After a lackluster start to the conference season, the 9th ranked Kentucky Wildcats (16-4, 4-3 SEC) played their best game of 2014 to knock off the Arkansas Razorbacks (15-5, 2-5 SEC) 68-58. In a critical turning point game for UK, the guard play and competitive spirit of Jennifer O’Neill and Janee Thompson were the keys to victory.
At the 17:20 mark of the second half the Hogs had extended their one point halftime lead to 10, and it looked like deja vu for Kentucky. Glum faces, frustrated players and a concerned Matthew Mitchell. “With the way we’ve been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves, that was a critical juncture in our season to come from being down 10 to flip that. Give all the credit to the players who came in and flipped that.” Unlike the past few weeks in which UK folded up the tent in moments like these, the Cats came roaring back. You could see a flipped switch, and that resulted in an 18-4 run, fueled by 3-pointers from Bria Goss and Janee Thompson and that fundamental UK high pressure defense.
Coming in to today’s game, you knew it was time to put up or shut up for many players on Mitchell’s squad. He switched around the starting line-ups giving junior Jelleah Sidney the start over DeNesha Stallworth and junior Jennifer O’Neill in replacement of Janee Thompson. “People are gonna compete in practice everyday, and they’re gonna play for Kentucky every day, and if they don’t they won’t play,” said Mitchell. Clearly, messages were sent to the Wildcats over the past few days over what mentality to have, and while some picked it up loud and clear, it got lost in translation for others. Namely star senior Stallworth, who played a total of just 10 minutes today and Mitchell said it had nothing to do with her health. Sidney didn’t disappoint, as the perennial “glue girl” who many times gets forgotten among the star players she suits up with, yet always brings maximum effort and competitiveness. Jen O’Neill praised her teammate saying “I don’t think people realize that she is the missing piece, she is the type of player that you want to play with.”
Kentucky came out quick, much quicker than they have in recent games, but Arkansas was able to use the slower pace of UK’s zone in the first half to their advantage, and freshman Hog Jessica Jackson led her team in scoring with 21 points. “[Their zone] gave us a chance to make plays,” said Coach Tom Collen (former Louisville Cardinal #L1CyaLater). After halftime the Cats went back to their staple man-to-man, and this sped the Razorbacks up, charging the crowd and igniting the team.
While a lot has had to change, and still has to in the future, for the Kentucky players to get off this slump, Coach Mitchell himself came clean about how he’s had to personally switch up his coaching mentality. “No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more telling them how everything’s gonna be all right. It hasn’t worked. They have not responded to that.” Today’s post-game press conference was as fiery and emotional as I have ever seen Mitchell, and you can tell he’s done a lot of soul searching after the embarrassing loss to Alabama. As always he thanked the fans saying “I was surprised anyone showed up for today’s game after how we played Thursday night.”
This afternoon’s game truly felt like a transitional point in not only this season, but in the career of Matthew Mitchell. “I wish I could explain to you how in the world we got so fragile with our mentality,” he said. The players agreed with their coach adding “[We were] questioning ourselves and our talent. Forgetting we are a top 10 team and an elite team.” Only time will tell if the let down of Thursday night was truly “rock bottom” and the turning point for a championship run. Fingers crossed. Until then, it’s all about getting everyone on board with their mentality. If they don’t, they’ll get left behind.
Today was the last day of “We Back Pat” week, a promotional initiative to raise awareness for the Pat Summitt Foundation and the fight against Alzheimer’s. To support the cause Coach Mitchell and his wife Jenna vowed to donate $2 to every fan who showed up to Kentucky’s home games this past Thursday and today. In total, the Mitchell family raised $20,236 dollars, but due to the inclement weather and to further show their noble character, they decided to double that donation and send a hefty $40,472 check to the Pat Summitt Foundation.
The Cats return to action Thursday night as they hit the road to take on the always tough Georgia Bulldogs. Stay tuned, times are a changin’ with this team.