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UK Hoops Earns No. 4 Seed in SEC Tournament




March 6, 2014

LEXINGTON, Ky. -  For the fifth consecutive season, the Kentucky women's basketball team earned a first-round bye with the No. 4 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Wildcats are preparing to square off against the winner of Florida (No. 5 seed) and Mississippi State (No. 13 seed) in the quarterfinals Friday, March 7 at 2:30 p.m. EST at the Arena at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. The game will be carried live on SportsSouth/Fox Sports Southwest/Sun Sports, ESPN3 and the UK IMG Sports Network (radio) with Neil Price.

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SEC Tournament
Kentucky vs. Florida
Friday, March 7 - 2:30 p.m. ET
Duluth, Ga.
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Fans can follow Twitter updates on @UKHoopCats and use hashtag #BeSECWBB to talk about the game.

Florida (18-11, 8-8 SEC) earned the fifth seed after falling to Texas A&M in its regular-season finale on Sunday, 83-72. Mississippi State, which defeated Missouri on Wednesday night, 73-70, in a thrilling back-and-forth game, is the 13th seed after finishing 19-12 overall, 5-11 in the SEC.

"We're always excited this time of year to go compete in the SEC Tournament," UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It's a fantastic event. I've always said if you win this tournament, you've identified yourself as a very, very good basketball team. We'll have to play well and play hard and see if we can keep advancing in the tournament. We would love to win it and we're going to go down there with the mindset to win it and the players have had two good practices here before we head down this afternoon, so we're really excited to go down there to get ready to play."

UK holds a slight, 25-24, lead over Florida in the overall series despite dropping both games against the Gators in the regular season. The Wildcats fell, 83-73, in Lexington on Jan. 5 and lost, 86-80, in Gainesville on Feb. 9.

UK is 4-2 vs. the Gators when playing in the SEC Tournament. The Cats' last matchup against the Gators in the SEC Tournament was in Nashville, Tenn., in 2012. UK won, 71-67, in the quarterfinals.

UK leads the all-time series with Mississippi State, 23-17, and won the lone meeting between the teams this season in Starkville, Miss., 81-74, in overtime.

UK is also 4-2 vs. the Bulldogs when playing in the SEC Tournament. The last matchup came in 2010 in Duluth, Ga., with UK winning, 76-65, in the semifinals.

Overall, Kentucky is 27-35 in the SEC Tournament, including 11-12 in quarterfinal games. UK has finished in the top four of the SEC standings six out of Matthew Mitchell's seven seasons and has earned a first-round bye in seven of the last nine tournaments, including five in a row.

A balanced scoring attack as helped Kentucky chart its school-record fifth straight 20-win season. All-SEC second team members Jennifer O'Neill (Bronx, N.Y.) and DeNesha Stallworth (Richmond, Calif.) lead the way with 13.0 and 11.9 points per game, respectively. Senior forward Samarie Walker (West Carrollton, Ohio) follows with 9.3 ppg and is UK's leading rebounder with 8.8 rebounds per game, which ranks fourth in the SEC.  She also has 19 career double-doubles, including eight this season which ties for fourth in the SEC. Narrowly missing the double-digit scoring mark is junior guard Bria Goss (9.9), sophomore point guard Janee Thompson (9.2), and senior guard Kastine Evans (8.8).

Additional information on the tournament, including game times and online ticket links, can be found at www.secsports.com.

Media Opportunity - March 5, 2014

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell

Opening statement ...
Well, we're always excited this time of year to go compete in the SEC Tournament. It's a fantastic event. I've always said if you win this tournament, you've identified yourself as a very, very good basketball team. We'll have to play well and play hard and see if we can keep advancing in the tournament. We would love to win it and we're going to go down there with the mindset to win it and the players have had two good practices here before we head down this afternoon, so we're really excited to go down there to get ready to play."

On the team's ability to change in the last six games ...
"We'll find out. I think right now where my mind is, is they have certainly shown an ability to change and you know I think there was a lot of expectations placed on our team. We certainly embraced those at the beginning of the season, so when you go through some of the struggles that we went through, as a coach, I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to change or make the necessary changes. I think it shows a lot about our players, their character and how hard they worked and really, really proud of this group. We've learned a lot, but I think that would be the biggest thing is it would have been very easy for us to say, `Hey, we've had injuries, the ball is not going in the basket or we're suffering bad breaks' and play the excuse game. We just all got in a room and people were honest and people were also intent on listening and making the necessary changes. It's been from a coaching standpoint very gratifying to see that happen and no matter what happens from this point on, that shows this group has some special qualities about it."

On what is different from this team and what they're doing better ...
"Well, you know, two of our losses against Alabama and Georgia, our defense was probably good enough. You would have thought our defense was good enough to win and I thought in those, people were really hoping others would make a play that would win it. I really thought the weight of the expectations and the gravity of the situation was at its greatest at those points in time, You go back and look at those games and we were not a team that was looking to make plays at that point in time. And then you flip that to the Tennessee or the Texas A&M game and it was the opposite. Just players playing without fear, mistakes, playing through and I thought this all along - our attitude was different playing at our best then when we're playing not to lose or `oh my gosh, we're supposed to be go great and it's not going great, so now I'm down and discouraged.' I think that's been the biggest thing for me, is players having the character to step up in some big moments when a lot is on the line and put all that aside and play basketball. That's what they did in Knoxville and College Station. I'd say that was the biggest difference."

