UK women's notes: Vols vow revenge for loss to Cats

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 8, 2014 

DULUTH, Ga. — It was just a couple of weeks ago that Kentucky came from behind and upset Tennessee.

The Cats' first victory in school history at Thompson-Boling Arena on Feb. 16 was memorable for UK — and, apparently, for the Lady Vols, too.

That loss will fan the flames of what has become an intense rivalry in recent years, with Kentucky winning three of the last four matchups against Tennessee.

"We owe them one," Tennessee's Cierra Burdick said of the Cats. "I think we owe our fans one."

She noted how much orange there is packing The Arena at Gwinnett Center this weekend and said UT doesn't want to disappoint those fans in the championship game on Sunday.

"It's obviously a home-court advantage," Burdick continued. "We've got a sea of orange in the stands and they weren't able to see us get that win at home, so now it's time for us to get the win here. We want to be champions. That's what we came here to do."

The 75-71 loss to Kentucky is in the back of the Volunteers' minds.

"It's motivation," senior guard Meighan Simmons said shortly after Tennessee knocked off Texas A&M. "I don't want us to be overconfident. I want us to be poised, remain calm and playing like we have the last two games.

"It's going to be a nitty gritty (game). It's going to be a war zone. I know that for a fact."

Tennessee has been to six of the last eight championship games and is undefeated in those finals, including two over UK.

Kentucky's win on Saturday came first, so the Cats didn't know who their opponent would be.

Either way, Coach Matthew Mitchell was ready to see how his team will perform.

"I'm really, really happy about today," he said. "But I do want to stay focused on what we came down here to do, and that's to win the championship."

The next opponent doesn't matter, he said.

"I told the players today: Don't spend any time in the past today, and don't worry about the future either. Just stay right squarely focused on the play in front of you," he said. "They did that today. That's what we'll need to do tomorrow."

A fresh approach

Kentucky's freshmen have continued to impress in the Cats' two SEC Tournament games.

Guards Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps came off the UK bench on Saturday and combined to score 22 points, grab seven rebounds and pass out four assists with just one turnover.

"They're just playing with no fear," senior DeNesha Stallworth said of Epps and Harper, who were in the game during the final minutes. "They've been in big games, they know how to win big games. ... When they play well, we play well."

A few weeks ago when the freshmen were struggling, it would've been easy for them to quit, but they didn't Mitchell said.

"They could've stopped trying to get better in the middle of the year because it didn't look like light was in the tunnel," he said. "They deserve a lot of credit for hanging in."

'I'm a Lady Vol now'

There are more connections when Tennessee and Kentucky play than there are at some family reunions.

UK's Matthew Mitchell began his coaching career there as a grad assistant under Pat Summitt in 2000. Cats assistant coach Shalon Pillow was a Lady Vol and helped them advance to two Final Fours.

On the orange side, Tennessee assistant Kyra Elzy left UK, where she worked for five seasons for her alma mater.

And most recently, Tennessee hired former Kentucky point guard Amber Smith (a 2012 grad) to be a graduate assistant on their staff.

Smith, who wore a bright orange shirt and khaki pants on the UT bench on Saturday, said she got over the strangeness of going up against so many of her UK teammates at the regular-season matchup in Knoxville. She spent a lot of time with friends like Samarie Walker and Bria Goss after the Cats' upset win.

Asked how it would be for her when the SEC title game tips off on Sunday between UK and Tennessee, she smiled.

"I'm going for Tennessee," she said. "I'm a Lady Vol now. ... Definitely going for orange tomorrow."

Smith said her allegiances are only split when the two teams meet.

"Other than that, I bleed blue," she said. "I'm cheering for them when they're not playing against the Lady Vols. ... I want the girls to do well. I love them to death."

Quick hits

■ Kentucky turned the ball over just five times against South Carolina. UK officials went back to the 1997-98 season and couldn't find any other time when the Cats had so few miscues.

■ UK was 0-for-6 against the No. 1 seed in this tournament until Saturday when it knocked off top-seeded South Carolina.

■ UK is 6-3 against ranked opponents this season, including a 4-3 mark over opponents rated in the top 10.

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

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