DULUTH, Ga. — With a fifth straight appearance in the SEC Tournament semifinals hanging in the balance, the UK women's basketball team trailed Florida 36-29 at halftime Friday. Until this season, there is zero question what instructions Coach Matthew Mitchell would have given his team:
Turn up the full-court heat.
After all, it was when Mitchell embraced a frenetic, full-court-pressing style before the 2009-10 season that a long-slumbering UK women's basketball program awoke.
This season, Mitchell and Kentucky have been forced off script. So, with the Cats in trouble in the league tourney against the same Florida that beat them twice during the regular season, Mitchell did not call for full-court pressure. Instead, Kentucky employed some half-court run-and-jump traps and, later, a 2-3 zone.
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It worked. Overcoming a horrid first half, No. 4 seed Kentucky (23-7) rallied past fifth seed Florida (19-12) for a 75-70 win. DeNesha Stallworth led a balanced UK attack — seven players with seven points or more — with 13 points. Bidding for its fourth trip to the SEC tourney finals in the past five seasons, UK will face regular-season champion South Carolina at high noon Saturday.
What a season of challenge this has been for Mitchell. In the current period of UK Hoops ascendancy, the full-court press has been the identity of Kentucky women's basketball.
Yet with this year's decree that referees call games more closely to create "freedom of movement" for offensive players, Mitchell came to a jarring realization while his team — expected to make a viable bid for Kentucky's first women's Final Four berth — slogged through a 4-4 January.
With the way the game was being called, UK's press was not what it had been.
"This particular team, I think lost confidence in the press, and that's hard to get back," Mitchell said in the UK locker room after Friday's game. "I kept trying and trying in practice to get it back and it wasn't happening. So, at some point, you just have to say 'This particular team, that's not the formula for them to win. And we've got to do something different.'"
Imagine Nick Saban giving up a power-oriented offense mid-season to go with an up-tempo spread attack. That's essentially the magnitude of what Mitchell has done in scrapping, temporarily he hopes, his team's signature full-court press.
"With the rules the way they are being called now, Matthew got into conference play and just realized what we'd been doing was not as effective anymore," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "That's not easy for a coach to do. I think, since Feb. 1 or about there, he's done a remarkable job essentially finding a new way for his team to play and win."
Changing horses midstream, so to speak, has put new demands on a veteran roster that was used to playing an all-out, in-your-face defensive style.
"Now, (there's more reliance on) scouting," said Kentucky junior guard Jennifer O'Neill. "You have to know the (opponent's plays) more now. You have to know, 'All right, she's going to come below the screen and it's going to be a lob.' Before, we didn't have to worry about any of that because (the opponents) couldn't get in their sets."
If altering his team's style wasn't challenging enough, Mitchell also had to help senior standout Stallworth bounce back mentally after mid-season knee surgery. He had to guide prized freshman Makayla Epps through the aftermath of a car accident she survived.
Then, as the Final Four hype built after UK started 11-0 with attention-getting wins against Louisville and Baylor, Mitchell saw his team go through a confidence-sapping 6-6 stretch.
"We were supposed to be something, and we weren't being that," Mitchell said. "Everybody handled it differently. Some people acted like it wasn't a big deal. Some people took it real hard. Some people got more tense. ... I just couldn't let everybody shut down. We had to talk and we had to engage."
That Kentucky changed its defensive identity, weathered a mid-season slump and has come out of all of that having won six of its last seven — including road victories at then-No. 8 Tennessee and then-No. 16 Texas A&M — is a rather impressive piece of coaching improvisation.
Said Mitchell: "It's been challenging. But, you know, it helps you get better. I feel like I'm a better coach than I was a month ago."
He's had to be.