UK Women's Basketball

John Clay: Mitchell building UK women for the long haul

It being the first occasion since 2006 that the Kentucky women's basketball program has popped up in either of the two recognized polls, Matthew Mitchell decided it was an issue worth addressing with his team.

The UK coach told his Wildcats they were going to get ice cream.

Brittany Henderson, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Pasadena, Calif., nearly jumped out of her chair in excitement.

"Really?" she all but squealed.

"No, not really," said Mitchell. "We're not going for ice cream. We're going out here and get after it (in practice)."

Ah, kids.

"She is a freshman," said Mitchell.

Make no mistake, Kentucky is happy to be ranked, thank you, with the Cats checking in at No. 25 in the latest USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll. The recognition is great for the program, said Mitchell. The number is not where the Cats want to be — "I told somebody a few days ago, we want to be No. 1," Mitchell said — but it's not a bad place to start.

The distinction was even something of a surprise, what with the Cats having offered up a stink bomb in last Thursday's 79-71 loss at South Carolina before righting the ship with an 88-63 trouncing of Alabama on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum.

It's just that, well, in the words of Mitchell on Wednesday, "It means different things for the program than it does for this team, if that makes any sense."

It makes perfect sense. Mitchell is in his third season as head coach of the UK women. He's trying to build a solid, high-achieving program among the SEC's land of the giants, something the school has not had in women's basketball in more than 20 years. His first two teams were 33-32. His third team is 14-3 overall, 2-2 in the SEC, with a 12-game home winning streak and games with Arkansas on Thursday and Auburn on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum.

This team is not built on overwhelming talent. It relies on sweat, grit and tough defense. For example, it is No. 2 in the country in turnover margin, forcing an average of 10 more turnovers than it commits per game. It has held all but one opponent to 67 or fewer points.

To do all that, however, a team, especially this Kentucky team, has to bring the intensity and the focus night after night, game after game. It fell considerably short of that last Thursday in Columbia. The result was a loss. The reaction was a head-banger of a Saturday practice.

The follow-up was a Sunday win, which brought a bit of accident forgiveness but didn't completely erase Mitchell's memory of Thursday. This is no time to strut.

"If that's some type of sign that we're making progress, then that's a good thing for us," said Mitchell of the ranking. "For this team, it's a separate situation. We have to stay focused. We can't let that become a negative for us, any type of sense of arrival, or any type of thing like that."

After all, the program has had its share of false starts. A 22-9 UK team reached the NCAA Tournament in 2006, only to see Mickie DeMoss depart a year later. The 1998-99 team finished 21-11 with an NCAA Tournament win, but that was an aberration in Bernadette Mattox's eight years as coach. Sharon Fanning reached one NCAA Tournament in nine years.

There might be something different this time around, however. Mitchell appears dedicated to the long haul. He has already signed five well-regarded recruits for next season, including a top-30 national prospect in Jennifer O'Neill. Plus, he thinks he has a team with its head on straight.

"I just tried to hit it head-on," said Mitchell of the ranking. "I was all worked up about it — how am I gonna handle it, how's it going to be? And then Victoria (Dunlap) was interviewed, and Victoria put it in a little bit better perspective for me.

"(She said), 'We've worked hard. We want to be recognized. It's a good thing for the program.' I'm listening to that, and yeah, it is."

It's almost worthy of ice cream.