on the UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price. Due to the UK men’s basketball game at Missouri on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, the UK Hoops game will be carried locally on WWRW 105.5 FM.

Gameday Central
Kentucky vs. Tennessee
Thursday, Jan. 29 - 7:00 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | UT Get Acrobat Reader
Gameday Info
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TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK Sports Network
Live Video via SEC Network+
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Senior guard Jennifer O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.) will sign autographs after the game.

“We are excited to play tomorrow night,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We just want to invite our fans out for an important game. We will need a lot of energy and have to play real hard. A big crowd always helps us and always makes it real special to take the floor at Memorial. I want to invite all of the fans out, it will be a real exciting game and we are going to try and play extremely hard and play with a lot of energy and effort. Tennessee is a very, very good team that is well-coach and very talented. They will be a big challenge. We are excited and working hard to get ready for the game.”

A limited amount of single-game reserved tickets are available at a cost of $9 for all ages. General admission tickets for adults are $8 while single-game general admission tickets for seniors and children (ages 6-18, 65 and over) are only $5.

Children ages five and under are admitted free in the general admission seating area and UK students, faculty and staff are admitted free with valid identification.

Fans interested in UK Hoops tickets can visit the Joe Craft Center ticket office, go to UKathletics.com, or call the UK ticket office at 1-800-928-CATS. Tickets are also available at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.

The Wildcats (16-4, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) put their 13-game home winning streak on the line Thursday, a streak that ranks as the sixth-longest in program history and the nation’s 14th-longest home winning streak.

UK has benefited from a balanced scoring attack this season. Six players average at least 6.6 points per game, led by the guard play of senior Jennifer O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.) and sophomores Linnae Harper (Chicago) and Makayla Epps (Lebanon, Ky.).

O’Neill, who is fourth in the SEC in scoring this season with 14.8 points per game off the bench,  has netted double figures in 16 of 19 games played this season, including two straight games with 19 points.

Harper is one of the most versatile players on the team as she is the only player to rank in the SEC’s top 10 (league games only) in scoring (9th), rebounding (3rd) and steals (1st). Standing at just 5-foot-8, Harper is the only player under 6-0 in the top 10 of the SEC rebounding statistics and is one of only four players in the NCAA to stand at 6-0 or under and average at least 7.4 rebounds per game. She also adds 11.4 points per game and 3.1 steals per game. In seven SEC games, Harper has three double-doubles, including two straight.

Epps, who is coming off a double-double at Missouri, is UK’s second-leading scorer with 13.3 points per game. Since becoming the starting point guard vs. Florida on Jan. 15, Epps is averaging a team-high 16.0 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. She currently leads the SEC in assist/turnover margin at +2.3 (25/11).

“I will say this – I really like the atmosphere around the program right now,” Mitchell said. “I really like the players’ minds and where they are at right now, and I think Baton Rouge was a wake-up call for that. I appreciate the players spending the time mentally and emotionally last week trying to figure out what they could do and what I could do to help them and I did the same for them. It was a really nice collaboration last week of what direction we need to head in and I like where they’re at right now. By the end of the year, I think this team is going to work hard enough to become whatever they can become. I’m excited about the last half of the conference schedule and what we can do.”

No. 6/6 Tennessee enters the game at 17-3 overall and 7-0 in league play after going 2-1 on the week with wins over No. 22/19 Georgia (59-51) and LSU (75-58) and a defeat at the hands of No. 6/7 Notre Dame (77-88). UT and South Carolina are the only two undefeated teams in the SEC this season.

Seniors Isabelle Harrison and Ariel Massengale lead the Lady Vols in scoring this season with 12.1 and 11.4 points per game, respectively. Harrison, a 6-3 center, also is the team’s leading rebounder with 8.9 rebounds per game. Massengale, a 5-7 point guard, has hit a team-high 40 3-pointers and also leads the team in free-throw shooting percentage at .867 percent (39-45).

UT ranks third in the SEC in scoring defense at 53.4 points per game. No team has scored more than 58 points against the Lady Vols this season.

The Lady Vols are led by former UT player and assistant coach Holly Warlick. She is in her third season as the head coach at her alma mater.

Thursday marks the 61st meeting between the border rivals. UK has met UT more times than any other rival. The Lady Vols lead the all-time series 50-10, including 21-7 in Lexington. Four of UK’s seven home wins have come since 2006, including two in the Matthew Mitchell era. UK has won the last two meetings against UT in Memorial Coliseum.

The last two matchups between the teams have been decided by a combined four points. UK defeated the Lady Vols last season during regular-season play, 75-71, in Knoxville, marking the Wildcats’ first win in Knoxville, Tenn., since a 76-72 win in the Stokely Athletics Center in 1985 and first-ever win in Thompson-Boling Arena. They met again in the finals of the SEC Tournament last year with UT coming out on top, 71-70.

