There is still a long way to go in the Southeastern Conference women's basketball race, but the next two games might be key in determining where the University of Kentucky ends up.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats begin a two-game homestand Thursday night against Auburn in Memorial Coliseum. Kentucky is tied for second place in the SEC with the Tigers, both with 6-2 league records.
Should the Cats clear Thursday's hurdle, an even bigger game awaits Monday when fifth-ranked Tennessee comes to Memorial Coliseum for a nationally televised showdown. The Volunteers lead the SEC race at 9-0.
"Thursday is a big game for us," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said Wednesday. "It's getting to that time of year where a game like this carries great significance."
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Auburn started the season 1-4, but is 12-4 in its last 16 games.
The Tigers have found success with a balanced attack.
Senior Alli Smalley is the team's leading scorer at 11.8 points per game.
"It is nice to get balanced scoring, there is no question about that," said Auburn Coach Nell Fortner. "We need everybody to score, but to be able to spread the ball out and for teams to not be able to focus just on one player is important. It is nice to have a lot of options."
Mitchell is most concerned with Auburn's defense. Smalley is averaging 2.7 steals over the past nine games, and the Tigers are limiting league opponents to 58.1 points per game.
"They really make it tough for people in conference to score and that will be a big challenge for us," he said.
The Cats present Auburn with a similar test. Kentucky is No. 1 in the league in turnover margin, committing 17.2 per game while forcing 25.2.
"Kentucky has great quickness, speed, they have great depth and they are playing very well right now, so it is going to be a tough battle," Fortner said.
Senior All-American Victoria Dunlap leads UK, averaging an SEC-high 17.8 points and 3.4 steals. With 997 rebounds, she needs only three more to become just the second player in UK history to grab 1,000 or more in her career.