Cats hope to ride momentum from Monday’s win into SEC play

After closing out non-conference play with a 6-8 record, the UK women’s basketball team is ready to carry a bit of momentum and confidence into its Southeastern Conference schedule, which opens tonight at 7 against Florida in Memorial Coliseum.

The Cats have faced a host of tough opponents so far this year, including seven teams receiving votes in the most recent ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll. However, the team has won two of its last three games heading into its first SEC game, including a 67-57 victory over Wofford College on Monday.

“We had a very tough non-conference schedule,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We didn’t handle it great, and we needed a win to have some sort of momentum going into SEC play.”

The Cats played well at times against the highly touted competition, but often struggled to play at a consistent level for 40 minutes. Their most recent defeat, a 51-46 loss to Xavier University on Jan. 1, saw UK go ice-cold in the last 15 minutes of the game. After leading 38-26 with 14:57 remaining on the game clock, the Cats failed to hit a single field goal for the rest of the game as the Musketeers rallied to a five-point victory.

“It was real, real bad,” Mitchell said. “It is really embarrassing to be at this level of basketball and go that long without scoring.”

Mitchell and the Cats bounced back after the Xavier loss to beat Wofford. Led by senior center Sarah Elliott’s 16-point performance, four UK players scored in double figures. Mitchell said the Cats’ effort in practice leading up to the Wofford match-up has helped build confidence going into the meat of UK’s schedule.

“Practice has been good,” Mitchell said. “The players were just trying to do one of the hardest things to do in basketball and that is to give this group confidence. It’s hard to manufacture confidence unless they’re seeing the ball go into the basket.”

The Cats know that one win does not mean much unless they can build on that performance and carry the momentum forward.

“It was hard when we kept losing, but we have to keep our heads up,” sophomore forward Lydia Watkins said. “I think our confidence can help lead us into conference play.”

UK’s defense has been steady, giving up 70 points or fewer in five of the Cats’ last seven games. Despite its offensive woes against Xavier in the second half, UK held the Musketeers to a meager 30.5 percent from the field.

“When you hold a team to 51 points, especially one that has a good chance of going to the NCAA tournament, you have done a good job,” Mitchell said.

The Cats face a Florida team looking to win its eighth consecutive game. With both teams carrying momentum into the contest, Elliott said it is important for UK to concentrate on the essential task at hand each time they step on the court: winning games.

“Coach Mitchell said he still wants us to have fun,” Elliott said, “but that we also need to remember what we’re here for.”