UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky women figure talent level finally about even versus Vols

Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell reacted as his team rallied in the second half of the Arkansas at Kentucky women's basketball game at Memorial Colliseum, in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 5, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell reacted as his team rallied in the second half of the Arkansas at Kentucky women's basketball game at Memorial Colliseum, in Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 5, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

Kentucky hasn't had a ton of success against Tennessee.

In the 55 times the programs have met, UK has won just seven times.

That's seven times in 36 years.

The Lady Vols have won four in a row over the Cats and when UK has come close in the past decade, it's often been because of gimmicks or schemes.

At every position, the Volunteers always seemed to have a more highly recruited, athletic player who could score more points and take over games.

On Thursday night in Memorial Coliseum, it won't be about schemes and gimmicks.

Just two top-10 teams with top-rated players going at it.

"Really, (tonight) is a great opportunity for us," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We have a good team and good players. If they play well, we will win the game. That is what (tonight) is about."

It's about No. 9 Kentucky and No. 6 Tennessee being among the Southeastern Conference's top scoring teams, its top scoring-margin teams, its top three-point shooting teams, its top free-throw-shooting teams.

It will come down to which players make the plays.

A novel concept, Mitchell joked at his news conference on Wednesday.

"We have probably better players than we've had — from top to bottom — since I've been here," he said. "That gives you a better chance of beating the team that traditionally over the last 38 years has had the best players."

And the Kentucky coach wasn't quite ready to concede that his team, which now has three McDonald's All-Americans, is at the same level as Tennessee, which has won 36 straight SEC games.

"I think it's closer than it's ever been," he said. "I'm not ready to say that Tennessee's been overtaken."

UK's players said they're confident that they can play with any team in the country, let alone the conference.

"We've always had great teams, but this team this year has more depth and we're playing better together," junior A'dia Mathies said. "We have the potential to come up with the win this time."

It's not a knock on Tennessee, they say, it's evidence of UK's confidence in itself and its style of play.

"It's a huge game," senior guard Keyla Snowden said. "It's a game we've circled on our schedule. For us, beating Tennessee is going to take us a step forward."

But more importantly a third win over a top-10 team this season (UK already has beaten Duke and Louisville) would get them a step closer to their goal of getting to a Final Four or even the national championship game.

First, Kentucky would like to win a Southeastern Conference title and the road to that is always blocked by orange cones.

Mitchell is cautious, though, of putting too much emphasis on this one game.

After all, UK (14-2, 3-0) may have to face the Vols another two or even three times this season. And the Cats are just three games into the conference schedule.

"It's a huge game, but it counts no more than Sunday's game with South Carolina," Mitchell said. "It is a huge game and it is an unbelievably talented Tennessee team coming in that's extremely well coached."

More than anything, the likely sellout at Memorial Coliseum will be a great barometer for UK as it moves forward, he said.

"We will be tested in every way possible," Mitchell said. "That's a great thing in early January. ... It'll be a good measure to see where we are and hopefully it will be in a good spot."

Both teams are coming in on highs, including dominant performances over SEC foes.

Tennessee (12-3, 3-0) has won five straight and 10 of its past 11 games, with the only loss in that time frame coming at No. 4 Stanford.

"We've been playing pretty well," Coach Pat Summitt said on Wednesday.

The Vols' other defeats came at Virginia and at top-rated Baylor. They're getting big play from a senior-laden class led by Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson.

UK is playing pretty well, too, winning three in a row and four of its past five.

The Cats' most recent win, a rout over Mississippi State, has the players confident.

They are looking to give Kentucky its first 4-0 start in SEC play in program history.

"A win like that really boosts our confidence, so we go into this game knowing what we're capable of doing," Mathies said. "We just hope that will carry over and keep the momentum going."

SEC standings

Conf. All

Kentucky 3-0 14-2

South Carolina 3-0 14-2

Tennessee 3-0 12-3

Louisiana St. 3-0 12-3

Georgia 2-1 13-3

Vanderbilt 1-1 13-2

Florida 1-2 11-5

Auburn 1-2 9-7

Mississippi St. 0-2 10-5

Arkansas 0-3 11-4

Mississippi 0-3 10-6

Alabama 0-3 10-7

Thursday's games

Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m.

Florida at Georgia, 7 p.m.

South Carolina at LSU, 8 p.m.

Arkansas at Mississippi, 8 p.m.

Auburn at Vanderbilt, 9 p.m.

Mississippi St. at Alabama, 9 p.m.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader