UK Women's Basketball

John Clay: Cats replace Dunlap with depth

Kentucky's A'dia Mathies (#1) blocked a shot from Louisville's Bria Smith (#21)  in the second half of the game at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington Sunday Dec. 4, 2011.
Kentucky's A'dia Mathies (#1) blocked a shot from Louisville's Bria Smith (#21) in the second half of the game at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington Sunday Dec. 4, 2011. ©2011

Before the Kentucky women's basketball season, the question was, who was going to replace the departing star that was Victoria Dunlap.

After eight games, including a 74-54 thumping of 10th-ranked Louisville on Sunday before a packed house at Memorial Coliseum, the answer appears clear.

No one Cat.

More like 11 Cats.

From opening buzzer to final horn, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell threw sub after sub — sometimes five subs at a time — at the visiting Cardinals, a depth charge that forced the visitors into 26 turnovers, that scored 26 points off those turnovers, that claimed 15 offensive rebounds (to 14 defensive rebounds for Louisville) and that pretty much controlled this anticipated rivalry game from start to finish.

Eleven Kentucky players saw the floor. Eight played at least 10 minutes. Ten scored. Nine grabbed at least one rebound. Seven snared at least one offensive rebound. Five made at least one three-pointer, led by A'dia Mathies, who was 4-for-6 from behind the arc and led all scorers with 20 points.

Consider that last year, with Dunlap, Kentucky lost by 26 at Louisville to Jeff Walz's club. This year, without Dunlap, the Cats won by 20 over a team ranked higher in the latest Associated Press poll.

Unfair? Of course it's unfair. Not to mention misleading. Every coach in America would want to have a Victoria Dunlap on his or her team.

"She was a great player and still is a great player," Walz said. "She's still playing (professionally)."

And yet you can't help thinking that even without its star center, this Kentucky team is more balanced, tougher to defend, harder to key on.

"I was so happy that Victoria played here and grateful for her contributions, but I really thought coming into the season that we had a chance to be better," Mitchell said.

"I don't know if we will be or not; we won 53 games in two years, her junior and senior years, went to an Elite Eight. I don't know if we'll do that," he continued. "I think we have a chance to be better because of what you just brought up because we have, as you could see today, when we sub five at a time there wasn't tremendous drop-off in defensive pressure."

In fact, Walz wasn't buying the harder-to-prepare-for-without-Dunlap premise when it comes to offense.

What's hard to prepare for, said the Louisville coach, is just how hard Kentucky plays. A team can't be properly prepared for that intensity until it faces that intensity.

"If you look at (today), it was a tale of two halves," said Walz, whose team was outscored 40-23 the first half and 34-31 the second. "You have to adjust to that."

Adjustment was Kentucky's pressing question coming into 2011-12. Yes, this appeared to be Mitchell's most athletic team at Kentucky. Yes, it returned Mathies and was thrilled to get point guard Amber Smith back from a knee injury. But what would it take to adjust to life without Vickie D.?

Answer: It takes a village.

"It would be great to have Victoria. If she were here, we'd be awesome," Smith said. "(But) it is hard to prepare for us because anybody can score on a given night; anybody can step up."

Before Kentucky plays at Notre Dame on Dec. 18, Mitchell will have a 12th option in Samarie Walker, the transfer from Connecticut.

But to the Kentucky coach, "step-up" has more to do with defense.

"Louisville is so tough on defense, we looked like we didn't know what we were doing a lot of times on offense," said the UK coach. "But I thought, defensively, we were able to keep the pressure on them pretty good. I think that gives us a chance to be a pretty tough team."

How tough? "We have," said Smith, "a chance to be great."

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