No. 10 Wildcats Meet No. 13/15 Bulldogs in SEC Showdown Thursday

Feb. 11, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The 10th-ranked University of Kentucky women’s basketball team is set to embark on a tough stretch of games over the next few weeks, a stretch that features four ranked opponents, including three in a row and two in the top 10. First up is No. 13/15 Mississippi State. The Southeastern Conference’s top two defensive teams will face off Thursday, Feb. 12 in Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. ET. The game will be shown live on the SEC Network with Cara Capuano and Carolyn Peck calling the action. It also will be broadcast live on the UK Radio Network with Neil Price.

Gameday Central
Kentucky vs. Mississippi State
Thursday, Feb. 12 - 7:00 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | MSU Get Acrobat Reader
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TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK Sports Network
Live Video via SEC Network+
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Senior Jelléah Sidney (Queens Village, N.Y.) is the featured player of the game and will sign autographs following Thursday’s matchup.

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.

“Tough game ahead tomorrow night and I think tough and toughness is going to be the operative word in the game,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Mississippi State is a very, very tough team. They have played great this season and are very athletic, but just so tenacious and so tough and very deep and great defensive team. This will be a major, major test for our team. They’re strong on the perimeter and inside, a balanced basketball team and this will be a difficult game for us. We’re just going to work hard to prepare for victory.”

Kentucky, which currently ranks fifth in the SEC standings at 18-5 overall and 7-3 in league play, is coming off an 82-68 win at Vanderbilt on Sunday in Nashville. Sophomore guard Linnae Harper (Chicago) led the way with a game- and career-high tying 22 points, scoring 16 in the decisive second half. UK’s leading rebounder also grabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists in the game. Fellow sophomore Makayla Epps (Lebanon, Ky.) added 18 points, 13 in the first half, and seniors Bria Goss (Indianapolis) and Jennifer O’Neill (Bronx, N.Y.) followed with 13 and 12 points, respectively.

The guard trio of O’Neill, Epps and Harper are three of the SEC’s top scorers in league play. UK is the only school with three in the top 10. Epps is currently tied for first in scoring with Texas A&M’s Courtney Williams and South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell with 14.8 ppg. O’Neill is fifth with 14.5 ppg and Harper ranks 10th with 13.0 ppg. They make up 51.8 percent of UK’s overall scoring.

Harper should also be considered one of the most versatile players in the SEC as she is the only player to rank in the league’s top 10 (SEC games only) in scoring (10th), 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 SEC rebounding statistics and is one of only six players in the NCAA to stand at 5-8 or under and average at least 7.0 rebounds per game. She also adds 11.7 points per game, third on the team.

Epps, who’s on the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list for the nation’s top point guard, has been a key cog in UK’s success since the loss of starting point guard Janee Thompson (Chicago). Since becoming the starting point guard vs. Florida on Jan. 15, Epps is averaging a team-high 17.5 points to go along with 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.

No. 13/15 Mississippi State enters Thursday’s game at 23-3 overall, 8-3 in SEC play after defeating No. 14/13 Texas A&M in overtime on Sunday at home, 63-61. The 23 wins are the second-most in single-season school history and one shy of the record of 24 set by the 1999-00 and 2002-03 squads.

Freshman forward Victoria Vivians is the only Bulldog averaging in double-digit scoring this season. She is the SEC’s top freshmen scorer with 14.2 ppg, a total that rates sixth overall. Her 11.5 average in league play is second among SEC rookies. Seven of her teammates average at least 5.3 ppg. The next closest to Vivians is fellow freshman guard, Morgan William, with 9.4 ppg.

Head coach Vic Schaefer is in his third season as the head coach at Mississippi State after spending 15 combined years as the associate head coach at Texas A&M (2003-12) and Arkansas (1997-2003).

“Mississippi State just is as good a team we’ll face down the stretch,” Mitchell said. “They have great size inside, best shot blocker in the league, one of the best freshman in the league and just a cast of players that just play with incredible tenacity. We’ll have to play a real, real tough game tomorrow night and we’ll have to earn the victory if we’re going to get it.”

Mississippi State ranks third nationally and leads the SEC in turnover margin at +7.5, forcing the opponent into 23.1 turnovers per game, while only committing 15.5 per game. UK, which ranks 12th nationally and second in the SEC turnover margin, forces 23.6 miscues per game, while committing 17.3 per game. The Cats have forced at least 20 turnovers in 20 of 23 games this season and are 17-3 overall, 7-1 in SEC play when doing so. Those forced turnovers are turning into points for the Wildcats as well. UK averages 24.4 points per game off forced turnovers, compared to the opponents’ 14.2 ppg.

MSU is 3-1 vs. ranked opponents this season with wins over No. 17/16 West Virginia (74-61), No. 19/19 Georgia (64-56) and No. 14/13 Texas A&M. The lone loss came at No. 6/6 Tennessee (79-67).

