‘Junkyard dogs’ host Bulldogs



By Boyd Hayes | @KernelHayes

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In the early 1980s, there was no professional wrestling promotion more popular in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas than Mid-South Wrestling. The undisputed king of Mid-South was Sylvester Ritter, also known as Junkyard Dog. Fans packed massive arenas, New Orleans’ Superdome included, to see Junkyard Dog take the ring.

One of those fans went on to become the head women’s basketball coach at the UK. In fact, Matthew Mitchell remembers Junkyard Dog so well that he gives the “Junkyard Dog Award” to one of his players after each game.

“Junkyard Dog was a great wrestler, but he named himself after a junkyard dog,” recalled Mitchell. “A junkyard dog, if you look it up in the dictionary, is just ferocious and very aggressive. So, just to give (the team) a visual of who a junkyard dog is, on the award there’s a picture of the wrestler.”

Mitchell said he gives the award out to instill an aggressive attitude in his players for SEC play. After UK’s games last weekend, wins over No. 20 Texas A&M and Missouri, Mitchell presented the award to the entire team for toughness across all positions.

This team is different defensively, though, from the past several teams Mitchell has fielded. The biggest differences this season, says Mitchell, are a more traditional front court (made up of juniors Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth) and an improved offense.

Walker and Stallworth have teamed up to average a 22.7 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, while the Cats rank 12th nationally in scoring at 77 points per game. The greater post presence and ability to score in half-court situations mean that UK is less dependent on scoring off of turnovers, a trait that characterized past teams.

Despite the differences, the Cats still lead the nation in turnover margin at +9.9 and have forced opponents to shoot only 36.7 percent from the field this season. Even more indicative are their 11.9 steals and 5.2 blocks per game.

Thursday the Cats will take their junkyard dog mentality up against the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. Mitchell has coached UK to a 6-1 record over his alma mater since 2008, including five straight victories.

The Bulldogs are led by sophomores Kendra Grant and Martha Alwal, who Mitchell says are playing at an All-SEC level. Grant leads the team with 12.8 points per game. Alwal averages 12.2 point per game and leads the team in rebounding at 9.8 per game. Alwal, at 6-foot-4, has helped Mississippi State to an SEC-leading 5.4 blocks per game.

As defense faces off against defense, it might be the team that plays most like a junkyard dog that pulls out the victory Thursday.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.