UK is one of just seven teams with two wins over top 10 teams. The others are Chattanooga, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The Wildcats are 2-2 vs. the ranked this season with wins over No. 8/9 Baylor and No. 7/7 Louisville and losses at No. 13/13 Duke and No. 1/1 South Carolina.

For more information on parking around Memorial Coliseum and other game-day questions visit www.ukathletics.com/wbbgameday.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - January 28, 2014

Opening statement …
“We are excited to play tomorrow night. We just want to invite our fans out for an important game. We will need a lot of energy and have to play real hard. A big crowd always helps us and always makes it real special to take the floor at Memorial. I want to invite all of the fans out, it will be a real exciting game and we are going to try and play extremely hard and play with a lot of energy and effort. Tennessee is a very, very good team that is well-coach and very talented. They will be a big challenge. We are excited and working hard to get ready for the game.”

On the perception of the team not being as good as its ranking …
“I think it’s important for me as a coach to really stay focused on this team. I think what that is just a compliment to past accomplishments. It’s not the worst thing in the world to feel like 16-4 is not that great. That just means that we’ve set a standard here. I’m alright with that. I’ll tell you what is so important to me, and that is what this team can become and to do the work necessary each and every day. We’ve had teams here in the past where maybe you were thinking in terms of each game having some type of implications for maybe a game later on. What we’re trying to do every day is fight for constant improvement because I think it’s going to take some time for our best basketball to be realized. It’s a great opportunity for us against a very good team and we’ll just work like crazy today to see if we can get better than we were yesterday and if we can play hard tomorrow night.”

On injuries being a problem with people looking at this team negatively …
“I would think it would probably be opposite. I would think people that cover the team daily or look at it closely would say that this team has done a great job to this point with the schedule that we’ve played and the adversity that we’ve hit. I couldn’t answer what others perception of us would be. I’m really just trying to stay focused on what we’ve become.”

On how the team is playing without Janee Thompson
“I would say that winning two of the three and two of them being on the road is a good thing because it did affect our team. I will say this – I really like the atmosphere around the program right now. I really like the players’ minds and where they are at right now, and I think Baton Rouge was a wake-up call for that. I appreciate the players spending the time mentally and emotionally last week trying to figure out what they could do and what I could do to help them and I did the same for them. It was a really nice collaboration last week of what direction we need to head in and I like where they’re at right now. By the end of the year, I think this team is going to work hard enough to become whatever they can become. I’m excited about the last half of the conference schedule and what we can do.”

On this team having high expectations …
“What I noticed and what I think it was not helpful – was grading them and comparing them to past teams. That got us into a spot where I was probably more negative than I needed to be with our post players. Baton Rouge was a big wake-up call for me because as I looked at the film, it was not a team that was playing with a great desire and it was not a team playing with a lot of fire or that was playing particularly sharp. That’s all on me. I need to have an atmosphere in practice and around the program where they will fight, play hard and give you everything that they have. I just got the post players together last week and talked with them – it’s not a matter of whether they can or they can’t. It’s a matter of whether they will or they won’t – and I believe they want to be really good. I think they will do the things necessary to be good and I think that it’s very important to coach this team and coach this team well. I am seeing progress daily and you wish you could see it faster. I think everybody wishes you could press a button and make things exactly how you want them, but that’s not how it works. They are coming in the gym, working extra and watching film, so I really like the atmosphere right now and I think it gives us a chance to be a really good team at some point in time.”

On communication with the post players …
“I think, first of all, I had to get my attitude right. I had to get my attitude right and I needed to change how I was talking to them. I’m just trying to be as instructional as possible. So let me give you an example: I think that you ought to do the first rep—that ought to be the best rep that you do because you’re fresh and we’ve just gone over it and you’re prepared and then you do it. We have a couple that the first rep’s their worst one, and that would just send me into a tailspin because I’m saying, well, the first one—that’s me thinking about me and not thinking about them. I just needed to change that to, well, let’s see if tomorrow the first rep didn’t go well today, do it again. Let’s do it again instead of getting frustrated and saying you’re not ready to go and making all these judgments about what’s going on in their head. I think that person who needs to change from a communication standpoint is the person with more experience and the person with more wisdom. I’ve got to figure out how to talk to them. I can just keep banging my head against the wall and talking about how things should be or I can look at them as how they are and figure out how to communicate. So I think it’s been better. I’ll catch myself sometimes getting a little negative and saying that they don’t want to do this and they don’t want to do that. That’s really not the case. They’re just not doing some things that I need them to do and I’ve got to teach them how to do it. So the person, I think, that’s best equipped right now to figure out the changes in the language so we can all get on the same page, that responsibility falls on me. And then once we’re in a spot where everybody’s clear on what should be happening, then it’s on the players to make that happen. So we’re making progress with that. It’s a very interesting experience. It’s a different experience than we’ve had in the last—we had Samarie (Walker) and DeNesha (Stallworth) were sort of transfers and didn’t go through sort of the typical freshman-type stuff. They had a chance to sit and learn. They didn’t have to play. And then you had them sort of as fixtures in the post for a couple years. We just haven’t gone through this in a while. Either you can look at it as a great challenge and positive experience—and that’s what I’ve tried to embrace over the last--since Baton Rouge—is that these kids have good character, they work hard, make some, in my opinion, silly mistakes at times but I need to coach them through that. I’ve got to stick with them, stay with them because that’s who we have. That’s who’s going to be good or who’s going to be bad. I’m the coach. I signed them, so I need to see if I can help them be good this year. We knew what was coming so we don’t need to be surprised. It’s young post players that have to be productive.”

