Bria Goss had 20 points and eight rebounds as UK ended a two-game losing streak with a win over Missouri on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
He wasn’t about to admit it to his team, but Matthew Mitchell was nervous on Sunday afternoon.UK was in the midst of a two-game losing streak and preparing for a matchup with a Missouri team coming off an impressive upset of No. 25 Georgia, so he wasn’t sure what to expect.To add to the uncertainty, a nagging leg injury bothered third-leading scorer Kastine Evans in two days of practice following UK’s latest loss at South Carolina. On game day, Evans reported to her coach she would not be able to go at full speed and would therefore have to sit out.In light of all that, Mitchell sensed the shorthanded Wildcats would need Bria Goss in a big way.”Just with where our psyche was after the two losses and we were just not full speed and I just thought today we were going to have to play extremely well and extremely tough and I was talking to the coaches before the game and I just said, ‘Bria Goss has to play today. We really need Bria Goss to have a big game,’ ” Mitchell said.In every way imaginable, the junior guard delivered as the No. 9/10 Cats (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) got back in the win column with an 80-69 defeat of Missouri (13-4, 2-2 SEC).”That is a kid on a day where we needed a big effort and needed all hands on deck she was able to get it done on both ends of the court and that is a big-time, big-time game from Bria Goss,” Mitchell said.Goss’s 20 points and eight rebounds stand out on the stat sheet, but her role in the victory began well before the opening tip. With Evans — with whom she shares primary vocal leadership responsibilities — unable to play, Goss spoke up.”Before the game, I brought the team together and said, ‘We’re down another player, which means everybody has to step up,’ ” Goss said. “So that’s really what I was going for. Not just me, but I knew my teammates were going to step up to the challenge as well.”Validating Mitchell’s concern that the Cats were facing a deficit in confidence against the visiting Tigers, Missouri jumped out to a 24-16 lead when Bri Kulas hit an and-one layup with 7:32 left in the first half. When UK came to the bench for the ensuing under-eight media timeout, Mitchell challenged Goss’s backcourt mate, Janee Thompson.”Somebody at some point was going to have to stop worrying about being scared about losing the game and step up,” Mitchell said. “I just tried to wake them up the best that I could and I thought from that point on just telling them to stop dragging around and feeling sorry for themselves and start making some plays.”After Kulas missed a free throw, Thompson calmly drilled a jumper from near the free-throw line, sparking an 11-0 run to give the Cats a lead they would never relinquish.”In that timeout, he told us to let everything go, let it loose and play and just be confident,” Thompson said. “Once he said that, I think that really picked me up and it gave the confidence to go in there with no fear and knock that shot down. We were just rolling from there.”But if not for Goss, UK may not have rolled to victory.Kulas, Missouri’s leading scorer, torched the Cats for 20 points and nine rebounds in the first half. She shot 7 of 12 from the field and Mitchell knew he needed to do something to slow the versatile post player. The 5-foot-10 Goss switched onto Kulas, gladly accepting the assignment of shadowing the 6-1 forward.”I evaluated what she was doing at the beginning in the first half and she’s a great player, can score in a lot of ways and I was just honored to be able to guard her,” Goss said.Hounded by Goss for much of the final 20 minutes, Kulas scored just seven points on 2-of-6 shooting. With 2:22 left and UK leading by 10, Goss drew the second of two charges on Kulas. The foul was Kulas’s fifth and all but sealed the outcome.”The biggest thing that Bria did for us now was that she went on Kulas in the second half and really, really affected her and did a masterful job,” Mitchell said.Goss’s work is the most important single reason why UK was able to get back on the right track.”I think this was a huge win,” Goss said. “Like I said, Missouri’s a really good team and for us to come out the way we did and battle back and just get that confidence back and ease our way back into was really good for us.”Time will tell whether the win ends up deciding the SEC title race, but Mitchell believes Sunday was important regardless.”Not from the standings or our long-term future, but just for our immediate psyche right now we needed to win,” Mitchell said.