Kentucky-South Carolina notes: Cats 'pulling in the same direction' again

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 19, 2014 

Lots of coaches on Kentucky's campus have famously discussed their lack of access to magic wands.

While Nike takes its time trying to develop one, Coach Matthew Mitchell and his team had to figure their own way out of a bad stretch of January that saw them lose half of their eight games — including a 68-59 loss to Thursday's opponent, South Carolina.

There's been no magic involved (although getting senior forward DeNesha Stallworth back to full speed has helped), just a collection of things over a long period of time.

"We were just in a really bad mental and emotional place where we weren't all pulling in the same direction," Mitchell explained as UK prepares for a stretch of two games versus the Southeastern Conference's leaders in the fourth-ranked Gamecocks and then at No. 16 Texas A&M.

"We had different people discouraged for different reasons. It was just sort of a collection of talented players. None of them playing particularly well, not a team pulling in the same direction."

So there have been honest discussions, laughs, tears, video montages of happier times.

"We watched a highlight film of when we were winning and just how much fun we were having," junior guard Bria Goss said. "In order to have fun, we've got to make plays and we're making a lot of good plays, getting on the floor, doing what we were doing in November and December."

The healing also has included spending more time with one another.

"Although we were close off the court as a team, we weren't really close with the coaches and now the coaches are doing stuff with us, really getting involved, really showing us that they want to be a part of our lives," Goss said.

No. 15 Kentucky has won three of its last four games, including a big win at then-No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday, with these other big games coming fast on the horizon.

"We'll see how we continue to progress, but they've certainly now put themselves in a position to show how good they can be," he said. "I think they're all intent on doing that right now."

'Millions, trillions of shots'

It's the same routine every time.

Bria Goss doesn't deviate from it.

She can even do her free-throw shooting routine in blue jeans between classes. Probably with her eyes closed.

For the Kentucky guard there is always the step back off the line, the dribble, the ball spin, the pause, the shot.

Whatever it is, it works. Goss is sixth in the nation and tops in the Southeastern Conference in free-throw shooting.

"Just reps; that's really what it is," she said. "It's about muscle memory. You're shooting the same shot every time. Just getting in the gym and shooting millions, trillions of shots."

Millions? Really?

"Probably. I shoot tons of free throws," Goss said. "I go in between classes, I'll go in my jeans and stuff and go shoot free throws."

The extra work has helped the junior improve her free-throw shooting dramatically since she arrived on campus. Her freshman year, Goss shot 73.1 percent, then 84.3 her sophomore season.

This season, she's hitting 92.7 percent, including a streak of 27 in a row (ended versus Ole Miss last week) that tied the school record for consecutive makes. Goss has missed only six of her 82 attempts.

As for the step back from the line, she said that's usually just a reset and a chance to slap hands with teammates.

And the spin, which her high school coach discouraged, she's kept that in her routine anyway. "I always came back to it. It's like a comfort thing."

Gamecocks blocks

Kentucky learned firsthand how well South Carolina can contest shots.

In their game in Columbia a few weeks ago, the Gamecocks swatted 14 UK shots, matching their season high. At one point midway through the second half, South Carolina had 12 blocked shots to 10 made baskets for Kentucky.

Behind forwards Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates, South Carolina is third in the nation in blocked shots at 7.1 a game. Those numbers have helped the Gamecocks become one of the nation's premier defenses, allowing opponents to shoot just 34.2 percent from the field, fifth-best in the nation.

"You've got to be aware of that and you just have to make good decisions, so it's a lot of discipline," Mitchell said of the Gamecocks' blocks. "You can't shy away and be scared and shoot all perimeter shots."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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