On facing a dominant post team like Tennessee with that young group …
“With this team, the opponent’s almost irrelevant from the standpoint of what you need to do be successful. Where Tennessee poses a great challenge is very important. If we want to be a really good team at the end of the year, we’re going to play teams like Tennessee that are going to go to the offensive glass and are going to be tough and they’re going to be physical in the post. So it’s a great opportunity for our post players to compete and to see where they stack up right now. So we’re definitely preparing for Tennessee and getting ready for Tennessee and preparing for victory tomorrow night, but the things that we’re working on in practice, I don’t know if they’re a lot different than if we were playing Georgia on Sunday or I don’t know who comes after that. There are just certain things that this team has to do right now to get better and so you’re not really tweaking a lot with this team as far as game plans. It can’t be real complicated right now. We’ve had teams—when we had, say, Amani Franklin, Lydia Watkins, Victoria Dunlap in our three-post rotation you could change in the middle of a game. You could change schemes. Hey, this isn’t working. Why don’t we do this? And they could almost tell you what you needed to do. And so you could run different underneath out-of-bounds plays week to week to take advantage of your opponent. There was more that you could scheme that this has to be a lot more simple. And that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. That doesn’t mean we can’t win tomorrow night. We just have to do what we’ve been working on real well and we have to play extremely hard and we have to outwork Tennessee and we have to play a lot harder than Tennessee. That’s just different. It’s just different right now.”

On the rivalry with Tennessee …
“I totally understand what you’re saying. I see our players approaching the game with a lot of passion and enthusiasm because they’re trying to get better. Again, there may be some years that I might approach the game different, might put more emphasis on Tennessee. But we’re really trying to work on what we need to do to be successful. The worse thing I can do is go in and tell Alexis Jennings, ‘We’ve gotta get in here and beat Tennessee and if we don’t beat Tennessee, the world’s gonna stop turning.’ She’s got enough in her brain right now just knowing what she’s got to do in ball screen defense and what she needs to be doing in the press and what she needs to be doing in our offensive sets that I really haven’t put a lot of emphasis on the game, not because we don’t respect Tennessee or we don’t think it’s a very big deal -- all of them are a big deal for us right now -- but the veterans, Bria Goss knows what it’s going to be like; Jen O’Neill knows what it’s going to be like. It’s an important game, it’s an important rivalry. I just haven’t had a lot of time to work that angle because we’ve got so many things this team needs to do and improve on. We’re trying. We’ve got 32 days until Senior Day and we’re just trying to build every day on some improvement and see what we can become at the end of the season.”

On agitation after SEC title game last year, specifically with Cierra Burdick … 
“Well, I think again what’s so important for our team right now is to understand tomorrow night, that the challenge is very great with Tennessee is great not just because of one single player, but because of their team. They are very big, very athletic, very explosive and we’re talking about their post game, but their perimeter players are -- Andraya Carter is just a big, lanky, explosive powerful athlete. Jordan Reynolds is 6 feet tall and has arms for days. They’re a big, big team and we’re not. So we have to play real hard. We have to stay focused on ourselves to the point to almost -- you certainly can’t get caught up in the opponent right now because right now what we need to do is very, very specific. This needs to be a game where tempo matters, where the turnover margin matters and if it’s going to turn out well for us, it’s got to turn out positively for us. We need to compete on the boards -- I don’t know if we have to win the boards to win the game -- but if we don’t win on the boards, that turnover margin better be pretty good to even that out. So there’s so many things we need to do well mentally and emotionally so we can be a good team. We have really approached this, as far as presenting them, ‘This is what Tennessee players can do, whether it be Carter or Burdick or Graves or Harrison.’ We’re in a different spot than we were in the SEC championship, tournament championship last year, emotions running high after the game, emotions running high during the game. That seems like a long time ago right now. We’re not approaching whatsoever with any axe to grind with any certain player. Tennessee really has a fine team this year and it will be a tremendous challenge tomorrow night.”