UK Hoops Opens SEC Play At Alabama Friday

Dec. 31, 2014

LEXINGTON, Ky. –  The 11th-ranked University of Kentucky women’s basketball team opens its 36th season of Southeastern Conference play when it travels to Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday, Jan. 2 to meet the Crimson Tide at 3 p.m. ET in Foster Auditorium. The game will be shown live on the SEC Network+ with Mick Gillispie and former Tide head coach Rick Moody calling the action. SEC Network+ is exclusively available on SECNetwork.com and on WatchESPN via computers, smartphones and tablets. The game also can be heard live on the UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price.

Gameday Central
Kentucky at Alabama
Friday, Jan. 2 - 3:00 p.m. ET
Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | UA Get Acrobat Reader
Coverage
Radio: UK Sports Network
Online Audio
Live Stats
Live Video via SEC Network
Twitter
Text Updates

The Wildcats (11-2) are looking for their fourth straight SEC-opening win. Since women’s basketball first came under the auspices of the SEC in the 1982-83 season, the Cats are 16-16 in SEC openers, including 6-12 in SEC openers on the road. This is the sixth time in eight seasons under head coach Matthew Mitchell the Wildcats have opened conference play on the road. UK is 4-3 in league openers under Matthew Mitchell, 2-3 on the road.

“We’re excited for the beginning of conference play,” Mitchell said. “I just think it’s a real honor to play in the Southeastern Conference and compete in what is most certainly the best athletic league in the country, top to bottom in all sports. It’s a powerful conference and in women’s basketball it certainly is and for us to have the opportunity to compete in the conference is a real honor. We’re excited to get it started.”

UK concluded nonconference play with an 11-2 mark, its only losses coming vs. Illinois and No. 13 Duke. It marks the sixth straight season UK has finished nonconference play with 11 or more wins. UK finished 7-0 at home, 2-1 on the road and 2-1 vs. ranked opponents.

Kentucky has benefited from a balanced scoring attack this season as seven players are averaging 7.4 points per game or better. Leading the way is senior guard Jennifer O’Neill (Broxn, N.Y.) with 15.2 ppg which ranks sixth in the SEC. Sophomores Makalya Epps (Lebanon, Ky.) and Linnae Harper (Chicago) follow with 13.4 and 10.7 ppg, respectively, while junior point guard Janee Thompson (Chicago) adds 10.0 ppg.

Senior Azia Bishop (Toledo, Ohio) is dropping 8.2 points per game and is the team’s leader on the glass this season with 6.7 rebounds a game.  Harper, who stands at 5-foot-10, follows close behind with 6.5 rpg. Bishop has also swatted a team-high 25 blocks and currently leads the SEC in blocks per game (1.9). She ranks fourth on UK’s all-time blocks list and needs 32 more to move up to No. 3 with former UK great Valerie Still (1979-83).

Alabama finished its nonconference slate with an 11-4 overall record and is riding a three-game winning streak heading into league play. The Tide’s four losses came against Duke (90-40), Jacksonville State (64-62), Quinnipiac (73-66) and Mercer (46-39).

Leading the Tide this season is sophomore forward Ashley Williams and freshman guard Hannah Cook who average 15.0 and 10.9 points per game, respectively. UA’s leading rebounder is senior forward Briana Hutchen.

Head coach Kristy Curry is in her second season at Alabama. She owns a career coaching record of 334-169 after seven seasons each at Texas Tech and Purdue.

“It is going to be very, very challenging all season long and it opens up with a real tough one at Alabama,” Mitchell said. “They are a very athletic team. They have what I think is just one of the toughest players in the league. (Ashley) Williams is just so tough down in the post, in the block and can also bring it out on the floor and take it to you. And so we have had some struggles with our post defense. We’re going to have to meet a real tough challenge down at Alabama. They, I imagine, would have some confidence against us. They won the last game they played against us and so we really need to rise and meet the challenge here as we open conference play. You only have eight opportunities to go on the road in this league and win and every one of those is just like a piece of gold. I’m telling you, a road win in the SEC’s really valuable. So we’ll put everything we have into it and see if we can go down and play extremely hard against a good Alabama team.”

UK leads the all-time series with Alabama, 24-17, but trails 10-9 when they game is played in Tuscaloosa. UK has won the last two games in Foster Auditorium but fell to the Tide last season in Lexington, 57-55.

