UK Hoops Looks for Eighth Straight Win over Vanderbilt

Feb. 6, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. –  After enjoying their final bye week in conference play, the No. 11/12 University of Kentucky women’s basketball teams travels to Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Feb. 8, looking to chart their eighth straight win over the Vanderbilt Commodores, including third straight in Memorial Gym.  Tip off in the Music City is slated for 1 p.m. ET as the game will be televised live on the SEC Network and WatchESPN with Paul Sunderland and Nell Fortner calling the action. It also can also be heard live on the UK Radio Network with Neil Price.

Gameday Central
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Sunday, Feb. 8 - 1:00 p.m. ET
Nashville, Tenn.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | VU Get Acrobat Reader
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TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK Sports Network
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“We have a tough game ahead of us down in Nashville against Vanderbilt,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They are a tough team and always a tough place to go play. So they’re hard to score against and have another really good defensive team and will make it difficult on us. We’ve had a good week of preparation and we just need to really work hard here the next couple days and see if we can go down and get a really important victory for our basketball team.”

Kentucky (17-5), which currently ranks in a tie for fourth in the Southeastern Conference standings with Texas A&M at 6-3, is coming off an 80-72 win over No. 21/20 Georgia last week in Lexington. Senior guard Jennifer O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.) came off the bench to net a team-high 21 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including UK’s final 10 points and a clutch 3-pointer with 1:27 to play to propel the Cats to victory. Sophomore point guard Makayla Epps (Lebanon, Ky.) added 16 points and six rebounds, while fellow sophomore guard Linnae Harper (Chicag) scored 11 points and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds. Senior Bria Goss (Indianapolis) and freshman forward Alexis Jennings (Madison, Ala.) contributed 10 points apiece.

UK has benefited from a balanced scoring attack all season. Three players are averaging in double figures and six Wildcats are chipping in at least 6.1 points per game. O’Neill leads the way with 15.0 ppg, while Harper and Epps follow with 13.8 and 11.1 ppg, respectively. The guard trio makes up 51.2 percent of UK’s overall scoring.

O’Neill, the SEC’s second-leading scorer and a member of the Naismith Trophy watch list, has netted double figures in 18 of 21 games played this season, including four straight. She is in position to end her UK career as one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in school history. In 121 career games, O’Neill ranks second on UK’s career 3-point field goals made list with 181 and ninth on the 3-point field goal percentage list, hitting .354 percent (181-of-512).

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 rebounding (7th) and steals (2nd). Standing at just 5-foot-8, Harper is the only player under 5-foot-10 in the top 10 of the SEC rebounding statistics and is one of only four players in the NCAA to stand at 5-8 or under and average at least 7.1 rebounds per game. She also adds 11.2 points per game, third on the team.

Since becoming the starting point guard vs. Florida on Jan. 15, Epps, who was recently named to the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list, given annually to the nation’s top point guard, is averaging a team-high 17.4 points to go along with 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Overall, she is UK’s second-leading scorer with 13.8 ppg.

Vanderbilt enters Sunday’s game at 13-10 overall, 4-6 in SEC play after a thrilling come-from-behind win over Ole Miss Thursday at home. The Commodores are now 9-3 in Memorial Gym on the season.

Sophomore forward Kristen Gaffney, who has battled back from two knee injuries in her college career, scored the go-ahead basket with six seconds left as the Commodores rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to defeat Ole Miss, 58-54. Freshman Rachel Bell finished with a team-high 16 points and Morgan Batey added 14 for Vanderbilt.

Overall this season, Vanderbilt is relying on a balanced scoring attack as eight active players are averaging at least 6.0 points per game. Leading the way is redshirt-freshman guard Rebekah Dahlman leads the Dores in scoring with 9.8 points per game. Batey follows close behind with 9.0 ppg, while grabbing a team-high 5.3 rpg.

Vanderbilt is led by Melanie Balcomb who is in her 13th season with the Dores. Balcomb has compiled a career record of 454-233 in 22 seasons as a head coach.       

