UK Women's Basketball

Mitchell on UK’s 8-game skid: ‘It’s not where we want to be … but I believe in them’

Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell during a time out as host UK defeated Tennessee Tech 82-54 at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday Dec. 3, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell during a time out as host UK defeated Tennessee Tech 82-54 at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday Dec. 3, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.

Georgia’s head coach had a “been there, done that” tone in her postgame news conference on Sunday after the Bulldogs snapped a four-game losing streak to Kentucky.

“When you have more options it helps you out a whole lot,” Coach Joni Taylor said of how Georgia was able to overcome poor shooting early to win 56-42 in Memorial Coliseum. “Last year we just were limited numbers wise and offensively, so you know today you’re able to sub in and keep things going, have fresh legs.”

It’s a familiar issue for Kentucky, which has struggled as of late.

After winning eight of their first nine games, the Cats are mired in an eight-game losing streak — their longest in 16 seasons — while playing without a true go-to player after the graduations of Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator.

The two future WNBA players accounted for almost 50 percent of the Cats’ scoring and more than 40 percent of their rebounding a season ago, which ended in the program’s eighth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

On the court, Kentucky is starting to feel the effects of the mass defections two years ago and the lack of high-level signees in the subsequent class.

While the Cats have more available players this season than last, the roster is lacking in seasoned Southeastern Conference players, especially in the post where the depth behind senior Alyssa Rice consists of three true freshmen in KeKe McKinney, Dorie Harrison and Tatyana Wyatt.

UK had hoped that Stony Brook transfer Ogechi Anyagaligbo could fill in the experience gap since she’d played in college already, but she tore her anterior cruciate ligament to open the season.

Of UK’s 12 scholarship players this year, only half had played in an SEC game prior to last week.

The Cats started the season winning eight of their first nine games and ranked in the top 25 nationally. They were shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from the three-point line during that span.

Those stats have plummeted in the eight straight losses, with UK making only 34.3 percent of its shots and 29.1 percent from long range.

“It’s not where we want to be,” Mitchell said. “It’s not good. It’s a really hard time we are going through right now, really hard.”

The Cats coach has seen growth in practices even if it hasn’t always shown in the wins column.

Mitchell continued: “It’s real hard right now, but I believe in them and I think they will continue to resilient. They have been to this point. We’ve got to just keep battling. Fight our way through it.”

The early success gives Mitchell and his players hope that Kentucky can right the ship. Georgia’s coach doesn’t see a UK team that’s thrown in the towel.

Last season, Taylor’s Bulldogs went through a similar uncharacteristic stretch of losses. They finished 16-15 and 7-9 in league play.

The prevailing message last season was to keep playing hard for each other, she said.

“It’s got to be your driving force and that’s what we did last year,” Taylor said on Sunday, noting that UK’s schedule hasn’t been easy either. “Good lord, Matthew is an incredible coach. You look at what he’s doing even this year, for him to keep them motivated — they play extremely hard; they execute.

“Those kids look like they’re on fire to play for him and each other.”

After an off year last year, Taylor’s group is now 14-2 overall with its only losses coming to top-10 teams Mississippi State and Texas.

Of Kentucky’s struggles, she said: “You look at next year and watch out because he’s got some young freshmen down there that are going to be really dynamic players.”

Sophomore Jaida Roper said there’s no desire issue for Kentucky, which next has a two-game road stretch, first at Florida (8-8, 0-3 SEC) on Thursday and then at Vanderbilt (4-13, 0-3) on Monday night.

“It’s easy to stay motivated,” Roper said. “We’re in a great position. We play for the University of Kentucky, (a place of) peoples’ dreams. So, it’s not hard to get motivated. It’s not the end of the world. We just have to re-focus and prepare for the next teams. We’re not really dwelling on the past or dwelling on the losses.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader