Mitchell previews Missouri

MATTHEW MITCHELL
“Well, we have a very tough game coming up with Missouri. They are a team where their strengths will definitely stretch our defense and we have been working hard this week to make some headway in the area of our defense. We will sure get some sort of indication of how we have done this week because they will test us in every way possible. Very, very tough game coming up on the road and we need to be ready for it and see if we can go over there and earn a victory.”

On what he learned from the LSU game after watching it on tape: “Well, there is no in-between with our team, it is truly a feast or famine proposition. When the energy is not there, we have no chance to make up for some of the mistakes that we are just going to make right now. We are just going to make some mistakes in the post. Our post defenders are – the ones that are learning and the cognitive load is heavy, there is just nothing we can do other than have reps and play games and have them get that down so they are not thinking so much. So people like Azia Bishop, Makayla Epps, Linnae Harper, Jennifer O’Neill, Bria Goss, Jelleah Sidney, those folks have to play at just an unbelievably high level from a consistency stand point so we can maybe get some people rushing themselves so they don’t see some of the openings that are going to be there because our young post is just struggling defensively. So when we can have our veterans play hard enough to disrupt the team we can have some success. We just didn’t play very hard defensively and didn’t pressure the basketball, just all the little things that we need to do to be good we didn’t do. LSU, I think, was very determined and very excited to play so that played a factor in it. I am not trying to discount LSU at all and saying we played poorly. But we didn’t play anywhere close to where we need to play to win games. This team is even at this point, I think, if we can play with great energy the development will come, but you have to win games while you are still developing for us and that will all be about effort and intensity and energy and those kinds of things.”

On how he approached the week of practice with the open date: “Well, we were very displeased and unhappy with the effort and for us we have to make certain that is addressed swiftly and immediately. Before the left the airport after Baton Rouge, we really talked about what the week was going to look like and we really challenged them physically early Tuesday morning with exactly what we were talking about. We showed them on film where just the energy level and the approach to the game did not indicate how important one of these opportunities, you only get 16, and we didn’t look like it was a very precious opportunity. We just tried to do some soul searching this week and figure out what we are going to do. The situation exists as it exists right now and there is no changing the circumstances. The only thing we can change right now is how we are going to deal with these circumstances, what are our actions going to be. We tried to give some consequences to get through to them and also tried to have some dialogue between coach and players and I feel like when we were able to get back to some basketball, I think they responded. I just think this is a year where I am really going to have to do a good job of coaching this group. I am going to have to do a good job of teaching and prodding and accepting some mistakes, while still trying to encourage them to not make some mistakes. It is a fight every day. We have a very good group of young players and we just have to coach them up and they have to play hard. We have tried to address who we are going to be and what kind of effort are we going to give on Sunday and that is really what we are focused in on right now. We are going to have to give a really good effort on Sunday to win.”

On whether defensive issues are mental or physical for the young post players: “Well, you know, it’s interesting. I don’t know if they would give you a different answer. I think that’s part of the struggle right now is that we’re almost speaking different languages. I just—I don’t think it’s one bit physical. I don’t. I’m with them every day. I am intimately involved on the breakdowns and I’m there on the floor with them teaching them the footwork and everything. It’s not like I’m sitting at a 30,000-foot level looking down and kind of making assumptions. I’m there with them and it’s not physical in my mind. They are capable of everything that they need to do and I cannot place my finger on it. My suspicion is or my guess is that they don’t trust their ability to play the way I’m asking them to play. It’s just uncomfortable and I don’t think any of them want to get beat and that’s just the process you have to go through to play here is the understanding that you have to play hard enough and you’ve gotta accept that people are going to go by you some and your teammates are going to pick you up, taking a charge or forcing the ball out or forcing one more pass, whatever our rotation is able to produce. But those—two of them, Kyvin and Alexis—won’t play enough at the high post to put pressure on the defense and so the ball moves too freely. Alyssa is starting to do some things that I think show some more aggressiveness. So that’s good news. And I think that Kyvin and Alexis want to be very good and it’s a matter of me staying with it every day and just going to practice and (saying), ‘That’s a good job. That’s not what we’re looking for.’ Literally from play to play, you just have to coach them. And they’re both—all three of them are going to be very good players before they leave here. We’re trying to get them to be good players right now and, you know, I’ve told the team this: I really believe this, there’s not a game left on our schedule that is an impossibility for us to win. But on the other hand, there’s not a game on the schedule where it’s impossible for the other team to beat us. So it’s really time now where we just have to come intent on improvement every day and see where that lands us over the next 30 days or so. Hopefully we can have some good things happen and we can eventually round into the kind of team we want to be.”