Sunday marks the 48th meeting between the teams. Vanderbilt leads the all-time series 27-20, including a 14-6 mark in Nashville. UK has been on the winning end of the series as of late as the Wildcats have won the last seven meetings, including two straight in Memorial Gym. The seven-straight wins marks the longest winning streak for the Wildcats in the series vs. the Commodores.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - February 6, 2015

Opening statement …
“Well, we have a tough game ahead of us down in Nashville against Vanderbilt. They are a tough team and always a tough place to go play. So they’re hard to score against and have another really good defensive team and will make it difficult on us. We’ve had a good week of preparation and we just need to really work hard here the next couple days and see if we can go down and get a really important victory for our basketball team.”

On Jennifer O’Neill becoming a more vocal leader…
“I think it’s just another year of progress for her. She’s had some challenges in that area, of being more vocal and lately she’s been very vocal and yesterday in practice I was complimenting how she was communicating on defense. I think that when she does that and she is vocal and is talkative with her teammates it helps her team. So it’s not something that comes natural for her. She’s had to work at it and had to work real hard to do it. Anytime you see a player get outside of their comfort zone and do something in order to help the team, it’s valuable for us and it’s valuable for her. She progresses as a player and a person. It’s a good development when that’s happening.”

On O’Neill shooting better from 3 is SEC play and her mentioning quality over quantity …
“We’ve tried to cut down on the one-pass 3s. So I pass it to you and it’s the first pass in the offense. I think Jennifer felt a great sense of responsibility to lead us in scoring and I think it got a little out of whack and all came to a head at Duke. Just took a lot of bad shots at Duke. A lot of quick shots. I think it was all out of desire to win the game. We just want her to try to start shooting 3s after we’d gotten the ball—two feet and the ball in the paint’s what we tell our guards to do. Try to get in the paint or try to get the ball in with the pass to a post and a post kick it out. Just trying to shoot inside-out 3s instead of one-pass 3s. So we’ve done a much better job of that in conference play. And as far as her percentage, when she takes good, on-balance shots she’s a very good shooter. When she takes off-balance shots and tough shots she makes some of those, but not as high a percentage as she does when she’s taking on balance and in rhythm and ready to shoot. So it’s funny, with someone like her, I really have to stay after her when she gets over to the point-guard position she starts trying to facilitate and she doesn’t look to score as much. And we need both Makayla (Epps) and Jennifer, when they’re at the point, we need them to score. You just try to stay with it on the little things that matter and sometimes Jennifer struggles in those areas and so we’ve just really tried to make it a point of emphasis for her in conference play.”

On his relationship with O’Neill and what he will remember about her …
“Well, on the court we’ve had a good relationship. It’s much like a family. We’ve had some ups and downs but I think the person that she’s developing into and the player that she’s developed into has been because of all the hard work that’s gone on and a lot of people have put in a lot of time with her here. I’ve certainly tried to spend as much time as I could in helping her develop. And I think the things that I’ll remember most are just the growth, the growth. She came in as our first McDonald’s All-American and just didn’t have a real great work ethic and sort of took shortcuts and now she’s developed into a very hardworking player. She’s early to practice and late to leave and in her free time working on her game, watching film, things like that. So, she went from a player who didn’t really value hard work into a player that really values that. That’s, I think, what I’ll remember the most. We’ve had five years together. You build a very strong relationship through a lot of ups and downs. I just think the struggle makes you stronger and brings you closer together. I’ll remember her for a lot of things, but those are some that kind of stick out to me.”

On team’s success with offensive rebounding …
“Well, one thing is we have Linnae Harper on our team. So, that helps you a lot. She is just a very gifted offensive rebounder. She can just go get rebounds. So, you have a single presence there.  It really helps you a lot. Our guards are pretty athletic, so we try to do it as a team. We just emphasize it. We really emphasize it. Try to stay aggressive is one of the things we’ve had to do out of necessity to have a chance to be a good team. I think also offensive rebounding is a sign of players playing hard, and we take a lot of pride in that. We try to play real hard. I wouldn’t know the exact reason why, but those are some the things that lead us to being a good rebounding team on the offensive glass.”

