UK Hoops Hits the Road for SEC Opener at Auburn
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The No. 7 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team is set to open its 37th season of Southeastern Conference play when it travels to Auburn, Ala., on Jan. 3 to take on the Auburn Tigers at 3 p.m. ET in Auburn Arena. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network+, which is available exclusively on SECNetwork.com and on WatchESPN via computers, smartphones and tablets. The game can also be heard live on UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price.
The Wildcats (11-0) are off to one of the best starts in program history after ending 2015 with a record tied for the most consecutive victories to open up a campaign. UK looks to not only extend that record, but also seeks its fifth straight SEC-opening win and its eighth consecutive win against Auburn. Since joining the SEC in the 1982-83 season, the Wildcats are 17-16 in SEC openers, including 7-12 on the road. This is the seventh time in nine seasons under head coach Matthew Mitchell that the Wildcats have opened conference play on the road. Under Mitchell, Kentucky is 5-3 in conference openers, including 3-3 on the road.
“We have had a good run here in the nonconference and have played some really challenging opponents and have made some progress with our basketball team,” remarked Mitchell on his team’s success prior to the SEC opener. “Now, it is time to go test ourselves against some of the best teams in the country and it will be tough in the Southeastern Conference.”
Last year, Kentucky hosted Auburn on Jan. 8, 2015 inside Memorial Coliseum, with the Wildcats securing a 78-57 victory. The last time the two teams squared off at Auburn was on Jan. 19, 2014, when UK held off an Auburn upset and escaped with a 73-71 win over the Tigers.
Since joining the SEC, Kentucky has never finished the non-conference regular season portion of the schedule with an unblemished record. In the first 11 games, UK has taken down two ranked opponents in then-No. 15 Arizona State, 68-64 in overtime on the road, and No. 13/11 Duke, 71-61 inside Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats currently have all five of their starters averaging 10-or-more points per game. Preseason All-SEC First Team member Makayla Epps leads the way with 16.6 ppg, which ranks sixth in the SEC, along with 63 total assists to rank fourth in the league. Senior Janee Thompson has dished out the most assists for the Wildcats, with 65, and is second on the team in scoring with 13.7 ppg. Right behind the guard duo is Evelyn Akhator with 12.0 ppg and 10.5 rebounds per game. Her rebounding tally leads the SEC, as she is the only player in the league and just one of 29 players in the nation averaging a double-double.
Rounding out the double-digit scorers for the Wildcats are Maci Morris and Alexis Jennings, who are both putting up an average of 10.2 ppg. Jennings is second on the team in rebounds, with 6.5, and Morris has been a mainstay from beyond the arc for the Blue and White with at least one made 3-pointer in each of the 11 contests this year.
Auburn, which is receiving votes in the latest USA Today/Coaches Poll, enters Sunday’s game with a 10-3 record, including a 4-1 mark at home. The Tigers had won four straight games prior to falling at Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 52-45. Auburn’s other two losses came at the hands of Virginia (69-52) and Marquette (70-69).
Brandy Montgomery leads the team in scoring, averaging 17.8 ppg with 32 assists and 4.2 rpg. Tra’Cee Tanner adds 13.8 ppg and a team-best 8.5 rpg to go with 13 blocks and 22 steals. As a team, Auburn is averaging 70.7 points per game while limiting opponents to an average of just 59.2 points. The Tigers are shooting 43.7% from the field and 29.7% from 3-point land, while holding opponents to a .372 clip from the field and forcing an average of 21 turnovers per game.
At the helm of Auburn’s program is Terri Williams-Flournoy, who has amassed a 61-51 record in her four years as the head coach of the Tigers and a career record of 204-155.
“Auburn is a very, very aggressive defensive team,” noted Mitchell. “They cause a lot of problems with their pressure defense and turn their opponents over a lot. They really come at you with a lot of pressure so it will be a big challenge for us to go on the road and try to handle that. Offensively, they have a great 1-2 punch with Tanner inside and Montgomery outside and four of their starters are in double figures so they can definitely score, and Tanner is probably the most powerful post player we have seen this year so we will really have to be tough inside in the paint. That is what we have tried to do all year and that is what we will try to do in Southeastern Conference play.”
Despite winning the past seven straight matchups against Auburn, Kentucky trails in the all-time series, 19-25. Since taking over the program in the 2007-08 season, Mitchell has led Kentucky to a 10-2 record against Auburn, with the last loss coming in a 65-53 setback on Feb. 28, 2010 in Auburn.
For more information on the Kentucky women’s basketball team, visit UKathletics.com or follow @UKHoopCats on Twitter and Instagram, or Kentucky Women’s Basketball on Facebook.
