UK Hoops Faces Third-Straight Top-15 Team in No. 15 Texas A&M

Feb. 18, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. – No. 11/10 Kentucky returns to Memorial Coliseum to face its third-straight ranked opponent in 15th-ranked Texas A&M for its annual #Play4Kay game. The Wildcats will don pink and blue uniforms in an effort to raise awareness for breast cancer research and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. The Wildcats are currently in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Southeastern Conference standings with the Aggies and LSU. With just four regular-season games remaining, Kentucky is looking to secure a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament for the sixth straight season.

Gameday Central
Kentucky vs. Texas A&M
Thursday, Feb. 19 - 7:00 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky.
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Radio: UK Sports Network
Live Video via SEC Network+
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“Texas A&M is a very good team,” Matthew Mitchell said. “Some of the best players in the conference are on their team. It will be a difficult challenge. Our team is upbeat and excited for the game, and we are going to work hard and see if we can earn a very, very important victory for our team.”

UK also looks to get back on the winning track after falling to No. 6 Tennessee, 72-58, on Sunday in Knoxville. The Wildcats were outscored 41-27 in the second half, including a 16-6 stretch in the final eight minutes. Four players were in double figures paced by sophomore Makayla Epps’ 13 points. Senior guard Jennifer O’Neill added 12 points, while senior Bria Goss and sophomore Linnae Harper added 10 points each.

In SEC play, the guard play of Goss, Epps, Harper and O’Neill leads the way. Epps currently leads the league in scoring with 16.9 ppg, while O’Neill is seventh with 13.8 ppg. Harper is 14th with 12.3 ppg, while Goss is UK’s fourth-leading scorer in SEC-only play with 10.8 ppg.

Harper should 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 rebounding (T7th) 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.

Fans are encouraged to use extreme caution and proper discretion if they are planning on attending the game, with temperatures expected to be well below freezing and hazardous road conditions.

In addition to season ticket holders and those who had single-game tickets for Thursday night’s game – all attendees of the game who can safely make it to Memorial Coliseum will be admitted free of charge.

The game will tip off at its scheduled time of 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The game can be seen online as well as through smartphones and tablets via the WatchESPN app, ESPN3, and can be heard live on the UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price calling the action.

Current affiliated providers for authenticated access to SEC Network and SEC Network + on WatchESPN include AT&T U-verse, Charter, Comcast, Cox, DISH, Google Fiber, Suddenlink*, NCTC, NRTC and NTTC. NCTC and NTTC will have access when member companies launch the WatchESPN app later in the month.

While UK Athletics and Campus officials are working hard to help minimize the impact of severe weather on the streets, parking lots, and sidewalks around Memorial Coliseum, there will likely be a reduced amount of spaces available due to snow and ice buildup. 

Guests are urged to use extreme caution if deciding to attend the game as conditions may be dangerous.  Shuttle services from the South Limestone Garage (next to Kennedy’s Bookstore) as well as from the Transit Center Garage (off High Street and Lexington Avenue) will be available starting at 5:30pm.  Doors to the Coliseum will open 1 hour prior to tip-off (6:00pm). All shuttles will be heated and handicap accessible.

Thursday night is UK’s annual #Play4Kay game, where the Wildcats will be wearing pink uniforms to help promote research and development for breast cancer. Fans are strongly encouraged to wear pink to the game and help the cause.

Doors to Memorial Coliseum will open at 6 p.m. ET, one hour prior to tip off.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - February 18, 2015

Opening statement …
“It’s obviously busy with a lot of weather issues going on in Lexington here the last few days. We do want to remind people that we are playing the game tomorrow, even if the University is closed – we will still play the game. There are heated and handicap-accessible shuttles that will be running an hour before and 30 minutes after the game which will give you a chance to get to the Coliseum. We would love for a big crowd to show up tomorrow night. If the weather won’t allow you to be here, we’ll be on the SEC Network+ and also our radio broadcast with Neil Price. We would just love for you to come out to the game if at all possible tomorrow night. It will be a big challenge. Texas A&M is a very good team. Some of the best players in the conference are on their team. It will be a difficult challenge. Our team is upbeat and excited for the game, and we are going to work hard and see if we can earn a very, very important victory for our team.”