On the team’s 3-point shooting ability and if he wants them to take a lot of 3s …
“You have to look at what you can get accomplished here. It’s about 24 days left in the regular season. So, what can you do? Where can you move the needle? It just looks like we’re going to see a lot of zone. If they’re good 3s, I think over the next 24 days, we can probably make more improvements shooting on balance, paying attention to the little things that we could, putting in some new wrinkle offensively. We’re dealing with so many young players, that you get to a point where you can just overwhelm their brain, and they sort of become robotic. I think Kyvin (Goodin-Rogers) is a good example of that. Alyssa (Rice) and Alexis (Jennings) are good examples of ‘how can we become our best?’ and simplifying things. We’ve just been working a lot of zone concepts this week offensively. If you’re aggressive, and you are hunting the paint constantly, as the guards, and if everybody just collapses on you, we think that’s a good 3-point shot. We just need to be ready to step in to shoot them. So, I don’t know, we won’t ever go into a game with a goal of you have to get a certain number of 3-point attempts up. We’re really just trying to get the best shot that we can get. Georgia was just not going to make it easy on us to get the ball in the paint. I think a lot of teams are doing that against us because we are. You look at the South Carolina game, we scored 39 of 40 points in the first half against their man-to-man. We just have some good guards that can get to the basket and create some shots, and do some things. Alexis Jennings one-on-one in the post is pretty tough. So, I think people feel like the way to attack us is with a zone. So, you don’t need to shoot a million of them, but you need to make a few.”

On how this bye week has been different …
“They probably enjoyed it more this week because they didn’t get punished at 6 a.m. in the morning with some pretty tough workouts. During that week, that’s what we did because of our lack of effort against LSU. It came off of a good effort against Georgia. It was not the prettiest game ever, but we showed some toughness there. We just tried to work on the things that are going to make this team the best it can be. I think that will be a good team. You spend a lot of time as coaches trying to figure out the best way to communicate with your team and help them. Our young players are working so hard. They’re getting better, and I just want to be the best coach for them that I can, and get the most out of them. We’ve just spent a lot of time this week working and trying to get better, and hopefully you’ll see that Sunday in Nashville.”

On Janee Thompson and how she is doing …
“She has commented several times about how amazing everyone has been, especially her teammates. They have just been great to her. I am constantly asking her what she needs and she says coach, my teammates are amazing. They have really helped her out and helped her through it. She is helping us out a lot. I’m trying to spend time with her either before or after every practice and just seeing what she sees. She was in the huddles on Sunday against Georgia really giving great feedback. It stinks so bad that she doesn’t get to play. I think she’s handling it really well. There are some downtimes and times where I wish she was out there and she wishes she was out there and those are hard times. We’re trying to have the most positive outlook that we can have and it’s very important for her and all of us in general to have a positive outlook every day and we are looking forward to June when she can get back with us and get going. She’s doing well physically, feeling good, the pain is not there all the time now, so she is really happy about that. She’s got to bump it wrong for it to hurt, it’s not waking her up at night, so that’s been a great development for her and lifted her spirits some, so she is doing well. Again, it’s been a very uplifting experience. Very humbling to see all the people reach out, and even those at South Carolina and the outpouring of support from around the country. We’ve had coaches sit down and write letters to me talking about how they are praying for her and how they are encouraging her and so it’s been a pretty remarkable experience and I’ve learned a lot through it.”

On the new NCAA Cost of Attendance Legislature and if it will help in recruiting…
“I think it will come up a good bit. One thing is that a lot of times, these parents are going through this for the first time, so there are a lot of questions and we always have to remind ourselves that overwhelmingly it’s the first and only time they will go this process, so there is always a lot of questions. It’ll certainly help the kids because it’ll give them a little more money in their pockets. The kids just can’t go out and get a job. They just don’t have time. They don’t have time to put some extra money in their pocket. They certainly are not lazy people. At Kentucky, they are up early every day. They go to class, they work real hard academically. We are very demanding basketball-wise, so there is just not a lot of time to have a part-time job. I think it’s very positive for the players. We are very fortunate at Kentucky that we are in a position financially where this can happen. We are real appreciative of being in that circumstance and Mr. Barnhart leads us so well in those areas. It’s a big development for the players. I don’t know how it’s all going to work out for the power five conferences. I do know there are some teams outside those conferences that are going to do those same things, so everybody is going to be able to. I think it’s going to be tough in some places, but I’m glad I’m not the person figuring that stuff out. For our players, it will be a good development.”