Kentucky women's basketball in a good place coming into this season

By Brian Rickerd, Published:

LEXINGTON — University of Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell shot right to the big picture Tuesday with his opening remarks at his team’s annual media day.

“I was down in Birmingham last week for (Southeastern Conference) media day, and we were doing some promotional work to promote women’s basketball, and during one of the commercials, the league asked me to describe myself in one word,” Mitchell began.

“So my mind started racing, and I started thinking, how would others describe me? I thought about how (his wife) Jenna would describe me in one word, and I quickly moved on because I don’t want to use that.

“Then I started thinking about how my players might describe me, and words like crazy, nuts, not that smart ... that’s three words, so I moved on from all that.”

Mitchell said he finally landed on the word “grateful.”

“I would describe myself this morning as very, very grateful to have a seventh opportunity to coach the Kentucky Wildcats,” he said. “I thank God for that. There’s just no way I would be here and have had the opportunities I have had at Kentucky without the strength that God has provided me, and my family and the people in this program.”

Mitchell then added a “quick, personal update.”

“We had a little baby, Presley Blue, six pounds, 12 ounces, future shooting guard at Kentucky, if they don’t fire me before then,” said Mitchell, who is the father of two other daughters: Lacy and Saylor. “She is doing well. Jenna is doing well. Our family is just so blessed.

“Things,” Mitchell summed up, “are really good.”

Yes, they are. Mitchell’s Wildcats are coming off their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, including three Elite Eight appearances.

Kentucky was 30-6 last season, finishing as runner-up to Tennessee in the SEC regular-season race and second to Texas A&M in the conference tournament.

That runner-up theme, unfortunately, continued in the NCAA Tournament, with the Wildcats losing big to Connecticut (83-53) in the East Region Final.

That was the second straight year that UConn’s Huskies ripped UK in a regional final. It was 80-65 in the East final in 2011-12.

In 2009-10, Oklahoma beat UK 88-68 at the Elite Eight stage of the tournament.

So if you’re wondering what Kentucky has to do to get over this hump, trust me, Mitchell has spent more time than anyone wondering the same thing.

The answer is twofold. No. 1, keep signing high-level national talent, which Mitchell and his staff continue to do.

But Mitchell said Tuesday that what his teams have lacked these last couple of seasons has been offensive execution, primarily in the half court.

The Wildcats have made a living with full-court pressure defense, turning that into instant offense, but against elite teams like Connecticut, Stanford, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Louisville, and so on, UK has had to rely more on half-court offense, and the results have been spotty.

“The last two years we’ve lost to Connecticut, who is a very good defensive team and also a very good offensive team,” Mitchell said. “I just didn’t feel like in either one of those games, we did as well as we could offensively.”

The problem, Mitchell said, is the Huskies’ defensive pressure rattled his Wildcats.

“I thought a lot of it, particularly last year, was our lack of poise in that position, leading to some bad shots, which really fueled their offense,” he said. “Their transition offense is really where they killed us, and I think more of a product of us not playing poor defense, but playing poor offense and taking bad shots.

“We scored a bunch of points last year against some good teams, but we’ve been there at the precipice of the Final Four three times now, and in all three games, I felt like our offensive execution could have been better. So I think trying to pay a little bit extra attention to offensive execution will serve this team well. So that’s been our goal.”

Mitchell did not elaborate on what the offense will look like this season, though junior point guard Jennifer O’Neill hinted it will not be the racehorse variety we’re used to seeing.

“We’re learning a new offense right now, and it’s taking time to get adjusted because it’s new,” O’Neill said. “It will benefit us because it’s changing the way we play as far as pace and not just going 100 miles per hour the whole time.”

The Wildcats appear to have the personnel to play any way they like.

Standout swing player A’dia Mathies is gone to the WNBA, but nearly all the other key components return, led by seniors Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth and junior Azia Bishop in the low post, and an imposing group of who can seamlessly rotate between guard and forward.

The other returnees include O’Neill, seniors Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett, junior Bria Goss and sophomore Janee Thompson in the backcourt.

Mitchell also has three of the top recruits in the country on board: Linnae Harper, the No. 2 rated prep guard in the nation a year ago, out of Chicago; 5-10 swing player Makayla Epps, one of the most accomplished prep players ever to come out of Kentucky, and 6-1 forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who, like Epps, is a former star at Marion County High School.

Kentucky hosts Eckerd College in an exhibition Nov. 3 at 1 p.m., then goes on a two-game road swing to New York, playing at Marist Nov. 8 and Wagner Nov. 10, before returning for a three-game home swing, beginning with Georgia Southern Nov. 13.

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