On the weather effecting game prep …
“You know, we are so fortunate with how close our players live, it really has been of some benefit of them just to have some time off. I don’t know if people realize how difficult it is for our players once conference season starts. Especially if your bye dates are on a Thursday, you really don’t get a day where nothing is going on very often. Our off day for practice is Monday and they are having to deal with classes, so it’s really not a true day off for them where they don’t have anything off, as opposed to say if you were playing a Saturday game or a Thursday/Saturday or Wednesday/Saturday schedule, where you would have that day off where a player would get a total day off. I think it’s actually pretty good for our players just to have a day where they didn’t have to worry about anything responsibility wise and don’t have to worry about going to class on Monday. Then we gathered back up on Tuesday and had game preparation. So, it’s been no issue for us because they live right across the street from the gym, so that’s been good.”

On the team’s position for an SEC Tournament bye and the NCAA Tournament hosting possibility …
“We’ve worked through three quarters of the schedule and we’re in good position to set ourselves up for the NCAA Tournament, we have set ourselves up for a good position in the SEC Tournament – both of those are significant accomplishments in our program and we want to do well in both. It always helps you the better seed that you can get. So there is a lot to play for from the big picture point-of-view. For our team right now, we’re really trying to get focused for Texas A&M. It would be a significant victory. We’re right there with them in competition for some positioning in the SEC and probably the NCAA, too. So, it’s a big game. Big game tomorrow night. The thing I tell the team is that we still have an opportunity to get it together and really play some good basketball and see how good we can be. I’m just trying to encourage them with constant improvement and constant focus and the best time of the year to be playing well and clicking is the end.”

On if he is surprised that this team is still in the position it is in given injuries …
“I don’t know if surprised is the right word because you’re really not focused on one player and how she impacts the team. It’s always an approach of how can the team win. There are certainly challenges without Janee (Thompson) and all of us sitting in this room could have a good discussion of what it’s meant – and we could probably have a discussion about that after the season –but I don’t stop long enough to think in those terms. I haven’t thought about it like that. I’m proud that the players have dealt with it as well as they have because it is a significant loss. It changes a lot of things for us. But we always said after the injury that there’s nothing we could do, and we’re going to try and get better, stronger, and find a way to improve because everybody’s role changed a little bit. We’ve seen some of that, and I’m real proud that the team has carried on and that we didn’t go into a nosedive. We’re still competing hard, and I think we have some great basketball in front of us. We miss her a lot, but she is doing a great job in her role right now. She is a real significant part and real valuable part of the team, she’s just not on the court. I’m excited to continue to go to practice with this team every day and see if we can become the best team that we can be.”

On whether he’s been impressed with this team’s resolve …
“Yeah, I think so. I don’t know what people like to hear or if they get tired of hearing about it from us, but it’s been a challenging season and we are in the thick of things. If we can win a bunch more games—either way how it goes we’re there with a chance to compete. I wish we were a little bit further along but I don’t know if there’s a coach in the country that doesn’t wish they were a little bit further along. You just kind of view your team differently. You know all of the deficiencies your team has and you know what you feel like they’re capable of doing and what they’re not doing and all those things kind of roll into you maybe being a little more critical of your team than anyone else’s. But I think all in all it could a lot different right now. So I’m really, really proud of the position they’ve put themselves in. We just need to finish. We need to finish and keep getting better. I think if we can do that we can do some special things here down the stretch.”

