UK Hoops coach Matthew Mitchell became a believer this week.
People had told him since the preseason that teams would consider the Kentucky game their “Super Bowl.” Mitchell hadn’t put much stock into that notion until this week, after going toe-to-toe with Arkansas last night and finally pulling out a 80-74 overtime victory.
“I was very skeptical of that because I had never been through it,” he said. “It is amazing to be a part of this right now because you put on video of these teams and you watch them … it’s the game before, then the Kentucky game, then the game after. The two games before and after look pretty similar and the Kentucky game looks very different. People can think I’m crazy. I thought people were crazy for mentioning it but I’m a believer now. Now it is unbelievable what our players are going through right now as far as what they’re facing game after game from an effort level and an execution level.”
Getting prepared for that kind of execution from opponents has required some changes in the team’s practice schedule, according to Mitchell. He has instituted practices at 6 a.m. this week after the Cats gave up a double-digit lead against Georgia as well as their 34-game win streak at Memorial Coliseum.
The early-morning practices are something that the team participates in during the preseason, but not so much once actual games start. Mitchell will determine later if he wants to continue having his players come in at 6 a.m.
Also to be determined is Bria Goss’ role. Goss, who is a normal starter, came off the bench last night in Fayetteville. She finished with 17 points, including 9-10 from the free throw line. Did her role coming off the bench help her offensive performance, or was it simply a coincidence?
“That dynamic is not of huge concern, of whether she plays off the bench or starting,” Mitchell said. “She is one of the kids on our team right now that is the epitome of what we want a Kentucky basketball player to be. She is of the highest character; she is of the greatest work ethic … I was just trying to change the dynamic. I was not mad or angry or upset with her; I was just trying to help her any way that I could. If that’s starting or coming off the bench, I don’t know that either one of those is huge or important.”
One player who’s starting role is all-but-cemented this season is A’dia Mathies. The reigning SEC Player of the Year is playing like it, according to her coach. Against Arkansas last night, she finished 6-17 from the field for 15 points and added 9 rebounds. It was when she made her shots, however, that was of utmost importance to the team.
“Last night was particularly exceptional because a lot of people that missed 9 of their first 11 would just say, ‘Hey, it’s not my night,’” Mitchell said. “She made 4 of her last 6 and they were unbelievable shots….when everybody on the Arkansas team was trying to prevent her from scoring. She found a way. She’s the best player in this league and she showed it last night. You just have to understand that everybody is geared up to stop her. You knew who was going to get the ball at that point in time and they weren’t able to do it (stop her).”
The Cats will take on Vanderbilt Sunday at 4 ET in Nashville. The Commodores are 15-7 overall and 5-4 in the SEC. No matter the record – whether Vanderbilt was 22-0 or 0-22 – Mitchell is expecting that “Super Bowl” performance on Sunday.
“It appears that teams are coming after us with reckless abandon,” he said. “We need to be ready for that Sunday afternoon in Nashville. We need to be ready for Vanderbilt’s absolute supreme maximum effort and that’s what we’re focused on now.”