On the progression of Jaycee Coe: “I give her a lot of credit because she unfortunately dug herself into a really deep hole and she was not doing the things that she needed to do to be the kind of player I know she can be. And that the thing here, we do not sugar coat; we don’t tell you anything but the truth. If a player is doing things that are not leading her to success, we tell them. If they continue to do those things and they continue to slide, we just continue to try and tell them, ‘You must do things that are honest, hard working, disciplined, principle based living,’ is what we’re trying to teach them here. Did the car accident have a negative effect? It did from the standpoint of she was out for about a week and she really couldn’t afford to be out a week. It wasn’t a good development for her. So however it affected her emotionally, mentally, physically, I think all of that stuff works together. I really do. She was very down and discouraged. We finally had a meeting and I just told her this thing is not going to get better by something I’m doing. There’s nothing I can do at that point. If you’re not in the gym, if you’re not working hard, if you’re not doing your very best, then there’s nobody that can change that. — your parents can’t change that, I can’t change that — nobody but you. Tamika has worked with her and talked to her and our entire support staff. … All of us want to see Jaycee succeed. She’s been really, really working hard. She’s not where she’s going to be, but she needs to take great encouragement from what she’s done in the last 4-6 weeks. It’s the stuff that’s going to lead her to success. I’ve seen a big change in her commitment to the kind of work she’s going to have to do to be successful. There’s nobody anywhere who believes more in what she can become than what I believe and my vision for her. And I think that’s been tough for her to understand sometimes. You’re not going to come here and get pigeon-holed into one specific role. That’s just not what I think life is about. I think you have to be a complete person, you have to to try to be a well-rounded person and we want to try to produce those kinds of people. We also want to produce those kinds of players.

“She made a play in practice yesterday where she was doing everything we asked her to do and they ran out on her, she shot faked, put it on the floor and knocked down a mid-range jumper. And it’s plays like that that you can point to, ‘Jaycee, that’s what we’re looking for.’ So you’re starting to see those more often in practice and I think she has a very bright future. We need her right now. This league has gone to a majority zone. I had a chance on my off night last night to watch some games and people are just, they’re going to play zone and Jaycee Coe, if she works hard and we can wins some games and be an NCAA Tournament team, what can she be in six weeks? How much progress can she make? That’s what I’m going for right now. Don’t worry about where you are right now. Think about today and how important that’s going to be six weeks from now. If we roll into North Little Rock at the SEC Tournament, six weeks from now you could go in there and really contribute to us winning some significant games. That’s kind of the approach we’re taking. I give her credit for working hard, but that has to continue.

“For instance she did well on Thursday night, then Saturday morning we’re practicing, she was not in the gym before practice and that was a great wake-up call. Listen you can’t stop now because you played well on Thursday night. And she did not prepare well, did not function well on Sunday against LSU. I thought that was a good learning experience for her. She can’t get satisfied right now, she’s got to work real hard. She has more work to do: just go, go, go keep going and she’ll get where she wants to go. She can’t stop now.”

On if that’s a freshman thing: “It is what I believe in as far as not short circuiting their development or taking any shortcuts to success. My good friend John Maxwell says, it’s just success is just uphill all the way and you just have to work. Do you want to artificially boost someone up or do you want to protect someone? We don’t protect freshmen here. We put the mirror up to them and say, ‘This is what it is right now. This is what we believe you can be.’ And we have some success with it. It seems like it pays off with some of our players. It’s not for everybody. It’s not the best place for every single person on the planet, but for people who want to get better — and have some substance behind it — then it works pretty well. I don’t think a lot of freshmen are ready. There have been a few. A’dia Mathies came in and was a really highly functional player as a freshman. Bria Goss was really good as a freshman. Makayla (Epps) and Linnae (Harper) struggled last year as freshmen because of attention to detail, work ethic type things. I wish they’d all come in and it would be smooth sailing and they’d all do a good job, but I just have to work with what happens every day and so if work ethic’s off, then we try to address it. If their character’s off, we’ll address it. If they’re lacking confidence, why? You’re not going to gain it because I tell you you have confidence. You’re going to gain confidence through achievement. That’s how we approach it.”