On what he needs from his post players …
“Well I think right now the issue for us on Sunday was I don’t know what caused it and we’re really having an honest dialogue on that where they’re going back and thinking about that. Was it just inexperience and you let yourself get too worked up and that slowed you down. Azia was 4 for 5 and everybody else was 1 of 13. It was not a good performance and a lot of fall-aways. That was just a real rough game. It was a real rough game and if you didn’t stick your nose in there and really play tough you weren’t going to be successful. That’s what I was disappointed in. I just thought we were out-toughed in the post a lot of times. The 1 for 13 was bad enough, but we didn’t communicate on defense and I thought—it was five minutes left, it’s a ballgame and we had some lack of communication breakdowns on defense that really let them fuel their crowd and the momentum. And that to me is toughness. On the road you really have to communicate. What I’ve tried to tell them is we’re 25 games into the season. Let’s stop making the same mistakes over and over and over and let’s figure out a way forward where you are talking on screens or you are taking your time, shot-faking and getting into people instead of rushing and falling away from people. Let’s stop making those mistakes every day in practice. Let’s just really try to get prepared to do the few things that we’re asking you to do and let’s do those well. I think that would help us a lot. Just simple things: finish on balance, try to be real physical on your finishes, try not to shy away from contact, talk on defense. If we would just talk on defense—I still think just get stuck sometimes watching the play develop and they just don’t react to screens real well and we just have to get that cleaned up. It would be—we just try to play very dynamic defense and you can’t stand still and sometimes we stand around a little bit and we just have to try to clean that up.”

On if UK needs post players to have bigger impact …
“I think it would be really helpful for us. But let me back up a little bit. Some of our issues, too, are Azia should’ve touched the ball more than five times and we just don’t throw it in there. It would be great if we could throw it into the post and get some buckets where it’s not all perimeter driven. But on the perimeter, we dribble too much. When we move the ball -- it’s funny -- we did some really good things in the Tennessee game when we moved the ball, just so many possessions where the ball was dominated by a person just dribble, dribble, dribble and nothing was happening. We’ve really worked hard to try and get out of that, so I still think with this team, they can be very explosive and dynamic but we really have to do things clean, and we have to do things the right way and we have to stay focused on the fundamentals. That’s probably more important than what dimension needs to be added. I don’t think there’s ever a question that a nice post presence offensively helps you in games when it’s maybe tough to score. We’ve just played so many games here lately where people are saying, ‘We’re just going to leave you open.’ And these kids are coming in and working hard. Linnae Harper is in the gym every day, sometimes twice a day and all I can tell her is you keep at it and it will fall at some point and you’re going to make them pay for playing off of you. But if we hit a day where Linnae’s not making shots or Jen’s not making shots or Makayla’s not making shots, you do need to be able to throw the ball in the post and score. It would help us.”

On if it’s a youth issue …
“We just make a lot of mistakes. Alexis (Jennings) continues to catch the ball and kill her dribble and try to make a move without checking. Alyssa (Rice) gets very rushed instead of taking her time. And it’s not a lack of time or effort they put in. They put in a lot of time and effort, but it’s my job to find a way to stop making those same mistakes. As a coach you’ve got to find a way to help people do what you want them to do. We’re just working real hard to do that, to get a spot where they can make the simple play and don’t get in a rush. Some of it’s youth. Some of it could be a bit of stubbornness of just doing the same thing, not getting out of your comfort zone and slowing down. I think those two kids both feel a lot of responsibility, they want us to be good. And sometimes when you want to do really well it has a negative affect on you. It’s just like golf. When I get to really, really trying at golf, it’s when you put a lot of pressure on yourself and you mess it up. So sometimes effort isn’t rewarded exactly how you wish it would be. They get in a rush and they sort of bail out into a comfort zone because that’s how they’ve been comfortable playing their whole career. Some of these shots Alexis takes, she could make in high school because she didn’t have that physical presence (guarding her). I think it’s all still a process of us being patient and hanging in. You wish you weren’t having to deal with that 25 games in, but we still have so much basketball to play, we keep coming in and encouraging them and get them ready to go and it’s our job as teachers to get it done and find a way. Put a lot of it on me. I need to find a way to clean that up so we can find a way to have a chance to be the best team we can be.”

On Texas A&M physical play, post presence …
“They look like an A&M team: Big and physical in the post, a good power game and if you don’t play real, real tough they can make some plays and have great size. It’s a very good A&M team and really tough in the post. We’ll have to play well.”