Cats’ quarterfinal game vs. Vandy moved

Two pieces of news on this Wednesday night from the women’s Southeastern Conference Tournament: The first is a schedule change, moving the Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt game up an hour to 8:30 p.m. (ET) because of icy roads and snow in the area.

Also, Kentucky will be at the tournament at the Verizon Center in North Little Rock, Ark., without a band or cheerleaders. Travel for those two was cancelled due to the inclement weather.

Kentucky will face Vanderbilt in the final quarterfinal on Thursday night after the Commodores knocked off Alabama 66-56 on Wednesday night. No. 11 seed Vandy is 15-15 overall and finished 5-11 in the conference this season. UK has won the previous eight meetings between the two teams, including two straight in the SEC Tournament.

 

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Injured Rice ‘probable’ for SEC Tournament

Freshman forward Alyssa Rice, who was injured during the second half of the game against South Carolina, was in a walking boot Monday, but it’s just precautionary, Kentucky confirmed.

The Reynoldsburg, Ohio, native has an undisclosed foot injury and is listed as “probable” for the Cats’ SEC Tournament opener Thursday night against the winner of the Alabama-Vanderbilt.

Rice has played in 29 games, starting 10, including six of the last eight. The freshman is averaging 14.4 minutes a game and is averaging 2.8 points and 2.6 rebounds a game. She is tied for second on the team in blocked shots with 19 this season.

Rice went down midway through the second half, and UK announced shortly after that the freshman had a right heel injury and was doubtful to return. She did come back shortly after that, but she went back out again with a noticeable limp.

Rice’s season highs were nine points at Vanderbilt in February and eight rebounds against Oklahoma in November. She also recorded a personal best three blocks against the Commodores.

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Staley apologizes for actions at end of game

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley apologized via Twitter for her sour reaction when Kentucky pulled its seniors out of the game Sunday night at Memorial Coliseum.

Coach Matthew Mitchell called a timeout with 16 seconds left in the game, with Kentucky holding a 67-56 advantage on No. 2 South Carolina to get a final ovation for seniors Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, Jennifer O’Neill and Jelleah Sidney.

Staley was seen pointing at the scoreboard, looking angry at the called timeout and yelling an expletive. The Gamecocks coach then looked back disgustedly toward her bench.

She took to Twitter on Monday morning to apologize for the outburst.

“Gamecock nation (love) your support but I was out of line & didn’t realize Kentucky’s seniors were in the game at the time,” she tweeted. “I do & have apologized.”

A UK official confirmed that the South Carolina coach, who had called a timeout to pull her seniors out of the game with 2:01 to go for the Gamecocks’ Senior Night a few days earlier, emailed the Kentucky staff to apologize Monday morning.

At his Southeastern Conference pre-tournament news conference Monday, Mitchell said he’d communicated with Staley about it.

“I would never try to rub it in or show anybody up,” Mitchell said after Kentucky knocked off its third top-10 team of the season with the 67-56 victory over the Gamecocks, whose only previous loss this season was at No. 1 Connecticut.

“If there was ever a group of seniors that needed a curtain call in my mind it was this group for what they did,” Mitchell continued. “She just said she was sorry she lost track of that and complimented our team on the victory, so I did hear from Dawn today.”

The Kentucky coach said he has always respected Staley’s competitive nature, and it has grown as the two teams have played in home-and-away series each year.

“Dawn is an incredible competitor,” Mitchell said. “I just respect her competitiveness more than you’ll ever know, and it’s a very intense rivalry.”

When Kentucky point guard Janee Thompson suffered a broken leg during the Cats’ game at South Carolina in January, Mitchell said at the time how touched he was by the community, including the Gamecocks’ athletic director offering a plane to take the junior back to Lexington if she required additional care that would keep her in Columbia.

“I was greatly impacted in a positive way by how South Carolina treated us when Janee was treated in a very meaningful way,” Mitchell added on Monday. “That really strengthened our relationship.”

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Cats hold out a slight hope of a bye

In the hours after dark, my math is even worse than it is the rest of the day, apparently, because there is still a scenario where Kentucky can obtain one of the highly coveted first-round byes in the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week.

But it nearly takes an act of Congress for UK to snag that bye. Here’s the only scenario where it’s possible:

  • Kentucky would have to upset No. 2 South Carolina; Texas A&M would have to win at Louisiana State and Ole Miss would have to win on the road at Mississippi State.

If those dominoes all fall on Sunday, Kentucky owns the tie-breaker win over Mississippi State (remember that double-overtime victory at Memorial Coliseum?) and the Cats would be the No. 4 seed.

So if you’re a Kentucky fan, you’re cheering for Kentucky, Texas A&M and Ole Miss to win on Sunday.

Simple, right?

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UK among top seeds announced by NCAA

In an effort to make sure schools are ready to host early-round NCAA Tournament games this season, the women’s basketball committee revealed teams that would be among the top seeds if the tournament were held this weekend.

Kentucky is included on the list of 20 schools put out by the committee on Wednesday night, and the Cats would host first- and second-round games, as they did last season.

The committee released the four teams that would be No. 1 seeds if the tournament were held this weekend, and two of them, South Carolina and Tennessee, are from the Southeastern Conference. The others were Connecticut and Notre Dame.

The announcement has no bearing on the final seeding, the committee said in the news release, but UK Coach Matthew Mitchell was pleased to see his No. 10 Cats in position to host again.

“If we can win some ball games down the stretch, it means we are playing out there (at Memorial Coliseum) instead of somewhere else,” he said. “We’ve advanced to four Sweet 16s, three on the road and one at home, and I’d rather be at home.”

The other teams identified as top 20 teams include Arizona State, Baylor, California, Duke, Florida State, George Washington, Iowa, Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas A&M and Washington.

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I’m one of the eight Associated Press women’s basketball voters that still has Connecticut ranked above South Carolina. Figured I’d start posting my weekly top 25 for transparency’s sake.

Also, if the Gamecocks win tonight, y’all can let me have it.

1. Connecticut

2. South Carolina

3. Baylor

4. Notre Dame

5. Maryland

6. Tennessee

7. Florida State

8. Duke

9. Louisville

10. Kentucky

11. Oregon State

12. Arizona State

13. Iowa

14. Mississippi State

15. Texas A&M

16. Texas

17. Nebraska

18. Stanford

19. Rutgers

20. Princeton

21. Georgia

22. Chattanooga

23. George Washington

24. Syracuse

25. South Florida

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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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