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Thompson has broken fibula, out for season

Kentucky point guard Janee Thompson will miss the rest of the season after breaking her left fibula late in the game at South Carolina on Sunday.

The junior from Chicago will have surgery to repair her leg on Monday morning, team spokeswoman Susan Lax confirmed. After stabilizing her dislocated ankle on site, doctors found the broken fibula.

During a scramble for a loose ball, South Carolina’s Khadijah Sessions dived on the floor, undercutting Thompson’s legs from behind and the UK guard’s legs got trapped underneath and turned awkwardly.

“We are so sad for Janee,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said in a release late Sunday night. “We never want to see a player sustain an injury like that. We are particularly sad for Janee because she’s worked so hard and has really come into her own. She will continue to make an impact on our team with her leadership.

“She will stay heavily involved and everyone will just have to raise their level up to contribute and make up for a tough loss. We are going to play as hard as we can for Janee and make sure we have a special season for her.”

Thompson came into the game as the Cats’ fourth-leading scorer at 10.1 points a game, including 10.7 Southeastern Conference play. She leads the team in assists (49) and is second on the team in steals (28).

Before the injury, Thompson had started in a team-best 31 straight games. She has been clutch in several come-from-behind victories for the Cats this season and twice been named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week already this season.

Mitchell likely will turn to Jennifer O’Neill and Makayla Epps to split the point guard duties. With Bria Goss (broken thumb) still out, UK’s lineup is down to eight players, just seven who are averaging double-digit minutes this season.

 

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Mitchell: ‘It’s not a minor injury; it doesn’t look good’

A crowd of more than 17,000 went silent as Janee Thompson’s screams echoed throughout Colonial Life Arena.

The Kentucky point guard clutched her ankle and screamed in pain as teammates and opponents hid their faces and started to cry.

With 4:08 left to go, the junior from Chicago left the game on a stretcher after a “freak accident” and was taken to a local hospital for more tests, but the initial diagnosis was a dislocated left ankle.

“It’s not a minor injury; it doesn’t look good,” said Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, who kneeled by Thompson’s side as medical personnel put a brace on her leg before carting her off.

During a scramble for a loose ball, South Carolina’s Khadijah Sessions dived on the floor, undercutting Thompson’s legs from behind and the UK guard’s legs got trapped underneath and turned awkwardly.

“When I turned, I kind of just, it didn’t look right,” Gamecocks forward Aleighsa Welch said. “It didn’t look the way a leg is supposed to look. It kind of just, I honestly think it sent shockwaves through everybody.”

Thompson was recruited heavily by South Carolina and even went on a visit to Columbia, so the coaches and players know the UK guard well.

“It was horrific what happened to Janee,” Coach Dawn Staley said afterward. “Our hearts go out to her and we want to make sure she’s OK.”

Thompson was taken to a local hospital and UK administrator Candice Chaffin stayed behind with her as the team headed back to Lexington.

The players said it was difficult to go back to the game after what they witnessed. Everyone in the arena gave Thompson a long, loud applause as she was carted off the playing floor with a towel on her face.

“No matter who you’re playing against, you don’t want to see something like that happen to somebody,” Welch said. “You can be the biggest competitors in the world, but you have a soft spot when something like that happens because it’s heart breaking.

“It’s just two teams playing hard. It’s just a freak accident. … Our prayers are with her. I told (UK guard) Makayla Epps after the game to let her know our prayers are with her and that team and we’re hoping she can come back to a speedy recovery.”

Kentucky’s coach thanked the South Carolina medical staff for its work in a difficult situation.

“What a great group of people that cared for her out there on the court,” Mitchell said. “I can’t say enough about those folks. Really, really just lept into action and were extremely competent and extremely comforting to her.”

Thompson came into the game as the Cats’ fourth-leading scorer at 10.1 points a game, including 10.7 Southeastern Conference play. She leads the team in assists (49) and is second on the team in steals (28).

Before the injury, Thompson had started in a team-best 31 straight games. She has been clutch in several come-from-behind victories for the Cats this season.

 

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Goss unlikely to be big part of Sunday’s game plan

Even it she’s feeling good, it’s unlikely that Bria Goss will play a big role in Kentucky’s game plan at top-ranked South Carolina on Sunday.

