UK uses depth and pressure defense to overwhelm Middle Tennessee State


Kentucky point guard Jennifer O’Neill eyes the basket during the first half of the UK Hoops game against Middle Tennessee State at Memorial Coliseum on Friday, December 12, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. UK leads Middle Tennessee 41-26. Photo by Adam Pennavaria

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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UK Hoops’ lack of energy and focus in recent games has really put it in tough spots, trailing by double digits against opponents at times. Head coach Matthew Mitchell said he had even considered changing the starting lineup to light a “competitive fire” and put pressure on some of his players.

The Cats responded with a fire of their own on Friday, overwhelming Middle Tennessee State 78-62 for their fifth win in a row.

“I’m really happy that our players came out with great energy,” Mitchell said. “We practiced really hard this week, and we had some good hustle out there tonight and beat a good Middle Tennessee State team.”

The trend of slow starts reared its ugly head again when UK turned the ball over four times before scoring its first basket. But unlike their previous games, the players didn’t make Mitchell watch and suffer for long as their depth eventually wore down the Blue Raiders and were able to cruise to victory.

UK practiced for three days in a row in preparation of playing against Middle Tennessee, where Mitchell said an increase of energy and better shot selection was addressed. The Cats benefited from the extra preparation time, shooting for 48 percent from the field while holding the Blue Raiders to 38 percent and forcing them into 25 turnovers.

“Our offense was the key to our defense tonight,” Mitchell said. “We shot the ball well, and that helped set our defense. We just had to get it together and start disrupting them.”

The Cats’ depth put pressure on the smaller lineup of Middle Tennessee and never trailed the Blue Raiders after seven minutes of play. UK’s bench outscored Middle Tennessee’s 31-10 while having three players score in double digits, including sophomore guard Makyala Epps (12 points on 6-for-6 shooting) and freshman forward Alexis Jennings (11 points on 3-for-6 shooting and 4-for-4 at the free throw line).

Senior point guard Jennifer O’Neill, who scored 18 of her team-high 22 points in the second half, said she liked the energy her team carried over from practice, and that everyone was getting opportunities to put up points because of that energy.

“We were trying to get other people involved,” O’Neill said. “The fact that we were able to practice for three days really benefitted us.”

But the Cats didn’t have complete focus in all aspects. The four straight turnovers at the beginning of the game was a trend throughout, as the team finished with 28 giveaways on the night, which Mitchell attributed to careless bounce passes and poor decisions driving into a packed lane.

Mitchell added that the team tries to aim for 15 turnovers or less a game, and that keeping a steady control of the ball will be the next point of emphasis in future practices.

“It’s the one real troubling thing about tonight,” Mitchell said. “I just told them ‘Imagine what we could have done if everyone had one less (turnover).’ We played 10 people … you still wouldn’t be at a good one because 18 is too many. We’ll just have to keep working at it.”

The win was Mitchell’s 100th win in Memorial Coliseum since taking over as UK’s coach in 2007. The team will go for its sixth straight win when it takes on Belmont at 6 p.m. on Sunday.