There will be multiple story lines that are bantered about during the broadcast of Kentucky’s game against South Carolina on Sunday in Rupp Arena.
One will be the return of forward Alexis Jennings, one of more than a handful of players who parted ways with Kentucky two years ago.
Jennings, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, is coming off a breakout game for the Gamecocks, scoring a season-best 27 points against Vanderbilt on Thursday night.
The banter also will be about defending national champion South Carolina trying to play through some key injuries, including an ankle sprain that has sidelined star A’ja Wilson, who leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring.
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Against the Commodores a couple of nights ago, the Gamecocks were down to eight players and had two more suffer injuries.
Kentucky’s coach was asked about the return of Jennings to face her former teammates and trying to scout a South Carolina team with so many question marks.
But Matthew Mitchell seemed much more concerned about the story lines that have haunted his team this season like losing eight of its last nine games and struggling on offense.
“That is a great question, but if we were maybe in a different spot,” Mitchell said Friday when asked about how to scout banged up South Carolina. “But we are so focused on trying to get our group to come together and believe that they can make it through this tough time.
“We just have so many young players whose confidence is clearly shaken at times and it is a hard time.”
The young players for Kentucky aren’t the only ones that are struggling during this difficult stretch for the Cats (9-10, 1-4 Southeastern Conference).
“Anybody that would say you don’t have some doubts during that time or negative thoughts creeping into your mind, they are a better person than I am,” said Mitchell, whose team has been to eight straight NCAA Tournaments. “At the end of the day, what you have to have come through is faith. I have tremendous faith that we are on the right path.”
The goal each day is to show UK’s players that there has been progress even when it doesn’t always show on the scoreboard at the end of the game.
Not having veteran leadership, especially in the post, has meant that the Cats’ freshmen have had to learn as they go.
It hasn’t always been pretty.
Mitchell said: “As a program we are clearly dealing with some of the things that happened two years ago where our roster looks different.”
One of those players, Jennings, is coming back to play her former team for the first time. South Carolina (15-3, 4-2) declined to make the forward available for an interview this week.
Jennings’ return doesn’t appear to be an issue for the Cats.
“As far as any lingering animosity with anybody that had to do what they had to do, I am just wishing that everyone does great and finds happiness and success,” Mitchell said.
“That is how we are dealing with that. There is not a bad bone or bitterness at all in these kids or in our locker room. We are just trying to get better. Trying to get better so we can show some progress and get some victories.”
Kentucky already has been through the experience of facing a former player who opted to transfer in Linnae Harper, who played a big part in her new team, Ohio State, ousting UK from the NCAA Tournament last March. The guard had a near triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Buckeyes’ victory.
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A week away from basketball appears to have helped UK star Maci Morris, who sat out the last game while battling through a bruised knee.
What’s the junior guard’s status for Sunday? “We are hopeful,” Mitchell said. “She looks like she has really made some great progress, so that will be good.”
Morris, who averages a team-best 15.4 points and 4.3 rebounds a game, hurt her knee in practice on Jan. 4, but was able to play through it at Texas A&M later that day.
After playing through pain in the next couple of games, UK gave Morris a full week off — which included the loss at Vanderbilt on Monday — to help the left knee recover. The junior guard was to be fully evaluated on Friday evening.
The Cats also got some good news about guard Makenzie Cann, who had been struggling with foot pain.
“It would be good if we could get back to full strength and healthy,” Mitchell said, “and Maci is certainly trending in the right direction.”
▪ Sunday’s UK game against the Gamecocks will be part of the annual “We Back Pat” Week, an initiative to bring awareness and recognition to the Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
No. 10 South Carolina at Kentucky
Where: Rupp Arena
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: South Carolina 14-3 (3-2 SEC), Kentucky 9-10 (1-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 33-28
Last meeting: South Carolina won 89-77 on March 4, 2017, in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at Greenville, S.C.