UK Hoops Looks to Keep Winning Streak Alive at No. 3 Notre Dame

Dec. 16, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. – After a week-long break for final exams, the No. 8/7 undefeated Kentucky women’s basketball team will put its 10-game winning streak on the line when it travels to No. 3 Notre Dame on Sunday for a battle of two top-10 teams. The game will be played at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind., and will be televised on ESPNU at 1 p.m. ET.

Gameday
Gameday Information
Kentucky at Notre Dame
Sun., Dec. 18 - 1:00 p.m. ET
Notre Dame, Ind.
Purcell Pavilion
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | UND Get Acrobat Reader
Coverage
TV: ESPNU
Radio: UK IMG
GameTracker
Live Audio
Twitter
Text Updates

Notre Dame is UK’s third ranked opponent of the non-conference schedule, including its third in the last four games. The Wildcats are 2-0 vs. ranked teams this season with both games played in Lexington. UK looks for its first win over a top-10 team on the road since defeating No. 8 Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, Ky., on Dec. 11, 1991 (67-66).

“We have been preparing extremely hard all week for Notre Dame,” UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They are an absolutely fantastic opponent we will be facing in what we know will be a tremendous atmosphere. They have great, passionate fans, and we know that it will be a real challenge for us to go on the road and compete with them. We’ve worked hard in practice and I like where the team is. It will be exciting to see if we can have a good showing on Sunday.”

Sunday’s game also marks the debut of sophomore forward Samarie Walker (West Carrollton, Ohio), who is now eligible for action after transferring from Connecticut following the fall semester last season.

“She’s just been excellent this week,” Mitchell said. “What we’ve really tried all season long is to practice her as if she were a starter or would have the chance to start. We’ve talked about them earning time in practice and I haven’t seen a huge difference. I thought maybe she might be hyped up in a negative way, and tight, but she’s performed great. She’s had some of the best practices of the week. She’s a really, really good player and the only thing I see her behind in just a little bit is defensively, but I just think that’s going to come. She makes so many plays offensively for us that I just think she’s going to be a big addition. But she’s practiced really, really well.”

Kentucky is 10-0 after impressive wins over No. 6/5 Duke and Arkansas-Pine Bluff last week. In front of a school-record 14,508 fans in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats upset the Blue Devils, 72-65, led by A’dia Mathies’ (Louisville, Ky.) season-high 23 points and career-high tying four 3-pointers. Freshmen roommates Bria Goss (Indianapolis, Ind.) and Azia Bishop (Toledo, Ohio) were also crucial to the Cats’ signature win as they combined for 31 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and four steals.          

Against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, UK did what it does best, force turnovers. The Cats forced a school-record 49 turnovers en route to a 101-43 win. Goss and senior Keyla Snowden (Lexington, Ky.) led five players in double digits with 19 points apiece.

The Wildcats’ defensive pressure, often dubbed “40 minutes of dread,” has once again been their bread and butter as they lead the nation in turnover margin (+17.0) and steals (16.5). The Cats have forced a league-high 349 turnovers for an average of 34.9 forced turnovers per game.

Leading the charge is Mathies who already ranks in the top 10 on UK’s all-time steals list. The 5-foot-9 junior and member of the Naismith preseason watch list, averages a Southeastern Conference-high 4.1 steals per game to go along with her team-best 16.8 points per game. She has netted double-figure points in all nine games played this season. Goss has also been a key contributor as she averages 12.3 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. Sophomore Samantha Drake (Bardstown, Ky.) is the team’s leading rebounder with 6.8 rebounds per game.

Notre Dame (9-1) is located in South Bend, Ind., and is a member of the Big East Conference. The Fighting Irish enter Sunday’s contest coming off a 66-38 victory over No. 22/22 Purdue. The Irish were led by senior forward Devereaux Peters, who had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Lexington, Ky., native Natalie Novosel, who scored a team-high 17 points.

The Fighting Irish have been led this season by junior All-America guard Skylar Diggins, who is averaging 16.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.3 steals per game. Peters leads Notre Dame on the glass, averaging 7.3 boards per game to go with 10.0 points per game. Notre Dame has four players averaging at least 10 points per game.