Head Coach Matthew Mitchell Pre-Auburn News Conference
“Happy New Year, everyone. It is good to be with you and we are excited to get Southeastern Conference play started. We have had a good run here in the nonconference and have played some really challenging opponents and have made some progress with our basketball team. Now, it is time to go test ourselves against some of the best teams in the country and it will be tough in the Southeastern Conference. Auburn is a very, very aggressive defensive team. They cause a lot of problems with their pressure defense and turn their opponents over a lot. They really come at you with a lot of pressure so it will be a big challenge for us to go on the road and try to handle that. Offensively, they have a great 1-2 punch with (Tra’Cee) Tanner inside and (Brandy) Montgomery outside and four of their starters are in double figures so they can definitely score and Tanner is probably the most powerful post players we have seen this year so we will really have to be tough inside in the paint. That is what we have tried to do all year and that is what we will try to do in Southeastern Conference play. We will really have to take care of the ball and be tough in the paint and tough on the boards. Auburn is a great, great offensive rebounding team. So big challenge to get it started and we are going to work hard here in the next couple of days to see if we can get ready for a good Auburn team.”
On if having three point guards helps against a tough defensive team like Auburn …
“Yeah, it needs to. We need to do a really good job of taking care of the ball and Janee is 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover and Epps is almost 3-to-1 and Taylor is positive as well, so those are important players for us against a team that likes to press and trap. I think what you have to do is prepare really well and make sure you don’t get into places where Auburn wants you to get in the corners of the court, coming across the half court line and the corners are really dangerous spots to hold the ball. Dribbling the ball against them is problematic because they are so great at digging out the dribble. I think preparation is the main key, making sure our good ball handlers and our good point guards know how to attack it because it is something we will need to be prepared for.”
On the team’s offensive rebounding …
“We are trying to work on our rebounding. I am happy that we are shooting the ball well because we spent a lot of time on it, but I have not been able to, as of yet, to get our rebounding mentality to the point to where I would like for it to be. So we have really addressed rebounding a lot and still trying to shoot and make sure that we are always dedicated to that because I think it is important. It is just our mentality. And that is my job as a coach, I have to get our mentality better. In years past, we have sent four (players) to the boards and have been a pretty good offensive rebounding team. In some respects you are right, we had a lot more rebounds to get on offense then because we are shooting almost 10 points higher than we were last year on offense. We need to keep shooting it well, but we have to do a better job on the boards.”
On having a player like Makenzie Cann around and her impact on the team this season …
“There are a few things that make Makenzie Cann important to our basketball team. First of all, she is exactly what we want in a player in terms of how good a person she is. She is an outstanding person. She comes in every single day very consistent with a great attitude and a great effort and that is No. 1. She has just a tremendous attitude and tremendous effort and great work ethic and is very smart. You don’t have to tell her a 1,000 times to do something, I have really noticed that about her. She really is extremely coachable and takes the information and transfers it out on the court very quickly. I think the greatest thing about her is just her selfless attitude. She is a very low maintenance person and she just comes in and works every day. She makes our basketball team so much better because she competes in practice and all those little things that we value she has embraced and she just brings it every day. We would be in a world of hurt if we didn’t have her in so many ways. I wish she could play this year and I wish everybody else knew what I know that we would not be nearly as good of a team as we are now without Makenzie Cann and her effort and her contribution. She is a major part of this team that no one will ever see unless they come to a practice.”
On him not recruiting Makenzie Cann when she was in high school and if her working hard every day is her way of proving him wrong …
“She is a lot smarter than I am, I can promise you that. Maybe she is doing that. But, no, another compliment to her is that she does not rub it in or throw it into my face. She comes in every day with just a great attitude and great work ethic and she is appreciative of the opportunity. She told me when she got here that she felt like she could make a contribution and she is making a huge contribution for our team.”
On the team starting the season 11-0 …
“Listen, it would be great and I wish we could start every season 11-0 and I would like to win them all. I can tell you that I am just really proud of our team because we have gone through a bit of adversity and I don’t know if people expected us to be here. I didn’t know what to exactly expect from the team, but once we started working everyday it’s a hard working group and I am hoping we can keep a great attitude and great effort and be a high-character team that busts it every day and gets prepared and prepares well and see what we can do. I would be thrilled to be 12-0 because that means we beat Auburn and are off to a 1-0 start in the league. There is really not anything right now more important to us than getting ready for a really good Auburn team on the road. It has always been tough for us down there. It would be awfully special if we could beat Auburn because 12-0 would be 1-0 in the conference.”