Kentucky Sports

Kentucky fine-tuning its offense to get over Final Four hump

Samantha Drake drove to the hoop while being defended by Alex Golonka of the practice team during the Kentucky women's basketball team's Media Day at Joe Craft Center on Tuesday.
Samantha Drake drove to the hoop while being defended by Alex Golonka of the practice team during the Kentucky women's basketball team's Media Day at Joe Craft Center on Tuesday. Lexington Herald-Leader

Connecticut left a terrible taste in Kentucky's mouth.

The school's first Final Four trip seemed so close for Coach Matthew Mitchell's team before the Huskies left UK in their dust.

What the Cats needed was a good palate cleansing.

That came this summer, when a UK team known for its "40 minutes of dread," discombobulating defense instead focused completely on offense.

"We definitely got blown out by UConn last year because we couldn't execute our offense," senior forward Samarie Walker said of the 30-point throttling by the Huskies, who went on to win the NCAA Tournament.

In that loss, Kentucky made just 19 field goals on 30.6 percent shooting, both hovering around season lows.

Junior guard Bria Goss took it one step further at Kentucky's annual women's basketball media day on Tuesday morning, saying a lack of offensive execution has "killed us the last two years."

"We weren't able to score when it came down to it," Goss said. "In order to jump over this wall of going through the Elite Eight — we want to make it to a Final Four — we have to pull our offensive game up to where our defensive game is."

So Kentucky spent its summer "trying to get the ball moving," Mitchell said a few weeks ago.

"We scored a bunch of points last year against some really good teams, but we've been there at the precipice of the Final Four three times now, and in all three games I felt like our offensive execution could have been better," he continued.

So when former UK assistant Matt Insell left to take over the Mississippi program, Mitchell went searching for a fresh set of eyes to look at the Cats' offense and find ways to make it better. He thinks he's found it in longtime WNBA assistant coach Jeff House.

"It's good to have someone who has been nothing but involved in X's and O's for the last few years," Mitchell explained. "It's great to be able to draw from that."

The coaches looked at transition offense first.

The Cats, who averaged 75.4 points a game last season, were able to use their defense to create offense, but even their bread and butter got a little stale.

"We tried to clean that up, where we can stay in attack mode and see if we can clean up some of our transition offense," Mitchell said this summer.

House looked at the personnel and created new offensive sets to play to the various strengths of players. They made it easy, he said.

"This team is such a good team defensively, it's so athletic and strong and fast and creates a lot of opportunities out of transition," House explained. "So we added or tweaked a few things that they've done in transition to make it more efficient."

The staff put marks on the practice floor to remind players where they need to be to create better spacing and more opportunities, calling getting to those marks "non-negotiables."

"When two great teams play, there's small, tiny little room for error, so we hope that if we can be really efficient offensively we can create problems for teams guarding us," House said. "Then the seven McDonald's All-Americans and the superior level of talent can rise to the top of the heap."

Kentucky point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the Cats' second-leading returning scorer, said House has made the players learn how to be more patient.

The offense has added a few more wrinkles, but most of the plays are the same. It's more about execution than anything, Walker said.

"We have a drill called 'perfect execution' and if we don't run it to a 'T', we have to get on the line and run," the senior said. "It's put things in perspective and focus for us."

O'Neill said that drill has been effective and slightly obnoxious, especially running it against each other in practice this season.

"You're playing against your teammates, so they know where the ball is going to go (and try to take you out of what you're doing) but it's definitely helping us," she said.

UK, which returns four starters and 10 letter-winners from last season's 30-6 team, isn't short on talent.

Mitchell didn't shy away from declaring this team among the nation's elite when he met with media on Tuesday in Memorial Coliseum.

"We have a very, very talented team, and they are all mobile and agile and athletic," Mitchell said. "That gives us an advantage if we can find a way as coaches to put them in the right positions."

And for the past few seasons, that right position has always been in a defensive stance.

This summer, it shifted to offense.

"I don't think our offense was bad," Mitchell said recently. "We were really up-tempo and high-powered last year and scored a bunch of points. I just think it's those little, fine, little bitty things you can try to identify that can make the difference from an Elite Eight to a Final Four."

upcoming dates

Nov. 3: Exhibition game vs. Eckerd College in Memorial Coliseum, 1 p.m.

Nov. 8: Season opener at Marist, 7 p.m.

Nov. 13: Home opener vs. Georgia Southern, 11 a.m.

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