UK Hoops begins tough stretch

Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell looks ahead of guard Linnae Harper as she dribbles down the line during Kentucky’s game against Georgia at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, February 1, 2015. Photo by John Paul Williams

UK begins tough stretch, starting with No. 13 Mississippi State

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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Tough is not a word that has been synonymous with Mississippi State women’s basketball in recent years. The Bulldogs have had one winning season in the last four years and haven’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2010.

That perception has changed in 2015 behind an undefeated nonconference schedule and a Top 15 national ranking.

“Toughness is going to be the operative word in the game,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said ahead of the Cats’ matchup against the No. 13 Bulldogs on Thursday. “They’ve played great this season and are very athletic, tenacious and tough. It’ll be a major test for our team.”

UK has not lost to Mississippi St. since 2009, winning by an average of 25 points each game. But change was brought to Starkville, Miss., when the program hired Vic Schaefer in 2012. In Schaefer’s second year the Bulldogs shocked the Cats, forcing overtime in what Mitchell called an “absolute knockdown, drag-out” of a game.

Mississippi St. finished the 2014 season 22-14 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the WNIT Tournament. That success carried over to this season, as it started the season with 18-straight wins and now sits in third place in the SEC with five games remaining.

That is what a high-ranked recruiting class does for a team in two years, said Mitchell.

“They have a much better roster after two years. They have the best shot-blocker in the league, one of the best freshman, and a cast of players that play with incredible tenacity,” Mitchell said. “That’s a credit to Coach Schaefer and his recruiting. They’ve gone from the bottom of the league to the top of the league.”

Senior center Martha Alwal leads the Bulldogs defensively. She has an SEC-best 2.4 blocks per game, and in Mississippi State’s overtime win against then-No. 14 Texas A&M on Sunday, Alwal posted her 33rd-career double-double, the most among active SEC players.

Freshman forward Victoria Vivians leads the team offensively, averaging 14.2 points a game, good for sixth-best in the conference. Vivians also has the second-most rebounds on the team with 127.

The Bulldog’s new aura of success and fantastic start to the season has turned a few heads around the league, and presents UK with the first of several challenging games in the last month of the regular season.

“Mississippi St. is as good a team as we’ll face down the stretch,” Mitchell said.

The Cats’ next three opponents are Top 15 teams. And they all take place within the span of a week, with No. 1 South Carolina capping off the season.

Mitchell knows the importance of challenging conference games in February, considering the role they play in determining seeding positions in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. That is why a win against a flourishing Mississippi St. team would be all the more meaningful than in years past.

“You’re looking at the time of the season where games start to really matter,” Mitchell said. “But I can’t get real big picture with them. It’s a tough stretch and you’ll go crazy looking too far down the road. They’re still trying to grasp what we need to do to be a consistent basketball team by preparing for a real tough test tomorrow.”