The Wildcats are 1-0 all-time vs. Notre Dame after an 81-76 win over the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish last season in Memorial Coliseum.

Sunday’s game can be heard on the UK IMG Sports Radio Network with Neil Price calling the action. Fans can also follow the UK Hoops team on Twitter at @UKHoopCats and use #UKHoops to comment on the game.

Pre-Notre Dame Media Opportunity - Dec. 16, 2011

Kentucky Head Coach Matthew Mitchell

Opening statement…
“We have been preparing extremely hard all week for Notre Dame. They are an absolutely fantastic opponent we will be facing in what we know will be a tremendous atmosphere. They have great, passionate fans, and we know that it will be a real challenge for us to go on the road and compete with them. We’ve worked hard in practice and I like where the team is. It will be exciting to see if we can have a good showing on Sunday.”

On facing a team like No. 3 Notre Dame with so little road experience on the season…
“It’s something that the team will have to learn to deal with. The schedule just fell the way that it did this year. There was no real concerted effort to have it fall the way it did, but this clearly is a bigger challenge than we’ve had. Both of the big wins we had against Louisville and Duke were in front of our fans and we talk about how important our fans are by showing up and giving us energy, so now the challenge is, we really have to stick together. We’ve been focusing on that all week long. We’re not going to have the home crowd on our side, so now where does the energy come from? It must come from our players. We can’t get down on negative plays, we can’t start going against each other, we just really have to stick together in what I think will be a challenging environment. It’s a great opportunity for our team, because clearly when you get into conference play you have to start dealing with some of that. It’ll be a great, great challenge for us.”

On the status of junior guard A’dia Mathies…
“A’dia (Mathies) bounced back pretty nicely from her ankle injury. It took her a little while to get going yesterday. We had a conversation sort of mid-practice where I wanted to know if she was OK or does she not need to be practicing. She really picked it up in the latter portion of practice and looked good. We don’t anticipate, unless there’s something that happens, we don’t anticipate that being a major issue for our team on Sunday.”

On the similarities between Kentucky’s and Notre Dame’s teams when looking at them on film…
“We’re going to play what I think is without a doubt the most intense defense that we’ve seen yet from a pressure standpoint. They are fourth in the country in turnovers, I believe I saw that somewhere, almost 28 per game they’re forcing. So they have done a terrific job of making the other team uncomfortable. They look like they want to push the pace. Skylar Diggins is just a fantastic point guard, and she really sees the floor well. Natalie Novosel is just one of the toughest perimeter players I think we’re going to face. I told our players they’re not going to play a much more physical, aggressive, tough perimeter player like Natalie. They just have a lot of great athleticism and can get up and down the floor, so it could be a real fast-paced game. Clearly, for us, turnover margin is going to be so important because we can’t cough it up a bunch up there and expect to win, I don’t believe.”

On if his team is prepared to face that sort of fast-paced pressure defense…
“It’s been interesting. As we prepare sometimes we have some male practice players and exam week fell where we didn’t have those yesterday morning when we practiced, and we found out our team didn’t like our defense very much yesterday. We didn’t handle pressure all that great. We were just playing Kentucky defense and it’s hard to kind of adjust. Since everybody plays, we don’t want to simulate what the other team’s doing, so our point guards were not real good against our pressure yesterday. So that was a reason for concern. So we came back for an afternoon session and tried to work on that a little bit and got a little bit better. I don’t know how well equipped we are for this kind of in-your-face pressure. It’s an adjustment we’ll have to make. We’ll do everything we can between now and 1 o’clock Sunday to get prepared for it and we’ll see how we handle it. But our point guard position has turned the ball over too much. Even in our two good wins against Louisville and Duke I felt like we turned the ball over too much from the point guard position, and we must get that addressed, and we need a better assist-turnover ratio from our point guard position.”

On if his team is better at mid-December than he thought it would be…
“That’s hard to answer because I don’t think about it a whole lot. I just try to stay focused on what’s happening that day. As you’re looking at it and you’re trying to plan for what we will become, they’ve won more games probably – I still don’t think we’ve practiced as well as we can, and I just think that’s the whole key to our success this year. We have too many inconsistencies in practice right now, so I think if we can get better at that we’ll become the team I think we can become. I’m not sure if I had a gauge on where they should be better or not right now. I’m awfully happy with the 10-0 start of course. I don’t know that I had that predicted.”

