UK Hoops charges into SEC after winning streak ends during holidays



The UK women’s basketball team and the winter temperatures in Kentucky share one trait: They have dipped — albeit to different extents.

While cold weather led to freezing temperatures in many parts of the country during winter break, the Cats cooled off after their torrid 11-0 start. UK’s record is currently 13-2, including a 1-1 mark in Southeastern Conference play.

When students left following finals, the Cats’ record stood at 9-0 with a game against archrival Louisville looming. The Cats routed the Cardinals 101-67 on Dec. 20 to set the record for best start in team history. Then, in their final game before Christmas, the Cats destroyed an injury-ravaged Tennessee-Martin team 87-47, a game which saw junior forward Victoria Dunlap attempt and miss a dunk.

“I told the team that (the 11-0 start) is significant because they have answered every challenge that was put in front of them,” said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell after the Tennessee-Martin victory. “We feel good about it, but we don’t want to let that define us at all. We want to know what our formula is and that starts with being enthusiastic about playing at Kentucky and being committed on the defensive end every day in practice.”

Mitchell warned his players of the challenge that would greet them when they returned from their winter break. The Cats had to hit the road for a Dec. 28 clash with Middle Tennessee State and came out sluggish, committing a season-high 29 turnovers and scoring a season-low 51 points.

“Although we played with some tenacity to get back in the game (after the Cats trailed by 13), I’m disappointed that we turned the ball over so many times and it resulted in a loss for us,” Mitchell said after the Cats’ first defeat.

However, the Cats rekindled their passion for defense on New Year’s Day, forcing Mississippi Valley State into 40 turnovers, a school record for UK, en route to a 93-48 win.

The win over MVSU was the last nonconference game for the Cats. UK’s critics were anticipating the rigors of the SEC schedule, which would serve as the litmus test that would finally reveal the true ability of the team.

On Jan. 7, UK took No. 8 Georgia to overtime before falling 61-60 in their first SEC game. The Cats led 60-56 in overtime but surrendered the final five points, including a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left. A win for the Cats would have meant beating a top-10 team for the first time since 2006.

Despite the loss to Georgia, UK rebounded to topple No. 17 Vanderbilt on Sunday, breaking an 11-year  drought against the Commodores after trailing by 10 in the second half. Junior guard Amber Smith’s career-high 20 points sparked the comeback. Smith was also UK’s leading scorer in the SEC opener.

“It all starts with (Smith),” Mitchell said. “She’s our energy player.”

Aside from Smith, the usual suspects have performed for UK. Guard Adia Mathies continues her solid rookie campaign as UK’s leader in minutes played and second leading scorer. Dunlap remains the team’s leading scorer, almost averaging a double-double with 18 points and nine rebounds per game. Also, transfer guard Crystal Riley, who became eligible to play against Louisville, has bolstered the Cats’ depth.

Collectively, UK’s pressing defense has helped the Cats rank near the top of the NCAA in turnover margin.

After tripping up during the holidays, the Cats seem to have stable footing once more.

“I have no idea why (UK was) picked (to finish) 11th (in the SEC) and I wouldn’t have picked them 11th,” said Vandy head coach Melanie Balcomb.