Toughness the Name of the Game in Sweet 16

Matthew Mitchell, Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps were at the podium for a little more than 20 minutes on Thursday. 

Combined, they said some form of the word “tough” 32 times.

Clearly, there’s a theme heading into Kentucky’s Sweet 16 matchup with Washington.

“So I guess to sum it up against them, you're going to have to be tougher than them, and that's something that I tell our players all the time,” Mitchell said. “You're in control of that. You have a choice to be the tougher team, and it's a tall task to be tougher than Washington. They're very, very tough.”

The seventh-seeded Huskies (24-10) pulled off the most impressive win of the NCAA Tournament over Maryland to set up their Sweet 16 matchup with third-seeded UK (25-7) on Friday at 7 p.m. at Rupp Arena. Washington was the only team to score an upset of a team seeded first or second in the opening two rounds, and on the road to boot.

“Washington's an outstanding team,” Mitchell said. “They put a lot of pressure on you to score and are just very dynamic offensively. So this is a tough, tough game. I don't anticipate our team worrying too much about anything but Washington right now. If they do, they'll learn a real hard lesson, real tough lesson, and I think they want to give their very best, and that's what I expect them to do.”

The Huskies have demonstrated their toughness in advancing with a nearly non-existent bench. In their 74-65 win over the second-seeded Terrapins, only six players played and three of them were on the floor for 40 minutes.

"We've actually played five or six players all year," Kelsey Plum said. "It's just the five of us and then people that come in. We play really well together and we have a great chemistry. It's not nothing new for us. We're 20-plus years old. There are a lot of media timeouts. You know, we're playing on adrenaline. We have a lot of fun with it."

One of them is Plum, UW's star and leading scorer. The junior guard is averaging 26.3 points per game – fourth in the country – and poured in 32 to go with seven assists against Maryland.

“She is a fantastic player,” Mitchell said. “She does so much for their team. What I've noticed is she really keeps them together. They're a really together team. It's a fun thing to watch. Tough to prepare for. They're very, very tough. But there is a togetherness about them that is impressive.”

Makayla Epps – UK’s top player – has a similar effect.

"She can dominate the game without having to score," Washington head coach Mike Neighbors said. "She can dominate the game without having to get shots. She's a very, very impressive leader. You can tell that she's the one that gets them rallied together."

The junior exited UK's second-round game with a shoulder injury after taking a hard foul in the third quarter against Oklahoma, but played through the pain to help stymie an Oklahoma rally and advance with a 79-58 victory. Mitchell expects her to be available Friday night and of course Epps agrees.

“I'm feeling a lot better than I did Monday night when I took the fall,” Epps said. “Of course I still have a little pain and soreness, but that's expected. Nothing that's going to hinder me from playing tomorrow, though.”

Early in the season, she might have been the outlier by showing toughness in not allowing an injury to stop her. Now she’s merely the best example.

“I feel like we became a tough team,” Epps said. “There's been times in a couple games where we haven't shown toughness. We were on a three-game losing streak and we weren't tough in that period. But I think as of now we're very tough, a tougher team than we were.”

That’s a good thing, because UK wouldn’t have much of a chance against Washington otherwise.

“The tougher team will win,” Janee Thompson said. “I do think we're a tough team. I think as far as tenacity and resilience goes, I think we have those qualities, and I think they've come because of some of the adversity that we've gotten through during the season. So I think we're ready to play and we're just ready to outwork the opponent.”

If Thompson and Epps sound a lot like their coach, it’s no accident. It’s a season-long trend, not to mention the reason why Mitchell is confident heading into the Sweet 16.

“Our team has shown a great ability to focus on the task at hand and to really lock in,” Mitchell said. “When I have different friends of mine that come and visit practice, old coaching friends of mine who aren't coaching anymore but come in and watch some practice, all year long they've talked about this is a very focused group. They listen to everything that you say.”