Sports

UK women view Vols as gauge

The Tennessee roster is littered with McDonald's All-Americans.

Kentucky's roster, not so much.

The nearest thing is junior forward Victoria Dunlap, who "likes to eat McDonald's a lot," Coach Matthew Mitchell joked. "She can eat those double cheeseburgers ... but that's the closest we get to McDonald's here."

Purely coincidentally, Dunlap arrived just minutes later for practice Wednesday with a full McDonald's bag in hand.

No, the Cats' best player wasn't a McDonald's All-American.

In fact, no UK player ever has been, but 16th-ranked Kentucky is somehow still in the hunt with the No. 4 Lady Vols for first place in the Southeastern Conference. The two will meet in Knoxville on Thursday night.

It's going to take an unlikely scenario for UK to win the title, though.

The Cats would have to win their next two games (both on the road), and the Vols would have to lose their last two (both at home) for UK to share the regular-season title.

But Mitchell's team still has a lot to play for Thursday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, where UK has never won a game in 14 chances dating to 1987.

"It's more of a big game for us just to see how our style of play can work against a really talented team," Mitchell said.

The coach has watched game film after game film, and no team has played Tennessee the way UK would like to play the Lady Vols.

Kentucky's defense is disruptive and productive. It is fifth in the nation in turnover margin, having forced 20-plus turnovers in 19 games this season.

But can UK turn over a Tennessee team that is averaging just 14.3 miscues a game? The most the Vols have coughed up the ball all season is 25 times against Florida.

"They're so big, strong, powerful, you wonder, can you do that to them: Can you take them out of their offense?" Mitchell said. "I don't have anything to go by on film."

Kentucky's defensive prowess definitely has Coach Pat Summitt's attention.

"They have an edge to them," she said. "They've got a lot of grit, and they just come after you. They play hard, and that's why they get so many turnovers."

Mitchell and his team were honest about Thursday's game.

They know this is a big game, but they know it doesn't make or break their season.

UK, which has won 10 of its last 11 games, already has a bye and the second seed in the SEC Tournament next week. It has 23 wins, which is two shy of the school record.

"We've proven ourselves, and we'll continue to prove ourselves," point guard Amber Smith said.

The fact that people are even asking aloud whether UK can beat Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time since 1985 is a positive sign for the program as a whole, Mitchell said.

"If we go down and win, it's a huge victory," Mitchell said. "We haven't won down there since I was attempting to learn how to drive. And I've been driving for a long time.

"For our team, I'm not sure if winning or losing means a tremendous amount. ... For the program, it would be huge, but we've had a few of those (wins) this year."

How UK performs in this game will be a good gauge for how far it has come, though.

"It's a top-five team in the nation, so we'll see how we measure up against them, but I think we'll measure up pretty good," Smith said.

Dunlap concurred.

"It's a great chance for our team to show that we can play," she said. "With their ranking and the reputation they have as Tennessee, to just go out there and play well with them, that might show we have a chance at a run in the NCAA."

But how UK performs on Thursday won't be the only gauge, Mitchell cautioned.

"They're a very talented, powerful, strong, big, tough Tennessee team," he said. "Our players are excited to see how they'll stack up."

Even with nine McDonald's All-Americans, Tennessee hardly believes it has the win in the bag, Summitt said.

She noted a 66-56 Volunteers loss in Lexington last season. That defeat led Summitt to banish her team from its plush locker room.

Tennessee is a much better team this season, winning nine straight since its only SEC slip-up at Georgia.

"Knowing what happened last year, I think this team will be ready," Summitt said. "The stakes are pretty high. They understand that."

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