LEXINGTON — It may be too soon to suggest the 15th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats are back on a glory road off Sunday’s surprising, 75-71, win at No. 10 Tennessee, but Matthew Mitchell’s team appears to be at least back on the entrance ramp.
And it may not be too strong to suggest the Wildcats will be back in the women’s basketball fast lane if they can beat No. 4-ranked South Carolina at 7 tonight at Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky brings a record of 19-6 overall and 7-5 in the Southeastern Conference into play against the Gamecocks, who are 23-2 overall and 11-1 in SEC play.
“They should be playing with a lot of confidence,” Mitchell said Wednesday about his players, who are 3-1 in February after a rough, 4-4, January. “I was real impressed with our maturity Sunday. We had a lot of possessions when we were patient and didn’t panic, and that’s a really good sign for us.”
Mitchell said he, his coaching staff and the players all did some soul searching after a disappointing January — a period topped by a 57-55 home loss to lowly Alabama Jan. 23.
“We were just in a really bad mental and emotional place where we weren’t all pulling in the same direction,” Mitchell said of the slump. “We had different people discouraged for different reasons. It was just sort of a collection of talented players, and it was none of them playing particularly well or pulling in the same direction.”
Mitchell said he saw a turnaround coming before the Tennessee win.
“It was building long before that,” he said. “I thought we did a really good job to beat LSU (Feb. 4), and a lot of work after that that didn’t show up in the Florida game (86-80 loss Feb. 9).
“To everybody’s credit, we were able to assess where we were honestly, and the players gave feedback and coaches gave feedback to the players, and everybody is pulling together to try to be the best we can be. We didn’t handle January very well, but they’ve certainly put themselves in position to show how good they can be.”
Junior forward Bria Goss said Mitchell and his staff have reached out recently to build a better relationship with the players.
“We’re doing a lot of different activities off the court, and I think that’s really helping,” Goss said. “We were close off the court as a team before, but we really weren’t close with the coaches. Now the coaches are doing stuff with us, and really showing us they want to be part of our lives.”
No matter how much goodwill the Wildcats may feel, South Carolina will be a tall order. Literally. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in blocked shots per game, at 7.1 blocks per game.
South Carolina also leads the league in shooting percentage at 48.7 and is second to Arkansas in scoring defense, surrendering just 54 points per game.
Alaina Coates, a 6-foot-4 freshman, leads the Gamecocks in rebounding at 7.8 rebounds per game, followed by 6-foot junior Aleighsa Welch at 7.6 rpg.
Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell leads the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game.
“This won’t be a real fancy game,” Mitchell said. “They are real tough and tenacious, and that’s what we want to be. I just think the team that’s tougher and has a good shooting night will come out on top.”
Kentucky goes on the road Sunday to battle No. 13-rated Texas A&M.
Texas A&M is one of just two teams to beat South Carolina this season — 67-65 in overtime on Jan. 16.
South Carolina’s only other loss was Dec. 18, 74-66, to 11th-ranked North Carolina.
UK NOTES: Junior guard Jennifer O’Neill has been named the SEC player of the week after averaging 25.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in wins over Ole Miss (108-78) and Tennessee ... Texas A&M is second to South Carolina in the SEC race, with a 10-2 conference mark. Tennessee is third at 9-3 in league play, followed by UK, LSU and Florida, all at 7-5 ... 12 of the 14 SEC teams have realistic hopes for an NCAA Tournament berth. Only Ole Miss at 1-11 in conference and Alabama at 11-14 rate as NCAA long shots.