UK Women's Basketball

UK women bring their '40 minutes of dread' to Notre Dame

Last month, UK's Brittany Henderson, left, and A'dia Mathies showed Mississippi Valley State's Davina Jefferson what '40 minutes of dread' means.
Last month, UK's Brittany Henderson, left, and A'dia Mathies showed Mississippi Valley State's Davina Jefferson what '40 minutes of dread' means.

Kentucky fans remember it well.

That defensive pressure put on by Nolan Richardson's Arkansas teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s is quite familiar.

"Forty minutes of hell," the famed men's basketball coach called it.

The eighth-ranked UK women have cleaned up the language a bit, but not the sentiment behind it.

Their goal is to make opponents quite uncomfortable with swarming, pressuring defense.

"We would like for it to be 40 minutes of dread," Coach Matthew Mitchell said recently when asked about UK's style of play, which has made it tops in the nation in steals (16.5 a game) and in turnover margin (plus-17) and kept the Cats unbeaten this season.

"We want you to dread ... playing Kentucky," Mitchell continued. "We want you to say, 'Oh, my gosh, we have to play this for 40 minutes?'

"We want to be the most dreaded team in the country."

But as difficult as Kentucky (10-0) wants to make the game for No. 3 Notre Dame on Sunday at the Joyce Center, the Irish said they are looking forward to it.

"This game is going to be an exciting game for us," Irish senior and Lexington native Natalie Novosel said. "It's a great matchup against a defensive team that runs just like us and is just as physical."

You see, Notre Dame (9-1) wants to do exactly what Kentucky does on defense, and the Irish have been quite successful at it, too.

In this game featuring two of the nation's top defenses and top offenses, comfort will be at a premium.

While UK is first in the nation in turnover margin, the Irish are second, forcing 11.2 more miscues than they're making. They are stealing the ball 15.9 times a game (sixth).

Since losing at No. 1 Baylor, Notre Dame has been on a roll, winning six in a row, including a 66-38 pounding of No. 12 Purdue at the Boilermakers' place last out.

"I like a lot of things about the way we're playing," Irish Coach Muffet McGraw said. "I like how we take pride defensively; we're working hard defensively. ... They don't ever get complacent. That's what I like most about this team right now, among 100 other things."

The Irish's navy-blue-collar defense certainly has the attention of UK and its coach.

"We're going to play what I think is without a doubt the most intense defense that we've seen yet from a pressure standpoint," Mitchell said of Notre Dame. "They have done a terrific job of making the other team uncomfortable."

Mitchell knows that UK will have its hands full in its first trip out of the cozy confines of Kentucky at a place that was fifth in the nation last year in attendance and is averaging 8,376 fans so far this season.

"We've been waiting for this game since last year," said Novosel, referencing UK's 81-76 win over Notre Dame last season. "We're excited to get them in with our home crowd and just go at them."

The UK coach anticipates a fast-paced game, which he hopes will tilt it in the Cats' favor because of depth.

Both teams seem to have quality benches, with each of Kentucky's 13 players averaging 10-plus minutes a game.

Notre Dame has 10 players averaging 12 minutes or more per contest.

The real key in this game will be basic math. The team that forces the most turnovers while turning it over the least will win the game.

"Turnover margin is going to be so important," Mitchell said. "We can't cough it up a bunch up there and expect to win."

The coach's concerns weren't eased earlier this week when he watched his point guards repeatedly turn over the ball against his own pressure defense.

"I don't know how well equipped we are for this kind of in-your-face pressure," he said. "It's an adjustment we'll have to make."

It's an adjustment that both teams will be making.

Turnovers were a big worry for McGraw, too, even though her team is averaging just 16.2 a game.

"Taking care of the ball would be my No. 1 concern," she said, noting that UK is forcing nearly 35 turnovers a game and averaging nearly 40 points off of those.

UK's opponents are averaging just 13 points off Cats' miscues.

In the end, it could be all about 40 minutes of dread for both teams.

Or maybe not.

"What I hear everyone around here talking about is how much fun it's going to be," McGraw said. "It's going to be an up-tempo game, an exciting, entertaining game."

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