Coach John Calipari isn't shy about saying that the Kentucky game is "everybody's Super Bowl."
That no matter what team the Cats are facing, they get the opponent's best game, its hardest punch.
The head coach across the Joe Craft Center hallway rolled his eyes at that notion at first.
"I was very skeptical about that because I had never been through it," UK women's coach Matthew Mitchell said last week. "I just didn't really believe that."
But now Mitchell has seen it firsthand. His team, last season's Southeastern Conference champion and this season's pick to repeat, has taken every foe's best shot this season.
He said the proof is in the tape.
Opponents just seem to have superhero powers: offenses look crisper, defenses more physical, shooting stars a little brighter.
"People can think I'm crazy," Mitchell continued. "I thought people were crazy for talking about it, but I'm a believer now. It is unbelievable what our players are going through right now as far as what they're facing game after game from an effort level and an execution level."
He pointed to the Cats' overtime win at Arkansas last week. The Hogs were 3-7 in the league before facing UK, then they grabbed a double-digit lead and looked "unbelievable.
"From an execution standpoint they were so sharp," Mitchell said of the Razorbacks. "They made shot after shot that you put the tape on and you didn't see them making."
Mitchell lamented that he didn't embrace this Super Bowl concept sooner.
Maybe he would have been harder on his team in practice so it would have been more prepared for knockout punches from South Carolina and Georgia, UK's two league losses this season.
No. 9 Kentucky (21-3, 9-2) will get its chance to avenge the 55-50 loss at South Carolina (20-4, 8-3) Thursday night in Memorial Coliseum. The Gamecocks had the honor of ending UK's then-nation's best 17-game win streak on Jan. 24.
UK's players are hoping they will look back on that loss (and then the one two games later to the Bulldogs) and see them as a turning point in the season.
"At South Carolina we weren't as hungry for whatever reason," sophomore guard Bria Goss said. "But Coach has done a great job of getting us back to that level."
He's done it with some early-morning practices and some tough love. Mitchell said UK "went back to how we used to practice when we were desperate for victories. ...
"We've never been a team that was sort of nonchalant, just kind of hoped you win, we've always had this sort of desperation that we had to play so hard to win."
Mitchell didn't see that team desperate to win at South Carolina in late January. In the game "highlights," he's shown his team instance after instance where the Gamecocks were the aggressor.
"They just flat out wanted the game more," Mitchell said of South Carolina.
Kentucky will try to see if it has learned from the losses, if it's comfortable taking a punch, getting up off the mat and hitting back as the regular season winds down.
"It's just really — I think I've said this all along — an exercise in mental toughness and emotional strength," he told his team. "How bad do you want to win? How bad do you want to win this game?"
A pink out?
Just in time for Valentine's Day, Kentucky will host its annual "Play4 Kay" game on Thursday night, to increase breast cancer awareness in honor of Kay Yow, a former North Carolina State coach who died of breast cancer.
UK will wear pink uniforms, socks and shoes against South Carolina. Fans are encouraged to do the same.
"The money that goes to the Kay Yow fund goes directly to breast cancer research, so it is very important for us to bring awareness to that," said Mitchell, who called Yow an early mentor. "It is very important for us to raise money for that."
No. 16 South Carolina at No. 9 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: None | Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 21-3 (9-2 SEC), South Carolina 20-4 (8-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 30-19
Last meeting: South Carolina won 55-50 on Jan. 24, at Columbia, S.C.
Starters — A'dia Mathies, 5-9, Sr., G (15.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.5 apg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Jr., G (3.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg); Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, So., G (9.8 ppg; 2.0 rpg, 2.5 apg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Jr., F (9.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.0 spg); DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Jr., F (12.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.3 apg).
Key reserves — Bria Goss, 5-10, So., G (9.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Jr., G (3.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, Fr., PG (4.0 ppg); Azia Bishop, 6-3, So., F (3.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Samantha Drake, 6-3, Jr., F (2.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg); Brittany Henderson, 6-2, Sr., F (1.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, So., F (1.8 ppg).
Starters — Ieasia Walker, 5-8, Sr., G (9.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg); Sancheon White, 5-10, Sr., G (4.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Tiffany Mitchell, 5-9, Fr., G (9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg); Aleighsa Welch, 6-0, So., F (11.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg): Ashley Bruner, 6-0, Sr., F (9.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg).
Key reserves — Khadijah Sessions, 5-8, Fr., G (5.1 ppg, 1.4 rpg); Wilka Montout, 6-3, Jr., C (2.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg); Asia Dozier, 5-10, Fr., G (2.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg); Elem Ibiam, 6-3, So., F (3.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg).
Tennessee 10-1 19-5
Texas A&M 9-1 19-5
Kentucky 9-2 21-3
Georgia 8-3 20-4
South Carolina 8-3 20-4
Vanderbilt 5-5 15-8
LSU 5-6 14-10
Missouri 4-6 15-9
Florida 4-6 15-9
Arkansas 4-7 16-8
Mississippi St. 3-7 11-12
Auburn 2-9 13-11
Alabama 2-9 12-12
Mississippi 1-9 8-15
South Carolina at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Mississippi St. at Mississippi, 8 p.m.
Missouri at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m.
Florida at Texas A&M, 9 p.m.
Kentucky (21-3, 9-2)
All times EST and p.m.; home games in all caps
Date Opponent Result
Nov. 5 x-BellarmineW, 113-33
Nov. 10Delaware StateW, 90-50
Nov. 13 at Baylor L, 85-51
Nov. 17 HIGH POINT W, 80-46
Nov. 23 MOREHEAD STATE W, 73-37
Nov. 25 USC UPSTATE W, 100-34
Nov. 28 MIAMI (OHIO) W, 92-53
Dec. 2 at Louisville W, 48-47
Dec. 7 a-DEPAUL W, 96-64
Dec. 9 MIDDLE TENNESSEE W, 68-46
Dec. 18 at Pepperdine W, 80-62
Dec. 21 at UC Santa Barbara W, 66-38
Dec. 28 ALCORN STATE W, 90-23
Dec. 30 MARIST W, 78-56
Jan. 1 FLORIDA W, 76-69
Jan. 6 at Alabama W, 87-70
Jan. 10Texas A&MW, 65-62
Jan. 13 at Missouri W, 69-43
Jan. 17 MISSISSIPPI STATE W, 100-47
Jan. 20 AUBURN W, 97-53
Jan. 24 at South Carolina L, 55-50
Jan. 27 LOUISIANA STATE W, 73-60
Feb. 3 GEORGIA L, 75-71
Feb. 7 at Arkansas W, 80-74 (OT)
Feb. 10 at Vanderbilt W, 75-53
Date Opponent TV Time
Feb. 14 SOUTH CAROLINA 7
Feb. 18 at Texas A&M ESPN2 7
Feb. 24 at Louisiana State 3
Feb. 28 at Mississippi 8
March 3 TENNESSEE ESPNU 3:30
March 6 b-TBA TBA
x-exhibition; a-at Rupp Arena; b-SEC Tournament at Duluth, Ga.
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com