On when he realized the team was in disarray on the court ...
"When I evaluate myself, I don't think I did a good job of seeing the signs or being able to tell after 11-0. And then the Duke loss, I sort of wrote off to it was final exam week, they just came out a little bit flat, and you wish they hadn't, but they had really performed pretty well up to that point. It was interesting. The Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, we didn't play great defense down there, but Alabama has done that to us before. We've won some 80-72 games down there before, so when we came out against Florida and we just didn't look like we were ready to go and ready to play, that sort of caught me off guard and I thought that was the beginning of the snowball going down the hill. And so I didn't see that as a coach, so I need to learn from that. I worked really hard to try and go back and evaluate how we got to that spot. So I grew a lot from that spot as a coach through adversity. You know, it's been tough. The thing that's tough on me emotionally, is you want the players to succeed. I say this all the time. It's hard to understand how hard these young women work. They show up in June and they are four mornings a week up at 5:30 a.m., while their classmates are sleeping in in the summer. They just work so hard and to have such a great start, and you're thinking No. 1 seed in the tournament and you're just thinking everything is going to be great and then you go through something like this, you just feel bad for the players and you see how much pressure they're putting on themselves and it was hard trying to figure all of that out. But, it was gratifying on the backside. I just can't tell you how proud I am of the team and doing what they did down the stretch. It's been a tough regular season, but I think one that is valuable now for us people and certainly for us in the future."

On if the problems were solely on the floor, or off the court as well ...
"I couldn't get figured out things on the floor. You can't touch the offense, but the offense can touch you. And so, we've had a struggle at guarding legally and that's my part for not figuring that out beforehand. But, it did change. We go 11-0 against some really good teams and then it sort of changed a little bit. There are three people out threw who are watching it and they're trained professionals, so they know more about it than I do, but, we have not been able to be the defensive team the way I thought we would be the way I wanted them to be that. Now, I've had to change, and they looked really good this morning in some defenses that we wouldn't normally see a typical Kentucky team playing and so they're real good defenders, but I was slow to change there and that's totally on me and my fault. But, the good news is we have time to see if we can play our best basketball and we're going to have to play it differently than the way I set out this season, and that's another great lesson. You've got to figure out how this, and I say this and people sort of dismiss this, but you've got to start over ever year and you've got to figure out how this team can play and we just could not get the full-court press going this year and that's a poor job of me coaching and it's a poor job of me adjusting to the way the game is being called, and I thought that was going to be a real, real weapon. So you look at all of our numbers, and that was a big part of our production and we only turned people over - well, it's still a good number - but we only turn people about 18 times a game in-conference, but for us, we were turning teams over 23 and 24 (times), so that's a significant change."

On when he realized he had problems and needed to change ...
"Well, I just finally had to after the South Carolina game. What would happen is we would play great man-to-man against LSU an then we would not at Florida. But we had a week in-between, and they looked good in practice and I thought we were so up and down, but the South Carolina game, you know, we've got to do something different. We have to do something different when we see a team like that, and we may see them in Atlanta and we have to play differently than we did out here and that's totally on me and I have to get that done. A lot of it to me is on the court. They had their best academic semester in the fall. People have bad days and I have bad days, but we don't have anybody getting into trouble and disrespecting people a whole lot. We are not perfect, but these are good kids, and I think it's been a basketball situation. Just a huge, huge part of that is their leadership, and it's been a tough year."

On whether the pressure of expectations affected this team ...
"Well, it's hard for me to know. It's possible. I'll you what I think. Maybe this team didn't have their normal weapons available, alright. So you think about a kid like Samarie Walker, who's been playing the way she's been playing here for four years. Kastine Evans, all these kids have been playing a certain way and the expectations were there and what they've done over the last three, four, five years, what's coming home to roost is that people are jacked up and ready to roll to play Kentucky because they knew it was going to be an absolute war and you were going to have to run for your life and you may beat us but it was going to be wild in the game. And I've noticed this now: People are excited when they beat us and that is something that I don't know whether we've done a bad job there or whether it's just the progress of our program, but I don't that our kids understood what a win against them actually would be. And then they didn't have their regular bag of tricks there to dig themselves out of a hole and we just lost some games that I didn't think we should lose. But people are so fired up. So that's a credit to the people that have come before us and have laid that foundation, but I don't know that we've particularly responded to that very well and that's another lesson that I've learned, is that I have to--you're told all the time as a coach you can't assume things, you can't make assumptions and I've heard that, heard that and I just am afraid that maybe I assumed that everybody understood what they game meant to other side. And I don't know that now looking back on it that I did a good job explaining that. So that's another lesson that they'll have explained to them next season. I think they understand now we've gotta play hard, but I hope that answered your question."

