UK Hoops heads into postseason freshly focused

Kentucky guard Jennifer O’Neill drives to the basket during the second half of the UK vs. South Carolina at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington , Ky., on Sunday, March 1, 2015. Photo by Jonathan Krueger

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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Feeling refreshed and relieved, the UK Hoops team will begin postseason play when it travels to North Little Rock, Ark., for the SEC Tournament.

After their stunning upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina on Sunday, the Cats enter Verizon Arena as a six-seed and await the winner of the Alabama-Vanderbilt game on Wednesday.

UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said he was proud of the way his players closed out the regular season, especially from his seniors.

“We had a tough regular season and faced some adversity,” Mitchell said. “I thought the way the seniors had stepped up in leadership role and helped us address some things that needed to be addressed took some courage on their part.”

After UK suffered a loss to Ole Miss last week, seniors Jennifer O’Neill, Bria Goss, Jelleah Sidney and Azia Bishop met with Mitchell to discuss the state of the team and what changes they thought needed to be implemented to turn the season around. Some of those changes included Mitchell being present at shootarounds and stricter with the younger players.

Since then, the Cats have won two straight games and held both of their opponents to under 60 points for the first time in 10 games. Mitchell called the meeting “productive” and “one of my … proudest moments at UK.”

“We just told him he needed to go back to treating us like he did when we were freshmen,” O’Neill said. “He brings energy, and if nobody is talking, he’s quick to call you out. He’s holding people more accountable now. We needed that.”

O’Neill was named the SEC 6th Player of the Year on Tuesday after averaging just over 14 points a game this season.

UK has had recent success in the SEC Tournament, making it to the finals in the last two years. But a conference title has eluded the Cats each time, and the program hasn’t won the tournament since 1982.

Mitchell said he expects his newly focused and disciplined team to be hungrier than ever in Arkansas, given how close they’ve been to winning it all in the past.

“It’s a big-time tournament. It’s a big one to win,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had a chance several times to win it and we’d love to taste victory in that tournament.”

O’Neill said that despite this year’s tournament participants being some of the strongest teams than ever before (five of them are ranked in the Top 20), she feels like it’s wide open for anyone to win.

“It’s such a great conference and anything can happen in it,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of ranked teams in it, so the SEC Tournament is going to feel a lot like the NCAA Tournament.”