Mid-season meeting has UK women fully engaged entering NCAA play (vs. Wright St., 11 am, ESPN2)

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 21, 2014 

  • Lineups


    Starters: Bria Goss, 5-10, Jr., G (9.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, So., PG; (8.8 ppg, 3.1 apg, 2.1 rpg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Sr. (8.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Sr., F (9.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg); DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Sr., F (12.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg).

    Key reserves: Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, Jr., G (12.7 ppg, 2.3, 2.8 apg); Azia Bishop, 6-4, Jr., F (5.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg); Makayla Epps, 5-10, Fr., G (4.5 ppg); Linnae Harper, 5-8, Fr., G (6.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Sr., G (3.5 ppg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, Jr. (3.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg).


    Starters: Kim Demmings, 5-8, Jr., G (22.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 apg); Sarah Hunter, 5-6, Jr., G (3.3 ppg); Ivory James, 5-7, Sr., G (17.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg); Tay'ler Mingo, 5-7, Jr., G (15.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.4 apg); Tayler Stanton, 6-0, Jr., F (7.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg).

    Key reserves: Breanna Stucke, 6-0, Jr., F (3.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Abby Jump, 5-7, Jr., G (3.5 ppg).

  • Schedule

    First and second rounds in Memorial Coliseum

    11 a.m. Saturday: Kentucky (24-8) vs. Wright State (26-8)

    1:30 p.m. Saturday: Syracuse (22-9) vs. Chattanooga (29-3)

    6:30 p.m. Monday: Second-round game

    Tickets: Single-session reserved tickets are $22 for adults (ages 19-64), $15 for youth (0-18) and for seniors (ages 65+); all-session ticket prices are $36 for adults, $24 for youth and seniors

    Purchase: Online at ukathletics.com, in person at Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or by calling the UK ticket office at 1-800-928-2287

"So who's your celebrity crush?"

It seems like a ridiculous question for a head coach to be asking his players two nights before his team heads into the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

But it's those types of questions, those types of interactions that were missing a few short weeks ago as Kentucky trudged through the start of conference play.

The Cats, who will host Wright State in the first round at Memorial Coliseum on Saturday morning, felt a disconnect from their head coach as they struggled with some difficult losses.

So when Matthew Mitchell called a team meeting to air grievances, he had some fed back to him as well.

"First thing he told us in that meeting was people were going to need to have tough skin," point guard Jennifer O'Neill said. "For him to organize that meeting, he was going to need some tough skin as well."

So as a group, mediated by an athletics leadership guru, the players offered up some harsh criticism for their head coach.

"They were like, 'Well you aren't real engaged with the team,'" Mitchell recalled of the meeting. "Things that I didn't believe were happening."

This was a mostly veteran team that the head coach felt he had a deep connection with, but something was missing.

He was missing, they told him.

Hearing the criticism was difficult for Mitchell.

"It's not what you wanted to hear and it's not what you want to believe," Mitchell said on Friday. "You don't want to believe that about yourself and your initial reaction is, 'You're wrong, I do love you and look at what all I've done for you.'"

The players asked for a deeper level of engagement off the court, when there's no ball in hand or whistle around his neck.

They wanted to feel like he was invested in them beyond basketball.

So Mitchell reached out. There have been regular team dinners, including a lively meal at the hibachi grill, trips to the bowling alley, to the roller-skating rink.

"Just coming together as a team," guard Bria Goss said of how UK managed to turn things around after starting Southeastern Conference play 5-5. "We're spending a lot more time together off the court here the past couple of weeks and I think that has helped on and off the court with our relationships and just getting to know each other better."

Cellphones are gone when the team eats together. The conversations turn to celebrity crushes and life off the court.

"We're really just engaging each other," senior Kastine Evans said. "There's just a lot of focus on us as a team becoming closer."

Mitchell has tried to make practices more fun, more connected.

The first few minutes of UK's practice in Memorial Coliseum on Friday were spent with players trying to bounce balls off their knees into the basket.

The UK coach smiled and laughed the entire time. He made jokes about some of the more ridiculous-looking shots.

"In our practice ... we take time out just to have fun," Goss explained. "We didn't really see that a lot earlier in the season."

So when Kentucky (24-8) tips off against Wright State (26-8) on Saturday morning, the Cats will have a coach on the bench who knows them better. He knows their celebrity crush.

And that could make all the difference.

"They could have just shut their mouths and not said anything and we could have become a train wreck," Mitchell said. "They opened up and put themselves out there and have really worked hard to become a team."

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

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