Women’s basketball team using postseason to improve, gain experience

Heading into tonight’s game against James Madison, women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell acknowledges that his team would much rather be preparing for the third round of the NCAA Tournament instead of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

But after starting the season 7-9 heading into conference play, a postseason appearance is a testament to how far the team has come under the first-year UK coach. UK was awarded a bye in the first round before narrowly beating Middle Tennessee State 68-66 in overtime on Friday at Memorial Coliseum.

While the Cats (16-15, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) would obviously prefer to be playing in the NCAA Tournament, the WNIT has actually given them a unique situation. If UK would have made it to the Big Dance, they most likely would have been awarded a low seeding and would have faced a difficult task of making it out of the first round.

Instead, as other teams fall in the NCAA Tournament and the WNIT, the Cats hope to prolong the senior’s careers and to get more experience for some of the younger players.

Sophomore forward Lydia Watkins has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the extended season, Mitchell said.

“I made a few comments before the Middle Tennessee State game about expecting a good game from Lydia Watkins,” Mitchell said. “She has really improved the last couple of weeks.”

Watkins’ improvement was reflected in the box score from the contest with the Blue Raiders. Watkins, who came into the game averaging 4.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, exploded Friday for 16 points and 16 rebounds, her first career double-double.

Mitchell said Watkins’ strides go beyond Friday’s breakthrough game.

“Lydia has also made so much progress with her mental toughness, too,” he said.

Although Mitchell made specific note of Watkins’ progress, he said he is particularly proud of the way his squad has responded to the demands of postseason play.

“Our players have been willing to accept coaching this time of year,” Mitchell said. “When you get to this time of year, some get tired and do not want to listen. That has not been the case with this team and I think it has made a huge difference with the willingness of our players listening to our coaching.”

If the Cats want to prolong their season even further, they’ll have the difficult task of stopping James Madison’s Tamera Young, a senior guard who averages 20.2 points and 10.2 per outing.

Despite Young’s impressive stats and what Mitchell calls a “very good, energetic” James Madison team, Mitchell is hopeful that his team’s confidence and experience will continue to build in this postseason — even if the initials at the top of his team’s bracket are W-N-I-T, not N-C-A-A.

“Being able to be one of the few teams that is still available to play this time of year has given us some great experience,” Mitchell said. “As you look at the WNIT, it is the strongest it’s ever been because a lot of good teams were left out of the NCAA this year. This game against James Madison will be a big-time effort game for the Wildcats and we need to be ready to play with a supreme effort.”