No. 22 Kentucky eyes another 20-win season after upheaval
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky has overcome an exodus of nearly half its roaster and three assistant coaches, a run that has the Wildcats on the cusp of yet another 20-win season and another NCAA Tournament appearance.
The offseason turmoil left the No. 22 Wildcats with six scholarship players last spring.
The upheaval over an eight-month span - which also led an All-American prospect to back out of her commitment - had coach Matthew Mitchell wondering where his program was headed and how to move forward without overworking his remaining personnel.
''When we embarked on this season,'' the 10th-year Kentucky coach said, ''I don't know that any of us - players, coaches, fans, media really knew what was going to hold.''
That adversity has turned out bringing out the best in the Wildcats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference), who have survived the upheaval to stand third place in the league with dreams of another deep postseason run.
''We're shocking the world and showing people that might've counted us down and out at the end of April when we were losing a lot of players,'' senior guard and leading scorer Makayla Epps said.
''People thought we wouldn't succeed in the SEC or knock off teams that we did in non-conference. We're doing everything that nobody said we would.''
The Wildcats have two major challenges to reach the 20-win plateau during the regular season.
Kentucky hosts No. 3 and first-place Mississippi State (27-1, 13-1) on Thursday night before Sunday's regular season finale at No. 7 South Carolina, which dealt the Wildcats their last loss on Feb. 2. They've won four in a row since and are eager to add a couple of signature wins to demonstrate how far they've come.
The returns of Epps, an all-SEC first-team and Associated Press honorable mention selection, and senior forward Evelyn Akhator gave Mitchell an experienced inside-outside combination to start with. Sophomore guards Taylor Murray (12.2 points, 5.2 rebounds per game) and Maci Morris (team-high 46 3-pointers) have been crucial on both ends, as has junior center Alyssa Rice.
Freshman guard Jaida Roper, transfers Makenzie Cann and Jessica Hardin and walk-ons such as guard Paige Poffenberger and have bolstered the bench and allowed Mitchell to keep his rotation fresh.
''Fatigue has set in at times, but at the end of the day this group has given an incredible effort,'' athletic director Mitch Barnhart said recently. ''I think it's been one of Matthew's better coaching jobs. We have manufactured ways to win.''
Kentucky has remained one of the SEC's top defenses, tying for fifth in scoring defense (60.4 points) and ninth in field goal defense at nearly 39 percent.
Barnhart said maintaining the status quo speaks volumes about players' bonding together, along with Mitchell's mindset change toward being more engaged toward their needs.
The coach has mentioned that aspect often as he tried to move on from the controversy, a process he also said required some spiritual reflection. Mitchell also reached out to old friends such as Linn Dunn, a Hall of Famer who mentored him, and former Wildcat assistants Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts to help things on the court.
Their intent on rebuilding team chemistry has also yielded success that has even surprised players. Kentucky now has another opportunity to play the postseason at home in hopes of earning the program's first Final Four berth - a goal the Wildcats appreciate more than usual.
''We've come together a lot,'' said Murray, who never considered leaving Lexington. ''Everyone's on the same page and dedicated to working harder and pulling for each other. ... I feel like we've played great basketball, but there's more to come.''