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Defense motivates these Cats

Daily routine has sharpened Cats' claws

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2010 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No matter how deep in the season it gets or how many NCAA Tournament wins they acquire, Kentucky's players know they will spend at least 30 minutes of their next practice doing defensive drills.

Point guard Amber Smith said it's like clockwork. The junior named at least five different drills the team does daily.

Drills with funny names like "fire feet" and "closeout" and "red."

Doing the same drills over and over again day in and day out would seem monotonous, but not to Smith and her UK teammates, who are one win away from playing in the program's first Final Four.

"We can't get tired of something if it helps us get better," Smith said. "It's hard to complain when you see something working."

Kentucky's defense, fueled by its aggressive ball pressure and quick hands, has gotten it to this game with Oklahoma at the Sprint Center.

The Cats' speed and aggression have caught teams off-guard in the post-season.

In three games, UK has forced 56 turnovers. It has stolen the ball an average of 13.3 times a game, while turning it over only 14 times a contest. The Cats are second in the nation in turnover margin because of that.

Coach Matthew Mitchell said it all goes back to those drills they do daily.

"The reason we're in this position now is because they never grew weary of defensive fundamentals," he said.

"The reason they have progressed and the reason they'll have a chance to win (Tuesday) night — I don't know that we can, but we'll have a chance — is because they've been willing to work so hard."

Kentucky (28-7) sped up and then knocked out top-seeded and fourth-ranked Nebraska on Sunday night to earn an Elite Eight berth, the first for UK since the field expanded to 64 teams.

Against the top-quality opponents UK played this season, Mitchell said it's nearly impossible to have a perfect defensive game.

But he's seen something recently that might be more important.

"We are closing in on a near-perfect effort," he said. "That's really the goal: perfect effort."

For UK, holding an opponent without a shot for long stretches of time is just as exciting as an 18-0 run on the other end.

"Just getting stops in a row gives us energy," Smith said. "That's our backbone right there. It gives us the same amount of energy that scoring a bunch of points would."

Junior Victoria Dunlap, who leads Kentucky in steals this season with 104, said defense is fun for the Cats.

It's more fun because they're winning big games on a big stage.

"We're all on an emotional high right now," she said. "Everybody is really excited, just ready to continue what we're doing and we know we're not done yet. ... We have another win to get and we've got more to come."

Oklahoma, with its high-powered offense that is averaging 71.4 points behind four players in double figures, said it knows what it's up against.

"We're confident in everything we do," said guard Danielle Robinson, the Sooners' leading scorer with 16.7 points a game. "They'll pressure us, but it's nothing we haven't seen coming into this game. The best thing is you can attack and exploit it."

Coach Sherri Coale said playing in the Big 12 South has prepared her team for what it is going up against in UK. She noted the Cats are similar to Texas A&M.

"We're probably just about as prepared as anybody could be," Coale said.

But the Sooners (26-10) were 1-2 against Texas A&M this season with turnover totals of 21, 19 and 18 in those games.

The most turnovers they had this season was against a familiar Southeastern Conference foe: Georgia. In a 62-51 Bulldogs win, Oklahoma coughed it up 24 times

Without prompting, though, Mitchell agreed with Coale's assessment.

"They are as equipped to handle what we do as anybody that we've played up to this point," Mitchell said, noting Oklahoma is a team that executes back-door plays effectively, which could be problematic for Kentucky.

"It's going to be a mental game for us now," he said. "We're going to have to commit more than ever to our defensive fundamentals."

Kentucky just hopes it has another practice to devote 30 more minutes to those defensive drills.

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