Thursday is the 41st meeting between Kentucky and Mississippi State. UK is 23-17 overall vs. the Bulldogs, 10-8 when the game is played in Lexington. UK has won seven straight over Mississippi State, including three in a row at home.

The last time the teams met in Lexington in 2013, the Cats won 100-47, the largest margin of victory over an SEC opponent in school history (+53).

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

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - February 11, 2015

Opening statement …
“Tough game ahead tomorrow night and I think tough and toughness is going to be the operative word in the game. Mississippi State is a very, very tough team. They have played great this season and are very athletic, but just so tenacious and so tough and very deep and great defensive team. This will be a major, major test for our team. They’re strong on the perimeter and inside, a balanced basketball team and this will be a difficult game for us. We’re just going to work hard to prepare for victory.”

On the tough top-15 games looming …
“I’ve only spoken with them about Mississippi State and how important that is. The winner of this game gets a huge lift. It’s a big game for the winner of the game and we certainly want to be the team that comes out on top. You’re looking at the time of the season when games start to really matter in positioning for the SEC Tournament and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Generally this time of year, every game is really big. With our team, as I’ve said many times, I can’t get real big picture with this team and talk about things that are kind of out beyond the next game because I just don’t think they really think in those terms. They’re just trying to grasp what we need to do to be a consistent basketball team. We’re getting better, but we still lack consistency at least from the level of consistency of good play I’d like to see. We’re lacking in that area so it’s a tough stretch and you’ll go crazy looking too far down the road. You’ll say to yourself, ‘How in the world are we going to make it through?’ That’s not a good practice for me and I don’t share it with the team. This is going to be a very difficult game, Mississippi State just is as good a team we’ll face down the stretch. They have great size inside, best shot blocker in the league, one of the best freshmen in the league and just a cast of players that just play with incredible tenacity. We’ll have to play a real, real tough game tomorrow night and we’ll have to earn the victory if we’re going to get it.”

On what Jelléah Sidney brings …
“She brings a lack of fear to make mistakes. Jelléah is just going to give you the effort and if she makes the mistake she generally goes in there and is going to make two or three things happen there that are very good. Where we were, it was virtually impossible not to start one of the freshmen when Jelléah was out, and so you almost always had someone who had doubt in their minds starting the game. That’s not where you want to start it. So, she just starts the game with great energy and great effort, and I think that’s probably the biggest advantage – she’s not out there overthinking things and slowing down. She’s flying around tipping balls, keeping balls alive, blocking a shot, making a steal, possibly throwing the ball into the third row from time to time – but she’s going full speed and not playing with any fear. That’s where we want to get all of our young posts. They’re getting better and you can see it happening, but I think that’s the biggest thing that Jelleah gives us – is the ability to start the game with her foot on the gas pedal and trying to get off to a good, aggressive start.”

On Jelléah Sidney’s knees and how they have approached her playing …
“She’ll never feel good again. She doesn’t have a lot of cartilage in her knees and it’s just not comfortable. She worked real hard last summer, and she’s the kind of kid that pushes herself hard and towards the end of the summer was having some pain so we tried to rest it in August. Came back in September not feeling great, so we just consulted with the doctors about what was the best approach. It’s not like we can sit her out and it will heal. It’s a finite number of games that she has, and it’s up to her, what can she take? She’s so full of positive energy. She embodies what we’re looking for out of players. She came here as a junior college player, not a lot of accolades, had had an interesting journey academically through high school and has come here and become a great student and a great citizen. People love her on this campus and in this community. She is a giver and she’s always played like a Kentucky Wildcat on the floor. She is the embodiment of a Kentucky player. I wanted her to be able to make a contribution on the floor because she makes so many contributions off the floor. Even in practice – when she wasn’t practicing, very engaged, talking, great pointers and tips for the young players. I thought that the last 10 games would be a good goal. She has just worked and worked and worked, and it’s sort of worked out here that she’s going to – barring anything else happing – is going to finish strong.”

On what he liked about his guard play vs. Vanderbilt …
“When we were aggressive and we were on the attack – we were pretty good. We were able to score 82 points, and that was a direct result of us being aggressive. 82 points with 20 turnovers – I would love to see if we had 14 turnovers and six more opportunities – maybe that’s six or 10 more points. When Makayla Epps is attacking and aggressive and has her eyes up, she can make things happen. When Linnae Harper is playing with focus and energy, she can make things happen. Jennifer O’Neill – I mean we scored 82 points and Jen was 3-for-16 and I didn’t think was really in the game mentally for a large, large part of the game. We have the ability to score, some talented players. When we are on the attack and we are the aggressive, smart, north-and-south activity where we’re really trying to stay on the attack, I think we have a chance to be really good. I think Epps is really, really good. And so when you have a point guard that’s near the top of the league, that helps everybody. That helps everybody, especially a scoring point guard. So I think when—if we could get everybody doing all the little things. Makayla Epps is starting to go and grab people off the floor and get people in the huddle like a point guard needs to. And I really complimented her on that yesterday. She’s starting to do those little things. If we could get everybody doing that, we’re going to have a heck of a night one night against somebody. I don’t know who it’s going to be. I hope it’s tomorrow night. But that’s what we’re battling right now. We just can’t put together 40 consistent minutes of offense, defense. It’s still a bit uneven and I hate to be talking about that 23 games into the season, but that’s where we are. I just still feel like we have a chance to really have a special night and play some good basketball and put it all together. And we’re working hard at doing that.”

