UK Women's Basketball

Mitchell shaking things up to get Kentucky women off to faster starts

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell shouts instructions to his team to a 77-68 upset victory over No. 7 Louisville in their NCAA college basketball game in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.  (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell shouts instructions to his team to a 77-68 upset victory over No. 7 Louisville in their NCAA college basketball game in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Garry Jones) AP

Back Kentucky into a corner and it will come out swinging.

Women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has no doubt about that.

He's seen it a few too many times just nine games into the season. In four of those games, the No. 8 Cats have been forced to rally from at least nine points down.

Witnessing it again on Sunday, when UK had to come back from 16 points down at Louisville, Mitchell decided he'd seen enough.

"What you've seen is us start some games where the competitive fire is just not where it needs to be and the large deficits that we've incurred," he said as Kentucky prepares for a Friday night game against Middle Tennessee State (4-2) in Memorial Coliseum.

To get that fire burning long before UK finds itself in a 15-point hole in the second half, Mitchell has changed his practice plan and said he isn't opposed to mixing up the starting lineup to get the speedier starts he desires.

"They are very close," he said of this team. "They are very much for each other and I think sometimes they would just rather hang out and talk to each other rather than just knock heads against each other in practice."

Where practices used to start with a focus on drills or with video breakdown, "something pretty small, pretty routine," senior Bria Goss described it, they now open with an aggressive, active drill.

On Thursday, practice began with a bang, with a competition drill.

"It really got us going," Goss said. "We figured out who was ready to go from the start and who wasn't."

That's the goal, Mitchell said.

"There are so many things that we need to work on technically that I tried to get that in at the beginning of practice when they are mentally fresh, and that's just not a good formula for this team," he said.

Mitchell wants a sense of urgency as Kentucky (8-1) goes into this final stretch of games before Southeastern Conference play opens on Jan. 2 at Alabama.

He doesn't want that sense of urgency to wait until the Cats are down by double digits with the clock fast approaching zero. That's when UK has become aggressive and active, getting to loose balls and driving without hesitation to the basket.

It's a bad habit UK would like to break, Goss said.

"It's not the game plan," she deadpanned.

Instead the Cats need to go into games with a mindset of "let's put them on the ropes early," she said.

Kentucky fell behind by 16 points at Louisville, 14 against Baylor and was down by eight points with 1:20 to go in regulation against Oklahoma. The Cats waited until there was 6:25 left to take their first lead against South Florida.

UK won all four of those games.

It's not until Mitchell's team senses an imminent threat that it summons its inner beast.

"When there is 17 minutes left in the first half, they think, 'Hey, maybe we have time to respond' and I'm just saying that that's not a sustainable course of action,' Mitchell said. "We can't be the team that we want to be with that kind of attitude."

Maybe Kentucky's just too nice? Maybe the players don't have that killer attitude?

Mitchell isn't buying it.

"They have some toughness to them, there is no doubt about that," he said. "I just have to make sure that the atmosphere is such that they are bringing that out of themselves all of the time."

Close connections

  Shalon Pillow will return to Memorial Coliseum on Friday night as an assistant coach at Middle Tennessee. Pillow, who was on Mitchell's staff for five seasons, did not have her contract renewed.

■ Raiders head coach Rick Insell is the father of ex-Kentucky assistant and current Ole Miss coach Matt Insell. The younger Insell was on UK's staff for five seasons.

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