'Tough, Together and Tenacious:' Cats Rally Past Florida, into Semis

Kentucky could have been knocked on its heels by a game-opening Florida fury.

The Wildcats were too prepared for Friday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals to let that happen.

“We tried to be tenacious and just stay with it,” Mitchell said. “We had a really, really rough start to the game and I thought that the players were very tough, together and tenacious today and that was the theme of the game and that’s what we were trying to accomplish.”

While the Gators were burying their first four 3-point tries, UK was ice cold. They fell behind by as many as 10 points after missing 14 of their first 16 shots before trailing 16-9 at the first-quarter break, but were undeterred. They scored 83 points over the final three quarters – including a season-high 33 in the second – en route to taking down fifth-seeded and 25th-ranked Florida, 92-69.

“You just cannot let offense dictate your attitude,” Mitchell said. “You have stay with it and be real tenacious. It’s something we talk about and we try to practice every day and we try to be people that are resilient. I think that’s an important quality for all of them to have as basketball players and then as people as they move on. I’m really proud of the team.”

That’s a far cry from the way Mitchell felt after the last time UK faced Florida. During a three-game losing streak – the low point of the season for the Cats – UK committed 30 turnovers in a road defeat at the hands of the Gators. Florida’s press threw UK for a loop back on Jan. 31, but the Cats flipped the script on Friday.

“As we practiced this morning, we called it press attack,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to attack and score. We did not want to just break the press. We wanted to try to attack and score and I thought we did a fantastic job of that.”

Janee Thompson was responsible for nine of UK’s turnovers in the first game vs. Florida, but the senior leader was completely under control on Friday afternoon. She scored 19 points – including three second-quarter 3s – and combined with Makayla Epps (22 points, seven assists) to run the show for the Cats.

“I just popped open for some open shots,” Thompson said. “(Epps) found me a lot of times and I just hit some shots. Once I got going, it was good for our team and it gave us a lot of energy.”

The difference between the two performances against the Gators is proof of exactly how far UK has come in reeling off eight wins in a row to set up a semifinal matchup with top-seeded and third-ranked South Carolina, which rolled through SEC play with an unblemished 16-0 record. 

“We get to play them twice every year and we have a very healthy respect for Coach (Dawn) Staley and their players and their program,” Mitchell said. “It’s always a very tough game for us to get ready for."

South Carolina took both regular-season games between the two rivals, but the Cats were competitive both times. UK held a fourth-quarter lead when the Gamecocks visited Lexington in January and trailed by just two with less than three minutes to go at South Carolina, which stymied Auburn in its quarterfinal, 57-48.

“There are no secrets between the two teams and we will get back to the hotel and get our minds intent on going out and doing our very best and trying to earn a victory tomorrow,” Mitchell said. “They are a very good team. Sixteen and oh speaks for itself.”

True as that may be, don’t expect the Cats to be intimidated. They play to use the same approach that helped them rally past Florida against South Carolina.

“As long as you're aggressive and your mindset is to be aggressive early and often, that's been my mindset for this tournament, and it's worked in my favor and for my team's favor,” Epps said. “You have to credit South Carolina for what they do. I feel like once Kentucky gets out in transition, it's off to the races. It's hard to stop us in transition.”