Statistically, it’s easy to see what has started coming together for Kentucky during this once unlikely three-game winning streak.
After losing 10 of 11 games, the Cats have won three in a row by an average of 17.7 points. They are making 49.7 percent of their shots and 40 percent from three-point range in this spree.
Kentucky is winning both the turnover (plus-5) and rebounding battles (plus-3).
So, yes, that extra work in the gym, all of the additional shots and the more intense practices are starting to pay dividends.
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But there was a less-discussed change that played a significant role, too, coaches and players said this week.
“We’ve cleaned a lot of stuff up and got a lot of things aired out,” junior guard Maci Morris said of a team meeting held after a disappointing road loss at Vanderbilt that preceded the UK bye week.
Kentucky got “a lot of things out in the open, and I think it made us closer and more trustworthy with each other,” Morris continued.
Sometimes team meetings are overblown, especially in the media, but this one called by the coaches and carried out mostly by the players served a purpose.
There has been a noticeable attitude shift since that meeting, Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
“I don’t think it is unusual when you are having trouble and losing,” Mitchell said on Friday of the meeting. “It was not anything groundbreaking but before we took the floor (for practice) we had to sit in a room and the assistant coaches did a great job of putting forward some thought-provoking things and allowing the players to talk.
“It is hard to lose games. The kids were physically working hard, but emotionally and mentally we could have done better and we have.”
During that loss at Vanderbilt, there were clear signs of a lack of energy and effort. Something had to change.
“It was a good time to let it out,” assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. “Reset, refocus, rejuvenate and go back to the goals that we had. That’s what the meeting was to me.”
Kentucky lost its next game after the get-together, to a South Carolina team that won the NCAA championship last season and stars one of the top players in the country.
But then the winning started.
The Cats hope they can continue the trend on Sunday in Rupp Arena against surging Louisiana State (14-6, 6-3 Southeastern Conference).
LSU is coming off consecutive wins over top-25 teams in Tennessee and Georgia. The Tigers also own a win over No. 15 Missouri.
Kentucky (12-11, 4-5) is looking for a few signature wins of its own with seven games left in the regular season. There will be plenty of opportunities coming up.
After this game, UK plays four of its final six on the road, including trips to Missouri, No. 2 Mississippi State and No. 7 South Carolina.
The Cats get the unbeaten Bulldogs for a final time at home to close out the regular season.
So the road is not going to be easy.
Mitchell and his players feel better about their team now than they did a few short weeks ago.
“We had to wake some people up and get the attitudes out and quit feeling sorry for ourselves and get out on the court and start doing the things we need to do to be successful,” Mitchell said.
Practices are more open and honest, said Morris, UK’s leading scorer. There’s been a definite attitude shift.
“Now we can tell each other what we need to do,” the junior guard said. “We can go up to one another and tell each other what needs to be done and have mutual respect with that. Just having that, it’s making us work harder in practice and playing for each other.”
The game in Rupp Arena will include five childhood cancer survivors in the pregame lineup to help promote UK’s annual DanceBlue Marathon. The event, which will be Feb. 17-18 this year, has donated $11 million to the Golden Matrix Fund, established to support the kids of the DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Hematology/Oncology Clinic.
▪ Sunday’s game also serves as the Cats’ annual alumni game. Former players will be honored on the court during the game and afterward.
LSU vs. Kentucky at Rupp Arena
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: LSU 14-6 (6-3 SEC), Kentucky 12-11 (4-5)
Series: LSU leads 32-15
Last meeting: Kentucky won 55-42 on Jan. 19, 2017, at Baton Rouge, La.