On Epps’ development at point guard …
“I think when you’re a player like Makayla, it’s just constant attention to detail, which will lead to continuous improvement. So there’s no glaring part of her game that stinks. She’s one of these players that when she has her mind right and mindset doing the little things, she’s a fantastic player. So once you get to that point, you just have to learn the mental discipline to keep striving for your best. And that’s what, to me, what separates the good ones from the great ones. There are people who God has given incredible talent who don’t work very hard and they get by on talent. And there are people who maybe don’t have all the greatest skill in the world but they just have unusual, uncommon work ethic and it makes them good players. The great ones have the gift from God that you just can’t coach and then they have this uncommon work ethic. And when those come together, then you have a great player. That’s what we’re trying to—I just think Makayla has unbelievable gifts. She’s fast. She’s explosive. She’s quick. She can jump high. She’s the strongest kid on our team. She has great court vision. All of these things that I can’t teach her and now she’s starting to work hard. We had a defensive breakdown yesterday trying to get ready for Mississippi State and she just was working as hard as a human being could work. If she’ll do that, it’ll be hard to find a better player than her around because she can do everything that you need her to do to be a good player offensively and defensively.”

On Epps’ belief in her own ability …
“I think what I’m trying—I think maybe for some people there’s a little bit of fear in the fact of, is this really possible? And I think it’s easier to kind of turn away from that and just kind of blend into the background and say, ‘Hey, I’m OK with being a good player.’ Because you have to make a decision in my mind to be great. It’s just like me as a coach. Are we going to keep working for this to get better? Are we going to keep trying to improve the program and am I going to keep trying to grow as a coach? And then you start trying to figure out what all that entails. That’s a lot of hard work and that’s a lot of self-improvement and that’s a lot of discipline. It’s the same thing for a player. I just think that it might be easier to look at that and say, ‘You know, I’m OK where I am.’ So I think really for her it was just a matter of and it is a matter of her convincing herself, ‘I do want this and I am going to make the necessary improvements.’ Because the easiest thing to do is if she didn’t get a lot better—let’s just say if she just incrementally better just from being here and through experience, it’d be hard to find a lot better player than her. She’ll be fine and she can help us win some games. But if she’ll really do what we’re asking her to do, she’ll be a 10-year pro and be one of the best players that’s ever played here. But there’s work to do and there’s a lot of work to do and there’s almost constant and daily attention to detail for that to happen. And I think that might be daunting for a young player at times. But I’ll tell you what: I think she’s closer to accepting it now than I’ve ever seen her. I see her doing things like that defensive drill last night, like picking people up off the floor, like trying to get people in the huddle, like pointing out to Kyvin (Goodin-Rogers) in the Vanderbilt game, ‘I had you on a layup. You’ve gotta turn your—you must turn your head around and see that. We have to make that play.’ I wasn’t seeing that a month ago from her. So I think she is starting to kind of see what she can become and it looks to me like she’s headed that way. I just will continue to encourage her to do that because she can be very good.”

On NCAA releasing top 20 tonight …
“Really what’s the most important is the top 16. I think they’re releasing that top 20 so people can start making plans and now I wish the selection was today. We still just have so many games to play against a real tough schedule so I’d rather be in it right now than not. I told the team this last night. This is not a preseason poll. They’ve earned their way into this. They’re going to be in the top 20 tonight. (The NCAA) is saying who the top four seeds are tonight and then the rest of us are in the top 20, so you don’t know exactly if you’re top 16, but I would say we are today. We just need to win some ball games. If we can win some ball games down the stretch, it means we are playing out there instead of somewhere else. We’ve advanced to four Sweet 16s, three on the road and one at home and I’d rather be at home. I was happy to advance on the road those three times, but I enjoyed it a lot more last year. It’s very important that the team, through all the adversity we’ve been through this year and all the difficulties we’ve been through, they’re still standing and they’re still swinging and we have to keep swinging because we want to stay in the top 16 if we possibly can and that’s what I just keep telling the players: If you can get to that top 16, you’re 80 minutes on your home floor from the Sweet 16 and if you can get to the Sweet 16, you’re 80 minutes from the Final Four and that’s what we’d love to do this year. It’s big, especially with this team we’ve been so up and down, they’ve found a way to just hang in there. I’m proud of them and I just don’t want us to stop. We’ve got to keep going.”