UK Women's Basketball

UK women brace for 'big game' at No. 3 Duke

Matthew Mitchell had to stop practice Sunday for a reboot.

The coach had to make it clear to his young team and its six freshmen that Tuesday night is a big, big game.

His No. 10 Kentucky team is traveling to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face unbeaten, third-ranked Duke on national TV.

"This is a big game," he told them. "We're walking around like we're trying to get a lunch reservation somewhere, and this is probably the biggest women's basketball game in the country tomorrow night."

It didn't help that senior do-it-all Victoria Dunlap was out rehabbing a bruised knee.

Without vocal leaders to keep practice intense, Mitchell was not pleased.

"Duke's a really good team, a veteran team," he said. "Mentally we have to be ready to go because they will get after us from the opening tip."

Mitchell isn't so worried about how his team matches up with the Blue Devils (13-0), one of only four unbeaten teams in the nation.

He isn't worried so much about the big crowd.

He's worried about getting his team "locked in" mentally and playing with passion for more than just a few minutes here and there.

Dunlap is concerned about that, too.

"It's still been a work in progress how much the team is willing to play together as a team with more intensity than just in the first few minutes of the game or at the end of the game," she said Monday.

Mental lapses and breakdowns that have been evident in the past few contests against lesser opponents won't hold up against Duke, he said.

On the flip side, Duke is a veteran team with three seniors, including All-American point guard Jasmine Thomas, who averages 14.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

Duke's other senior starters are 6-foot swing player Karima Christmas (10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) and 6-5 center Krystal Thomas (8.8 and 8.2).

Having veterans is a luxury, Coach Joanne P. McCallie said Monday.

"They lead by example, and they lead vocally as well," she said. "They have a lot of poise and a lot of experience, and that's been important. We've had a lot of close games against some terrific opponents."

The Duke coach said her team will need that leadership and poise against Kentucky (11-1), which is known for its high-pressure defense and for forcing 27.2 turnovers per game.

"I don't think you play a lot of teams like Kentucky," she said. "Their pressing ability and how they love to press and be active and do it for 40 minutes and attack in that way, I don't think you see that all the time.

"This is a great opportunity for us to learn and get better because we've had every kind of opponent, but probably not an opponent that reflects the way Kentucky plays the game."

Mitchell still hasn't seen the UK team McCallie described, though there have been flashes of potential.

"We have no in-between with this team," he said. "Either we play very hard and we're competitive and can play with just about anybody, or we don't play very hard and then Duke can really take it to us."

A chance to play against one of the more storied programs in basketball might bring out the best in Kentucky, Dunlap said.

"Once we come together as a team, if we get all of that together — everyone hustling at the same time, playing hard on offense and defense — we'll be pretty unstoppable," she said. "We have to get to that point."

But Dunlap, who leads UK in scoring and rebounding, said she doesn't believe the Cats, who have won six straight since a bad loss at Louisville, are too far off.

"We're getting close," she said. "This game will definitely show where we are as a team. ... We're getting closer than most people think, or at least closer than coach thinks."

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