On where his confidence level is heading into Sunday’s game after two victories over top-10 ranked opponents…
“I believe in this team at a very high level when everybody is on the same page and playing hard. It’s easy for me to stand up here and tell you guys that. It’s very difficult to get everybody there on a given day, and that’s why it’s sort of a struggle every day with us in practice. It just seems like we can’t get everybody on the same page every day in practice. When we play together, with great toughness and great mental toughness where we can keep the pace going, I have a lot of confidence. There’s not a game you would go in with this team that you didn’t feel like you had a chance. I was trying to talk about that with a player this morning in my office, who’s not practicing particularly well. There’s not a game that we have remaining on our schedule that you’re saying we don’t have a chance in. So that tells you where my confidence level is. I have a strong belief that, as a team, we can function very well. If we only had five players I don’t know how confident I’d be, but I really don’t think we have any bad players on our team.”

On how sophomore forward Samarie Walker has practiced this week…
“She’s just been excellent this week. What we’ve really tried all season long is to practice her as if she were a starter or would have the chance to start. We’ve talked about them earning time in practice and I haven’t seen a huge difference. I thought maybe she might be hyped up in a negative way, and tight, but she’s performed great. She’s had some of the best practices of the week. She’s a really, really good player and the only thing I see her behind just a little bit is defensively, but I just think that’s going to come. She makes so many plays offensively for us, that I just think she’s going to be a big addition. But she’s practiced really, really well.”

On if the dynamic of the team changes as they head out on the road…
“It’s hard to say. It’s another first for us with this level of competition. (Against) Morehead we didn’t spend the night. We just drove over, played and came back. This level of competition, third ranked team in the country – second ranked team in the country, whatever they are – we’ll find out. They tell me they’re a pretty close knit group, we’ll find out more about that. And look, however we perform on Sunday will be a learning experience for us. If we don’t play well it doesn’t mean they’re not a close group. And if we play well it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, but I think this team really needs to commit to each other in a very, very strong way for us to have the kind of season we’d like to have.”

On the commitment level he asks for his players to have for each other…
“I think that I will constantly push them to try to sincerely be there for each other. All I’m asking for them to do is be honest with each other every single day in practice. And so, if we have somebody dogging it in practice, I think that we sincerely and honestly need to go to them and say, ‘Listen, you need to practice better.’ I don’t know if we’re exactly at a point – and that’s difficult for young people to, in a healthy way, confront each other. It’s just a learning process that we all have to – and I don’t know if we’ll get there. It’s really rare for young people to be able to do what we’re asking them to do, but I absolutely believe this, if we mature as a basketball team, and can have those kinds of conversations, because we all know, we’ve already said we need everybody for this thing to work. At a high level, we need everybody. We need 10 or 11 to really play at a high level on Sunday. That’s what I’m talking about. They’re a close knit bunch off the court, on the court I want them to be a little bit more into accountability, and that’s a two-way street. That’s got to have somebody pointing out what’s going wrong, and then you have to be able to admit whatever mistake you’ve made. Those are the kinds of things I’m talking about. It takes a lot of time to get there, but I think they can get there if they’ll just get out of their comfort zone. And it’s tough for young people to do that, but we’re striving toward that right now every day.”

On if their routine changes at all during finals week…
“This week was a little difficult – not in a bad way – because of exams, and you’re working around exam schedules. Yesterday was a good day because nobody had exams, and only a few of them had some today so we felt like we were able to go twice yesterday. So that was really good for us. We’ve pushed them really hard in practice so far. Where you can really start making some progress is when they get back from Christmas. Then, and even after you play that first SEC game you don’t start school until the 15th (of January), I think. Then you can start doing some more individual work and you can go double sessions in a day. When we’re out of school and don’t have the classes in our daily routine, we will change and we will probably practice a little bit more. We still don’t like to go long, but one session we’ll break up into two sessions and we’ve found some success with that. It’s a good time of year. You know what you can do and if you can add any little wrinkles for the conference, it’s a good time to be able to do that.”