John Clay: UK women prove their mettle at 'critical juncture'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 26, 2014 

Talk about your season on the brink.

The time: 17:11 remaining in the second half at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday afternoon. The score: Arkansas 44, Kentucky 34. The deficit: Double digits. The feeling: That this was a crossroads for this Kentucky women's basketball team.

The fear: Oh, not another Alabama game, the "embarrassment'' — Matthew Mitchell's words — that was Thursday night's loss to the Crimson Tide. Not a third home-floor conference loss in a conference where you have to win because it's so difficult to win on the road.

And yet, here they were, down double digits to a team occupying a lower floor of the conference standings. What once was a ripple started feeling like a tidal wave.

"That was a critical juncture, down 10 with no life whatsoever," Mitchell, the UK coach, would say later.

"I don't think we realized it at that moment," said Janee Thompson, the sophomore point guard. "We did realize we weren't playing to our capabilities, especially on defense. We let them get some easy buckets. We kind of felt like things could have gone the way they had been going for us and we really wanted to change that around."

So they did. Who knows why they didn't turn it around sooner, or what happened to turn it around this time, or what goes on in the minds college students, even talented, athletic college students that comprise one of the best women's basketball teams in the country (even if lately they had not been playing as such)?

The same team that handed Louisville its only loss to date, that beat Baylor in four overtimes, had gone 4-4 in its last eight games, starting with the loss to Duke in that pack-the-house game at Rupp Arena back on Dec. 22.

Losing to Duke is no disgrace. Losing at home to Florida is a head-scratcher. Losing at home to an Alabama team you beat by 22 in Tuscaloosa just three weeks earlier is cause for certain alarm.

"I wish I could explain to you how in the world we all of a sudden got so fragile with our mentality," Mitchell said. "A lot of that's me with practice construction. I've been trying to work on the finer points of the game and make it real pretty with our execution. And we haven't handled that very well."

Under Mitchell, Kentucky women's basketball hasn't been necessarily pretty. It's not dazzling drives and rainbow jumpers.

What got Kentucky to three Elite Eights in the last four years, and a top-five ranking earlier this year, was floor burns and taking charges and causing the type of chaotic turnovers that lead to easy buckets at the other end.

So down double digits, backs to the wall, season on the brink, the Cats got back to that. As a result, Arkansas scored 14 points over the game's final 17 minutes. Kentucky scored 34. At the close of business, a 10-point deficit had turned into a 10-point win.

Telling statistic: First half, Kentucky's defense allowed Arkansas to shoot 50 percent. Second half, Kentucky's defense allowed Arkansas to shoot 34.5 percent. The first number is how a team falls behind. The second number is how a team achieves an important win.

This doesn't mean the season is saved. If one loss doesn't kill a season — "We'll never be able to figure that one out," Mitchell said of the Alabama loss — one win doesn't make a season. To think that the train has been pulled completely back onto the tracks would be a premature assumption.

You know, kind of like assuming you're going to beat Alabama on your home floor.

"I'm not saying we're out of the woods yet," Mitchell said.

But boy, lose Sunday, and the Cats could have found themselves so deep in the woods they may never have found their way out.

"I don't know ... you'd have found some way, the season's not over and you got to play Thursday night against a good Georgia team," Mitchell said, "but that would have been a really, really tough one to bounce back from."

Kentucky did bounce back from the brink.

Said Mitchell, "We need to build on that."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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