UK Seniors Solidfying Legacy as Season's End Approaches

When No. 2 South Carolina makes its way to Lexington on March 1, the stakes will be much higher for No. 13 Kentucky than a typical rematch with the toughest opponent on the Wildcats’ schedule.

Sunday’s game marks the last time seniors Jennifer O’Neill, Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, and Jelleah Sidney will ever take the floor at Memorial Coliseum. However, because of their accomplishments off the court, as well as on it, head coach Matthew Mitchell believes their legacy will live in UK lore forever.

“We are excited for the game and excited for Senior Day,” Mitchell said. “The seniors have had a great week, and in my mind, have really solidified their standing in this program, and how they’ll be remembered for the job they did this week. Not just winning the game (Thursday at Arkansas), but the responsibility that they took on, and the passion that they have for the program, and the insight that they gave me to help coach the team better.”

After rattling off three straight wins, the Cats dropped three in a row at the hands of No. 6 Tennessee (in Knoxville), at home versus No. 15 Texas A&M, and on the road at Ole Miss. Before Kentucky’s latest contest with the Razorbacks, UK’s four seniors organized a private meeting with their head coach to discuss the state of the program and the prospect of administering adjustments before the season comes to an end.

“As a coach, you’re trying to give your players the ability to grow up and be adults, and do what they need to do and learn,” said Mitchell. “You don’t want to be such a taskmaster all of the time, but that’s what this particular group needed right now. (They were) kind of down in a funk and on a downward spiral.”

Mitchell’s seniors realized the team was headed toward a negative trajectory, so they made sure their concerns were vocalized.

“They basically said, ‘Hey, listen. If you don’t step in here and really shake this thing up, and let people know this is a serious deal, I don’t think it’s going to change,’ ” Mitchell said. “Nobody was acting up, nobody was acting ugly, nobody was out late at night partying. It was just young kids lacking focus. We need to mature as a basketball team, and I needed to take a greater role of how the structure of the day has unfolded.”

It wasn’t the content of Tuesday’s impromptu meeting that had Mitchell so taken aback with the leadership of his four seniors, but rather the initiative the group showed by calling the meeting in the first place.

“It’s not anything earthshattering,” said Mitchell. “I just think it’s more powerful. At this point of the season, they could have just said, ‘Hey, I’m out the door here in 30 days, and I’ve had a good run. We’ve won the SEC, and we’ve been a championship-caliber program,’ and just rolled off into the sunset. But, they care enough to say, ‘Hey, Coach, we need a little bit more structure. We need to get focused.’ It was just more of them taking that simple act of responsibility and telling me exactly what I needed to know. That’s what was so special about it.”

Kentucky’s top three contributing seniors— O’Neill, Goss, and Bishop— combined for 34 of UK’s 56 points in the Cats’ win over the Hogs following Tuesday’s consultation. The remarkability of one of the all-time most accomplished senior classes in school history has continued to shine throughout each season over the past four years.

O’Neill came to Kentucky as a consensus top-30 high school prospect and the first McDonald’s All-American in program history. After missing her entire sophomore season in 2011-12 with a right foot stress fracture, O’Neill emerged as a full-time starter in 2012-13 and led the Wildcats to a 27-5 (13-3 SEC) record and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. As a redshirt junior, O’Neill led Kentucky in scoring off the bench (with 12.6 PPG) en route to being named SEC Co-6th Player of the Year and All-SEC Second Team. This year, the 5-foot-6 Bronx native is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 PPG, and leads the Cats in three-point field goals by a large margin.

Named the state of Indiana’s Miss Basketball in 2011, Goss made her presence known upon her arrival in Lexington as a freshman in 2011-12. After starting every game, the 5-foot-10 defensive specialist was named SEC Freshman of the Year on the Wildcats’ road to the Elite Eight. Starting in 56 of UK’s 71 games over the next two seasons, Goss entered 2014-15 as the one of five former McDonald’s All-Americans on the Kentucky roster. The Indianapolis native averages 8.9 PPG and 3.6 RPG on the year.

As a freshman, Bishop led the team in blocked shots with 31, good for fifth most by a freshman in school history. As a junior, she recorded a career-high five blocks in one contest, tied for UK’s sixth most in one game by any player. At 6-3, the Toledo native is the tallest player on Kentucky’s roster. Bishop averages 6.4 PPG and 5.6 RPG on the season, accounting for 48 blocks in 2014-15.

Unlike her three senior colleagues, Sidney is in only her third season in a Kentucky uniform. The former high-school teammate of O’Neill began her collegiate career at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where she averaged 11.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG in 2011-12. Appearing in 57 games as a sophomore and junior, Sidney sealed her Wildcat legacy in the 2013 NCAA Tournament with an outstanding defensive effort on eventual No. 2 overall WNBA Draft selection Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. The 6-2 post player averages two points and 3.4 rebounds in 10.8 minutes per game this season.

When Sunday afternoon’s monstrous matchup with South Carolina is all said and done, Mitchell will remember his latest group of seniors for much more than baskets and rebounds.

“I’ll just remember Tuesday night when they came to my house and let me know what I needed to do,” Mitchell said. “They also let me know what the program has meant to them, and you couldn’t have tripled my bank account, or bought me a new car, or sent me on a vacation, or anything that would have been worth what Tuesday night was. No matter what happens going forward, what happened in that meeting… that solidified their legacy to me. They really, really did a great job and helped me out tremendously.”

Kentucky (20-8, 9-6 SEC) will face South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) March 1 at 5 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gamecocks defeated the Wildcats 68-60 in Columbia, S.C. earlier this season.

“(The seniors) have accomplished a lot,” said Mitchell. “They’re champions. They won an SEC Championship here, won a ton of games, been to an Elite Eight and a Sweet 16. They’ve accomplished a lot on the court, but what they did on Tuesday night was more valuable than anything they could have ever done. They were not only concerned about this season and how we finished, but they were concerned about us going forward and what our young players needed to learn right now so a year from now, they would know what to do and how we needed to be.

“To me, that summed it up for them. So now we are really motivated to try and finish strong, and I think we are capable of that.”