UK Women's Basketball

UK women now have an offense to match their aggressive defense

Jennifer O'Neill (center) has averaged the second-most points (13.8) for a UK team that is averaging 96.2 points a game.
Jennifer O'Neill (center) has averaged the second-most points (13.8) for a UK team that is averaging 96.2 points a game. Herald-Leader

For the past few seasons, all of the talk nationally about Kentucky has been about the Cats' aggressive defensive pressure.

But this season for unbeaten UK, the talk should be about its offense, which is ranked among the best in the nation at 96.2 points a game.

After a big win at DePaul last week, Coach Matthew Mitchell was asked if the new foul rules have helped Kentucky's numbers improve so dramatically, including averaging 19.5 more points a game than it did 11 games into last season.

While the rules have helped somewhat — mainly because UK has so many ball handlers that can play through contact — Mitchell believes the fifth-ranked Cats have turned the corner and become an offensive force.

"We're a good offensive team," he said. "We have a lot of talent and a lot of weapons. ... We're showing some versatility and some capabilities to be a tough team to stop."

Kentucky is going to find out just how much its offense — which is hitting 47.3 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from long range, compared to 43.1 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range last season — has grown when it meets No. 2 Duke on Sunday in Rupp Arena.

The Cats (11-0) are going to need every point they can manage against Duke, which also is among the nation's elite scoring teams, averaging 86.9 points a game while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 40.7 from three-point range.

Duke has scored 80 or more points in eight of its 12 games this season and has won 31 straight games when scoring 80 points or better.

"They are really tough at all five positions on the floor and all five positions on the floor can score and it makes it a very difficult game," Mitchell said on Thursday. "They are big and they are bigger than we are. It will be a battle of wills there and we will have to make it an up-tempo, fast game."

The Blue Devils plan to play at their pace and not let Kentucky decide the tempo.

"We just have to be smart in our attack and not force anything and just take what the defense gives us and really feed off each other," senior point guard Chelsea Gray said. "If we have to shoot with three seconds left on the shot clock just with working the ball, that's what we're going to have to do."

Kentucky will do its best to outrun the Blue Devils (11-1), whose only loss was at home to top-ranked, defending national champion Connecticut earlier this week.

If UK can be the more assailing team, it has a chance, the Cats coach said.

"We're trying to explain to them how important their aggressiveness is, and if you're not aggressive against Duke, it won't be good," he said. "We really have to push the tempo."

Kentucky had an excellent recent history lesson in what happens when it stops being the aggressor: A lackluster second half last out against East Tennessee State.

The Cats had built up enough of a lead in the first half that the Buccaneers couldn't catch up, but the tape offered plenty of teaching tools this week in practice.

"Totally out of character for this team and it just wasn't a great effort," Mitchell said of the second half versus ETSU. "The first half was real similar to what we've been doing all season and the second half just decision-making went way down, effort went down. None of the things that you want to see."

The numbers show what Mitchell is trying to tell his players.

Because of UK's drives to the basket, the Cats have gotten to the free throw line 70 more times than opponents this season and 128 times more than UK had 11 games into last season.

The 23,000 or more expected to be in attendance for the already sold-out game at Rupp Arena on Sunday are coming to see just how good UK has become.

"The reason this game sold out right now ... is because this team's 11-0 and they've played their tails off and they've beaten good teams and people want to come watch them play," Mitchell said.

"That's why everybody's coming out. That's what they want to see. So just go play Kentucky basketball."

No. 2 Duke at No. 5 Kentucky

When: 3 p.m. Sunday | Where: Rupp Arena | Records: Duke 11-1, Kentucky 11-0

Series: Duke leads 3-1 | Last meeting: UK won 72-65 on Dec. 8, 2011, in Rupp Arena | TV: FS South, CWKYT-27.2 | Radio: WLAP-AM 630