On whether the adversity UK faced this season can help the team in tournament play ...
"Yeah, I think we just need to go down with the attitude that we're just going to play together and we're going to play our best. It's a hard tournament to win. Only one team's going to win it. And not going down that we have to win the tournament to be a successful team. They've already shown me that they're a team. You can't do what they've done and you'll never be able to convince me that these kids aren't a team. So that's what I'm preaching to them right now. We're going to go down there and we're going to try to be the tightest, most together team at the tournament and we're not going to worry about anybody else and we're just try to go out and have a very good game plan for Friday afternoon, whoever that is, and play our hearts out and see where that gets us. If that gets us to Saturday, that'll be great. If it doesn't, we will figure out what we need to do to be ready for the NCAA Tournament. And we're playing it here at Memorial Coliseum and we're excited about it. So that was my message to them this morning. We're going to try to be the most together basketball team we can be down there and we're going to play 40 minutes as hard as we can Friday afternoon and see where that leads us."

On how he thought the changes in rules emphasis would affect his team ...
"It's just typical of me. I'm just wildly optimistic about things and I just think things are going to go great and I just thought we were going to be at advantage because I kept hearing people say, `Hey, you gotta back off, you gotta back off.' And so what we did is we worked so hard. We worked harder on our footwork and harder than we ever have because we weren't going to change. We brought in officials before the year. They said, `Gosh, you guys look great.' And so what my only problem with it is is that we are in legal guarding position and the offense runs into you and pushes you off or runs over you and it's a defensive foul. And so we don't have a lot of bullets in our gun right there as far as pressure because the kids can still pressure but now they get so concerned about it. I've thought we would have a better handle on that and maybe I'm just totally off base and don't understand the rules but I was very optimistic that we were still going to be able to play real extreme pressure defense and trap and press and all that. And we just haven't been able to do that and so we're going to try to approach it from a different way going forward in the short period of time--it's not going to be radically changed, but it's different than what we've been doing and we'll just see how that goes. But after the season, there's no question I've gotta take a very strong look at how we play going forward. If this continues, it's going to impact my thought process dramatically."

On whether he's playing more zone to get his freshmen on the floor more ...
"We're playing more zone, you know, because we're playing some zone (laughter) and we used to play no zone. So we're playing a lot more zone. But this morning, Linnae Harper got a great steal in a zone look and she's just more comfortable with that right now. She and Makayla (Epps) both, the only way I can explain it: To me it seems like they're in an open stance and they just can see more and they can react more and they can--and I think both of those players have worked very hard on their footwork. Both of those players are going to be very good man-to-man defenders before they leave Kentucky. I'm not concerned about it. I'm saying right now at this moment in time they're a little bit better and more productive and more disruptive as zone players. If they play just a little bit of zone, just helps them a little bit."

On whether the parity of the SEC will show in tournament play ...
"Yeah, I think so. I think that there's a good chance that the top four seeds hold and that's who you see on Saturday. You could see that. But I think the Friday games will be wild. I think tonight's going to be two terrific games. I think they're going to be terrific games tonight. I really do. And I think for us the Friday game's the toughest one because the team's gotten to play the night before and they're just sort of into a little bit more. I think these Thursday games are going to be tough because these two teams on Wednesday have had a chance to play. So you look at the scores and you look at who's beaten who and what's happened and everything, it would suggest that any number of teams could emerge as the champion. And so I would agree with them (Georgia coach Andy Landers and Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb) that it's very competitive and it's going to be a good tournament."

On the benefit of playing on Friday ...
"I don't think there's question about that. When you can play on Friday, that is really, really big. And those Friday games are tough and sometimes you don't make it out of Friday but I'm going to tell you now: If I had a chance to play Friday every time, that's the way to win the tournament history suggests is to play on Friday, that be your first game. And when we were 4-4 and 5-5, I mean, we're looking at eighth or 10th or 14th. There's just all sorts of directions we could have gone and even after we got beat so bad on Thursday night by South Carolina and you're staring a Texas A&M that hadn't lost but twice and you gotta go on the road. This team could have gone in a number of different directions and landed in different spots. For them to punch through and get to the top four, it's big-time and it's a tremendous opportunity for them to win the tournament by getting to that Friday game being their first game. You still have to go out and play and beat somebody, but there's no doubt that's where you want to be in my mind."

On why tournament play is so unpredictable ...
"Well, I think a lot of it is how a team's playing at a time. It's a long time since you've played some of these teams so it's how everybody's playing. It's how people are feeling that particular day, players and then other people too that are involved in the game, how that all happens to pan out. It's just a lot of variables there. And then I think players react differently to a tournament atmosphere. It's maybe a different emotion when you lose this game you're out. I think that players react differently to that situation. There's so many variables going on and so little time to prepare and so it makes it interesting and I just think it's a great, great tournament. I love the SEC Tournament. It would be a big, big deal for us to win it, I can tell you that."


 

 

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