COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Kentucky got out of its comfort zone and went to a zone, and that made all the difference.
The Cats have built their reputation nationally the past few years by playing aggressive, speedy, nasty man-to-man defense, scoring points in transition after forcing dozens of turnovers.
But that hasn't been as successful this season for UK, so Coach Matthew Mitchell has had to seek alternatives.
His team worked hard to execute a two-three zone before the game against Texas A&M on Sunday, and it worked out.
"The players worked real hard on the two-three zone," Mitchell said. "They hadn't played a lot of that, and they worked real hard for two days on it and it really paid off for us today."
Several times it caught the No. 16 Aggies off guard and helped the No. 15 Cats win on the road 83-74.
"This wasn't an upset," Aggies Coach Gary Blair said afterward. "Both of us are very equal in ability. This was just a team that played better than us, had a better game plan."
And that game plan was the zone that didn't force a ton of turnovers, just 11 in all for the Aggies, but it confused and confounded them at the right times.
"As coaches, we can't all go out and say we're going to be Jim Boeheim and play 40 minutes of zone or Bobby Knight and play 40 minutes of man," Blair said of UK's defensive evolution. "You do what your personnel dictates. You do what the flow of the game dictates. You do how game is being called dictates."
In hindsight, Blair said he wished he had moved to a zone as Kentucky continually penetrated and drove in for layups.
The zone also helped keep freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper — two of the Cats' key penetrators on Sunday — in the game. Defensive lapses had kept the duo sidelined in many close games this season.
"I thought the two-three zone helped them play to their strengths on defense," Mitchell said. "They both have great anticipation and they do a good job in an open stance."
Senior DeNesha Stallworth doesn't care what defense Kentucky's in as long as it's winning games.
"We just know that if we play together then everything will be all right," she said. "The zone is just a different look. ... It's just us finding our identity."
Texas A&M's coach couldn't say enough about the play of Kentucky freshmen Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps.
"Their two freshmen off the bench," he said. "They played like McDonald's All-Americans."
For the first time this season, Epps had back-to-back double-digit scoring games for the Cats. The guard from Marion County came back from a career-best 16 points versus South Carolina on Thursday and followed it up with 11 points on Sunday.
She attempted just one shot in the game, getting all 11 points from free throws as she plowed through the lane.
"She was just a big-body guard that could take us off the dribble and get the and-one calls," Blair said of Epps, who also had three rebounds and four assists (with no turnovers) in 22 minutes. "She did a good job."
Harper, whom Blair called "just a great talent" made six of her nine shots and had 16 points for Kentucky, the most she's scored for the Cats in league play.
"They were terrific," Mitchell said of his freshmen. "I was really proud of them to come on the road like that and play so tough. It was fun to see them reap some benefits from some awfully hard work."
Bench means business
In what has to be an anomaly at most schools, Kentucky's bench players outscored its starters 53-30 on Sunday.
It helps when the Cats have their leading scorer, Jennifer O'Neill (17 points), always coming off the bench, but UK got help from players like Harper and Epps, too.
It wasn't just them, though.
Jelleah Sidney had seven points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots for the Cats.
"She gave energy and she just has no fear in there regardless of who she's playing against and I think that's what makes her so special as a player," Stallworth said of her fellow forward.
Kentucky's bench outscored Texas A&M's reserves 53-10.
"What makes Kentucky so special is we just need everybody," Stallworth continued.
Harper agreed. "When everyone on the team is bringing energy and having a good vibe, I think that helps everyone. It helps us on offense and defense."