Cats Come off Bye with Clear Path Forward
As byes go, Kentucky’s couldn’t have come with much better timing.
The Wildcats, before their weekend off, played three of four games over the course of two weeks on the road. The stretch brought two of UK’s best wins of the season – at Tennessee and at LSU – but also losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Along the way, all three of UK’s top scorers – Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Rhyne Howard – sustained injuries that forced them to miss time.
In other words, it’s been a grind.
“It’s a long season and the bye date really came at an advantageous time for the Wildcats,” Matthew Mitchell said. “Not only the two kids (Murray and Howard) that missed the game Thursday night, but the kids that played were hurting and banged up just dealing with various issues. I’m so proud that they played through and earned a big victory down there. The ability to trust and recover and rejuvenate is so important for our team.”
Morris, Murray and Howard benefited from a week without a game. Mitchell is hopeful they will be available when No. 15/12 UK (16-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 25/RV Missouri (15-5, 4-2 SEC) Thursday at 6:30 p.m., but he’s confident whether or not all three can play. After the way UK played in a big win over LSU last time out without Murray and Howard, he has every reason to be.
“They came out with laser-light focus, tremendous energy and effort and got control of the game early, which fueled our confidence to make us believe that we could get that done,” Mitchell said. “So, now you have some players that have shown they’re capable of doing things, so we need to be a complete balanced ball team.”
Regardless what combination of players he has on the floor, Mitchell has come to know he can expect one thing: maximum effort. Considering UK can’t expect to be at full strength throughout its pursuit of lofty March goals, that’s a positive development.
“We’re far from perfect, certainly we still have flaws, but I don’t think you can question their desire to win,” Mitchell said. “You know, sometimes you don’t make the right play, but for every mental error or boneheaded play you want to call that we made last Thursday night, we made about three hustle plays. So, I don’t know that we’re ever going to be a masterpiece and just a beautiful and perfect team, but those qualities of toughness and grit and intensity, and being able to find a way to get a stop on defense, those things are serving us well.”
Against Missouri, UK will certainly need those traits.
The Tigers have one of the league’s best players in Sophie Cunningham (15.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 3.2 apg), as well a scoring defense ranked 25th in the country. Missouri is a potent outside shooting team and sits a half-game ahead of UK in SEC standings.
“Well, Missouri has a really tough team as always,” Mitchell said. “Robin Pingeton is one of the great coaches in our league and they are always so physical and so tough to score on, and they run offenses as well as anybody in the league. So, it’ll be tough game, a real difficult matchup for us.”
A difficult matchup, yes, but one in which the Cats know what they will have to do to win.
“We’ve said all year long, we’re not a star-studded team,” Mitchell said. “We’re a team that is going to have to get it together and get it done together. The sum will have to equal more than the parts and that is the style that we’ll have to play this year to win.”