LEXINGTON — The No. 9-ranked Kentucky Wildcats had to overcome the ghost of lofty expectations, the ghost of a two-game losing skid and a young, but talented, Missouri team Sunday afternoon at Memorial Coliseum.
Coach Matthew Mitchell’s team rode double-digit scoring from five players and double-digit rebounding from senior Samarie Walker to an 80-69 win over Missouri’s Tigers in front of 5,279 fans.
Kentucky improved to 14-3 overall and 2-2 in the Southeastern Conference, while the Tigers dropped to 13-4 and 2-2.
Mitchell was worried about his team’s psyche Sunday after throwing away a game one week earlier against unranked Florida (73-83) and then losing, 68-59, Thursday night at 10th-ranked South Carolina.
In addition, the Wildcats were missing senior leader Kastine Evans Sunday to nagging knee pain and had another senior leader, Bernisha Pinkett, limited to two minutes, also because of a painful knee.
Mitchell said he didn’t know the exact prognosis for the knee woes of Evans and Pinkett, though he expected both players back this week.
“I want to compliment our players today for playing an incredibly tough game and getting a really significant win for us,” Mitchell said. “We needed it badly. We certainly weren’t at full strength today, and they pulled together and beat a really good Missouri team.”
Junior swing player Bria Goss stepped up for Kentucky with arguably her best game of the season, leading the way with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Goss also played a key role defensively in the second half, limiting Missouri senior forward Bri Kulas. The 6-1 Kulas finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, but she had just seven points and five boards in the second half after Mitchell challenged Goss to slow Kulas.
“I am telling you, you just have no idea how nervous I was before the game,” Mitchell said when asked about Goss’ critical role. “Just with where our psyche was after the two losses, and we were not at full speed. I just thought we really needed Bria Goss to have a big game.”
“Before the game, I brought the team together and said, ‘Look, we’re down another player (Evans), which means everyone has to step up,”’ Goss said. “Not just me. I knew that my teammates were going to step up.”
Sophomore guard Janee Thompson came on as the game wore on and finished with 16 points and six assists.
DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes, Jennifer O’Neill added 11 points, and Walker scored 10 points and had another dominating game on the glass, pulling down 13 rebounds.
Kentucky needed nearly all of that.
The Wildcats started the game tentative and fell behind, 24-16, 13 minutes into the contest.
Mitchell called a timeout at that point.
“I just told them that we were playing like we were scared to lose,” Mitchell said. “It’s been an amazing thing to watch as a coach. You are kind of rolling along there at 13-1, and you have a couple bad games and all of a sudden everybody thinks they are a bad player.
“I just called the timeout and just really got into Janee Thompson. I thought she missed three or four shots early, and she started hanging her head. Missouri stood in the paint, five people in the paint, and somebody at some point was going to have to hit a 15-footer. Somebody was going to have to stop worrying about being scared about losing the game and step up.”
“Once he said that, I think that really picked me up and gave me confidence,” Thompson said. “We were just rolling from there.”
Indeed. Kentucky rebounded to surge ahead 37-31 at halftime, and generally controlled the rest of the way.
The Wildcats are off until Sunday when they play at Auburn. They return home to play Alabama Jan. 23.
Mitchell sounds like a relieved man going into this week.
“We needed this win today just for our psyche,” he said. “I thought I probably took the loss last Sunday way too hard, and that probably affected the team some. Then, Thursday night ... that’s just going to happen over there (at USC).
“We were just a little bit low and down, so the win was significant just to hopefully get our minds back to understanding that we have a lot of talent, we’re a good team, and we just have to play hard and stick together.”