Kentucky would like to feel better physically, but the Cats say they’re feeling great mentally despite losing two straight games.
“Going into conference play with the third- or fourth-toughest schedule in the country, to do what we did, I was very proud of how we competed,” senior Makayla Epps said of No. 24 Kentucky, which opens its Southeastern Conference home schedule Thursday night against Missouri.
“Coach said we’ve baked a pretty good cake. So our cake was baked pretty nice. Now we’re working on putting the icing and the decorations on it. This is a long season. This is the fun part.”
Losing two straight games at No. 13 Duke and at Tennessee does not have UK’s players or coaches down, they said.
Those losses only fester if Kentucky (9-5, 0-1 SEC) doesn’t learn anything from them, Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
“Just clean these few mistakes up and you’ll get the results that you want,” he said. “That’s the great thing about basketball. If we can get that done, then we are in great shape as far as reaching our postseason goal.
“In basketball, you can try to peak in the end and be playing your best at the end. I don’t sense any discouragement or panic in the team.”
The opposite is true, Epps said. When the team watched video from the 69-54 loss at Duke and the 72-65 loss to the Lady Vols on Sunday, they saw more reasons to be encouraged than discouraged.
“We’ve just got to embrace the fact that we’ve got to be a smarter, sharper basketball team that’s in position, because when we do that, we’ll win a bunch of games,” Mitchell said.
The recent losses have not been about lack of effort or selfishness, said UK’s senior guard, who averages 16.8 points a game, tied for fifth best in the league.
“All of our issues are correctable,” Epps said. “We compete until the end. … It’s just our mistakes, we can look at those on film and visually see them. If we’re not executing plays right, if it’s mental sharpness, if it’s fatigue, we can see every problem we have.”
The Cats also have some physical ailments. Guard Jessica Hardin will miss her second straight game while working through the concussion protocol, and point guard Taylor Murray still has some pain in her non-shooting hand after breaking a finger.
“She’s banged up,” Mitchell said. “She obviously can perform. She did a great job Sunday in Knoxville. It’s not a matter of whether she can perform.
“It’s just we’re all kind of nicked up right now, and it takes a toll collectively when everybody is. And so we just gotta soldier on here and find a way to continue to play good basketball.”
Among those soldiering on, but with some different gear, is Makenzie Cann. The swing player who suffered a broken nose against Duke has been fitted with a new mask.
Cann went 0-for-3 and struggled with an ill-fitting mask against the Lady Vols. “She went from not being able to see to being able to see,” Mitchell said. “Huge improvement in this mask over the other one.”
News and notes
▪ Walk-on reserve Rachel Potter, who has played in just two games this season, is sitting out while working through the concussion protocol, Mitchell said.
▪ UK’s coach has seen freshman point guard Jaida Roper and walk-on guard Paige Poffenberger make leaps while others are battling injuries. “Real encouraged with the progress that Roper and Poffenberger are making,” Mitchell said. “Them kind of getting thrown into the skillet, so to speak, here and being in the fire, they’ve really upped their efforts in practice and I’ve seen tremendous improvement.”
▪ Kentucky has won four in a row over Missouri and hasn’t lost to the Tigers (11-4, 1-0) since they joined the SEC, winning all of those contests by double digits. … The Cats have a return trip to Missouri on Jan. 30.
Missouri at No. 24 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Missouri 11-4 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 9-5 (0-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 5-1
Last meeting: Kentucky won 69-59 on Feb. 25, 2016, in Lexington