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Media Opportunity - December 31, 2014

Opening statement …
“We’re excited for the beginning of conference play. I just think it’s a real honor to play in the Southeastern Conference and compete in what is most certainly the best athletic league in the country, top to bottom in all sports. It’s a powerful conference and in women’s basketball it certainly is and for us to have the opportunity to compete in the conference is a real honor. We’re excited to get it started. It is going to be very, very challenging all season long and it opens up with a real tough one at Alabama. They are a very athletic team. They have what I think is just one of the toughest players in the league. (Ashley) Williams is just so tough down in the post, in the block and can also bring it out on the floor and take it to you. And so we have had some struggles with our post defense. We’re going to have to meet a real tough challenge down at Alabama. They, I imagine, would have some confidence against us. They won the last game they played against us and so we really need to rise and meet the challenge here as we open conference play. You only have eight opportunities to go on the road in this league and win and every one of those is just like a piece of gold. I’m telling you, a road win in the SEC’s really valuable. So we’ll put everything we have into it and see if we can go down and play extremely hard against a good Alabama team.”

On the play of the post players in Bria Goss’ absence …
“Well, we just had some individual defensive work this morning and it’s sort of inconsistent and that’s what’s so concerning. It’s some good, some bad and what we’re really trying to do is even that out. And it’s difficult because we’re so young there and I just don’t think—well, I think we’re having a hard time understanding how hard we have to play. I think that some of the young post players are, and this is probably most certainly true, they’re playing as hard as they’ve ever played. But it’s just not quite hard enough for what’s coming and what looms in the conference. And so it’s just a real difficult process right now, defensively, to try to get them to understand you have to put multiple actions back to back. You just can’t do one thing and then rest. You have to keep playing throughout the possession. So I think that’s our biggest challenge right now, is just defensively for our post players to understand how consistent the effort has to be. But before we’re consistent we just have to learn how tenacious and how hard we have to play. I don’t know how else to put it.”

On Jennifer O’Neill’s status …
“Jen is out on the court as we speak going through a shooting workout and I had the post players on the other end, but the little bit that I saw it looked like she did well this morning. She went through about an hour of shooting last night and those were game-like shots and she looked good and bounced back this morning. So I think—it looks to me like she’s progressing well. We are feeling good about her progress right now.”

On recruiting Alexis Jennings and what he saw in her as a player …
“Alexis came to camp, I think, between her sophomore and junior year. It may have been her freshman and sophomore year, I can’t remember exactly. But I met her at our summer camp and she came in and was very raw at that time and I thought she had some potential. But it was an interesting recruiting process because she was one of those that you had to watch a few times to really understand her value. She is athletic, but she’s not the most athletic. She is, I would say, powerfully quick. It’s not like blinding quickness and speed, but she’s very explosive because she’s got a nice power base and that’s improved as she’s gotten here. But you really had to watch her to see this wide complement of offensive skills that she possesses. She can handle the ball, she can shoot the ball from the perimeter. She’s really developing some nice back-to-the-basket moves and so it was a process. It was not walk in the gym one time, see it and so I really admired her because I thought she kept working hard and Kentucky was one of the final schools in the conference to offer her. I just have to get settled and know it’s right and know it’s the right fit. We don’t just offer everybody and put out blanket offers. That was a little nerve-racking for me knowing everybody in the conference was offering her and I just had to get settled on what kind of player I thought she could be and where she could fit in. Once that happened, I think we developed a really good relationship and I really have a lot of admiration for her. Her parents are really great people. She has come in and been able to handle some adversity and her parents have been really supportive and so they’re good people. She is sort of a slow-processor as it goes to processing what needs to happen and so that creates some tension between us right now because we’ve got to get going defensively here. To get back to the recruiting process, once I went to her home and was in her home around her parents and grandparents, I knew she was a Kentucky-type player and kid that we need here and I think she has a very bright future.”

On if Jennings is like most young post players and taking extra time to develop…
“I don’t know that she’s taking extra time. I’m sure there is some impatience this time of year because we know what is coming up with the league and if you have young players, you’re trying to get them to understand. I feel good about how she is progressing. One thing that is in her favor is that if she is having a good day offensively, she can really help you and make up for some deficiencies on defense. That’s just not a good formula for success, to just score more than you give up. You just want to get solid on defense. When it finally clicks for her, we are going to have a really, really top-level player in her.”

On Alyssa Rice’s health …
“She came back from the break not feeling well at all and was really fatigued from what’s going around. Some managers have had it, some coaches have had it, it’s just kind of that thing going around. She didn’t have any energy when she came back. She looked very good in her defensive individual and has worked hard the last couple of days. She’s playing really tough defensively, so we’ve got to get her going offensively. We’ve got to everybody leveled out and evened out in the post, but she looked good this morning.”

On the recovery process of senior forward Jelléah Sidney …
“We just have started back in trying to get her on the floor and now we will try and work her back into shape. She was in individual this morning. We don’t have her into contact yet. I would say we are at a couple of weeks, three weeks of trying to get her conditioning back and hopefully by February, maybe sooner, I don’t know. We’re going very conservative. The whole idea has been can she make a contribution for us at the most important time of the year. Can she help us compete for a conference championship. Can she help us get to the NCAA Tournament and advance. There are a finite number of plays left in her knees. Since she came back from break, she has been participating in various on-court activities with no contact yet.”