The senior guard, who has missed the past five games, has improved, but is still a little less than four weeks out from her broken left thumb and the injury initially was given a 4-6 week recovery timeline.

When asked if the senior and Kentucky’s best lockdown defender would be able to play on Sunday, Coach Matthew Mitchell seemed doubtful.

“I don’t know that it’s in our best interest long-term for her to go,” he said of Goss, noting that he hadn’t met with the team doctor yet on Friday.

“If it was the last game of her career, would she go? She probably would. I’m sort of in the mindset that if the doctor thinks next Thursday or next Sunday would be better, I think we really have to think about who we want to be at the end of the year while still trying to improve and win games without her.”

UK will be taking on the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in junior guard Tiffany Mitchell, normally an assignment Goss would draw.

But Mitchell said he wants Goss to be able to look him in the eye and say she’s at 100 percent healthy before she plays.

“I’ll say this, she’s not going to be a real big part of the game, I wouldn’t think Sunday either way,” he said. “No matter whether she gets some minutes on Sunday or not, I don’t think it’s going to be a major factor in the game.”

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Dismissed Oregon star lands at Kentucky

A star guard who led Oregon in scoring before being dismissed in November has enrolled at Kentucky, according to her Twitter account.

At around 1 p.m. on Friday, Chrishae Rowe tweeted the word “official” with a picture of her new UK student ID. The 5-foot-8 guard would be eligible next season. A Kentucky official confirmed that she has been admitted.

The Corona, Calif., native led the Ducks in scoring last season, averaging 21.6 points a game, setting a new school record for most points scored in a game with 41. She led the NCAA in scoring among freshmen last season.

Rowe’s 690 points last season were just four points shy of breaking a 30-year-old record for scoring in a season.

On Nov. 7, first-year Oregon Coach Kelly Graves announced that he was dismissing the guard for an unspecified violation of team rules, saying in a release: “Our mission is to create something great here at the University of Oregon and our players need to buy in to all aspects of that mission. Our team culture, long-term, is more important than wins and losses short-term.”

He later confirmed to several media outlets that Rowe did nothing unlawful and that she as still enrolled at Oregon and that he didn’t know where she planned to attend school after December.

Graves told the Daily Emerald, the Oregon student newspaper, that he was unable to address the violation of team rules directly.

“We’re trying to establish a culture here, the kind of culture that we use to build a successful program, and she was just doing some things that wouldn’t allow for that to happen and so I just thought it was best for both parties,” the coach said.

“We have a certain list of things that we don’t allow and when people don’t adhere to those, then choices and decisions have to be made. That’s what we made today.”

Rowe was rated the No. 67 player overall in the class of 2013 by ESPN.com and the No. 17 guard.

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O’Neill feeling good, likely a go vs. Alabama

It sounds like Jennifer O’Neill’s time on the Kentucky bench will be minimal.

The senior guard and the Cats’ leading scorer has been practicing this week in preparation for No. 11 Kentucky’s Southeastern Conference opener at Alabama on Friday.

After playing in 76 straight games, O’Neill missed the Cats’ last game against Tennessee State nursing a strained patella tendon in her knee.

“I’m feeling good,” she said on Wednesday after going through an individual workout that gave the knee a good test. “Felt good. It was hurting the first day, but now I’m fine.”

The senior guard, averaging 15.2 points and 2.9 rebounds a game, likely will be available when the Cats head to Alabama, a team that upset them last season at Memorial Coliseum.

“She went through about an hour of shooting last night and those were game-like shots and she looked good and bounced back this morning,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “It looks to me like she’s progressing well. We are feeling good about her progress right now.”

Other updates

Another Kentucky senior, forward Jelleah Sidney, is back on the floor and trying to get into shape to be available for the Cats during the stretch run of conference play.

Sidney has missed nine straight games with soreness in her knees. Mitchell said she has a limited number of games left in her knees, so UK is trying to use her sparingly until the last part of the season.

“I would say we are at a couple of weeks, three weeks of trying to get her conditioning back and hopefully by February, maybe sooner, I don’t know,” he said. “We’re going very conservative. The whole idea has been can she make a contribution for us at the most important time of the year.

“Can she help us compete for a conference championship? Can she help us get to the NCAA Tournament and advance?”

  • Freshman forward Alyssa Rice played just 11 minutes last game battling back from an illness, but Mitchell said she should be fine for the game against Alabama. “She looked very good in her defensive individual and has worked hard the last couple of days,” he said. “She’s playing really tough defensively, so we’ve got to get her going offensively.”
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Jennings named SEC Freshman of Week

Alexis Jennings was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week after leading Kentucky in its win over Tennessee State on Sunday. The 6-foot-2 forward set new career highs with 27 points and eight rebounds in the victory. It marked the most points by a freshman since former UK star A’dia Mathies had 32 points against Liberty in the NCAA Tournament in 2010.

In a career-high 29 minutes, Jennings hit all three of UK’s three-pointers in the game, a career best, grabbed a career-high five offensive boards and netted a team-high 8-of-12 attempts from the free-throw line.

In the last four games, the Madison, Ala., native has averaged 16.3 points and 5.7 rebounds off the bench.

It’s Kentucky’s third SEC honor of the season and Jennings’ second of the month.

 

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Updates on UK’s injured guards

Jennifer O’Neill, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out as a precaution after straining her left patella tendon while scrambling for a loose ball in practice on Saturday.

There is no structural damage, Coach Matthew Mitchell said, and listed O’Neill as day to day. UK starts Southeastern Conference play at Alabama on Friday.

“It was just too painful to play today, so now it’s basically a pain tolerance issue,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not more than a couple days, but it could be a couple weeks. Everybody’s body reacts differently.”

As for fellow senior guard Bria Goss, Mitchell said the plan is to remove the cast on her broken thumb at the four-week mark and assess things. If doctors go with four weeks exactly, it would be the day after the Cats go to top-ranked South Carolina on Jan. 11.

Initially, the injury was given a 4-6 week return timeframe.

Whenever she recovers from the break, Goss will be able to go back to playing immediately, her coach said.

“She feels good; she’s practicing every day,” he said. “We don’t throw her the ball to her, but she cuts, plays and runs sprints and everything.”

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Duke will try to set world record versus UK

Duke will try to set a world record during its game against Kentucky on Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It’s not an attendance record or a basketball record.

Nope. It’s a world record for the largest gathering of holiday sweaters.

A Duke athletics release said fans who wear a holiday sweater to the game will receive free admission. Fans decked out in holiday gear are told to go to the North Ticket Booth outside of Wallace Wade Stadium and Cameron Indoor to show off their sweater and receive a free ticket.

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Kentucky assistant coach resigns

Christian Stefanopoulos has stepped down from her position as assistant coach at Kentucky while battling an undisclosed illness, head coach Matthew Mitchell told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday morning.

“We are behind Christian all the way and we are supporting her through her journey back to good health,” he said.

That leaves No. 8 Kentucky short an assistant coach and a recruiting coordinator for the rest of the season, but Mitchell said the staff has functioned well in her absence and will continue to do so.

“I’m so grateful,” he said. “Everybody’s just really picked it up. … I couldn’t ask for much more. This is not what you plan. It’s been very tough on me because I was so worried about Christian and then you have the job going on and the gap to fill, so it’s been hard.”

Crystal Riley, a former point guard at Kentucky who has been on the support staff since graduation, has been activated to an on-the-court coach position.

The Memphis native will be able to join new assistant coaches Tamika Williams and Adeniyi Amadou on the road recruiting as soon as she takes her recruiting test, Mitchell said.

“She’ll be a full-time coach for the remainder of the season, then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do,” he said.

There will not be an official recruiting coordinator; the position is being filled by committee for now.

Amy Tilley, assistant athletics director for women’s basketball, is playing a large part in that. In her previous position in women’s basketball, she was largely responsible for many of the duties.

“She’s really organizing everything,” Mitchell explained. “We’re still running the same system, just Amy’s overseeing that.”

Mitchell has been working with the guards during Stefanopoulos’ absence and he will continue to do that until her replacement is hired after the season ends.

The head coach said Kentucky’s players have been great during a trying time.

“The kids were concerned about her, but they’ve handled it well,” he said. “They understand it’s a difficult situation.”

Stefanopoulos, who previously was a video coordinator at Kentucky and as assistant coach under Mitchell at Morehead State, rejoined the UK staff in April. The 31-year-old Florence native’s two-year deal was worth $170,000 a year with additional incentive clauses.

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