Kentucky-Tennessee: Small UK roster not a hindrance so far
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Kentucky finds itself working through that old adage this weekend after a loss at Mississippi on Thursday night.
“We didn’t play hard and play to our potential and that can get you,” junior Makayla Epps said. “And it’s gotten us twice now. Maybe the first time, we really didn’t learn from it, so maybe this time, we will learn. We were really upset after this one.”
There’s not a lot of time for the ninth-ranked Cats to seethe. They have to learn from that loss quickly with No. 18 Tennessee coming to Memorial Coliseum on Monday night.
The lesson is simple, Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
“We can’t have any more games like that this year,” he said of the loss at Mississippi, in which Kentucky allowed season highs of 73 points and 28 made field goals.
“Talent-wise we may get beat, but that needs to be the only way that we get beat. That we played our guts out and the team was just, doggone, they were just better than we were.”
We didn’t play hard and play to our potential and that can get you.
Early three-pointers in the first and third quarters by the Rebels seemed to buoy their spirits and sink Kentucky. Even when the Cats got to within a few points down, it looked like they were just going through the motions, Mitchell said.
He saw no fire, no competitive spirit from his team and “zero focus” on the defensive end, a formula that won’t equal wins for Kentucky (14-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) moving forward.
“It’s a lot of little things that got us beat the three times we’ve gotten beat this season,” Epps said. “It’s about taking care of the ball, playing with energy and effort, rebounding.”
Kentucky likely won’t be lacking energy or motivation for Monday’s ESPN2 game against the Lady Vols (12-6, 3-2). Tennessee has topped UK four straight times and has looked more vulnerable this season than most.
“A Big Monday game: Kentucky and Tennessee, that’s what a lot of people are going to come out in the snow to see,” Epps said. “The game’s always fun, so I’m sure the atmosphere and the crowd are going to be real live and that’s what we need. We need a good, energetic game to get us back on track.”
Part of Mitchell’s plan to get back on track is to bring energy and fun back to practice. UK’s singular focus on defense “has kind of grounded practice to a halt,” he said.
“We really need to work hard on how to get them to play with excitement and fun,” he said.
Tennessee, which has lost three of its last five games, is still trying to find its identity. The Lady Vols will do what they can to go right at a depleted UK team that may be without senior guard Janee Thompson, who is listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
“Whether Thompson’s in or out, I know their numbers are low at the guard position so we’re just going to have to keep attacking,” UT Coach Holly Warlick said. “Right now we’re probably pressing more than them, just because of their lack of depth. We’re going to try to keep it an up-tempo game.”
Kentucky isn’t concerned about that. The Cats are concerned about getting better and finding a way to learn from past mistakes, Mitchell said.
“I just have my mind on us playing with some intensity and enthusiasm for each other.”
Thompson is down with an ankle injury, but don’t count her out for the big game against Tennessee.
The senior guard, who sprained her ankle late in the loss at Mississippi, is still listed as questionable for the game, but teammates and her head coach seemed skeptical that she’d miss the game.
“Janee is a really tough cookie and I would be counting on her being in if I had to bet right now, I would say she would play, just knowing her,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said on Sunday as he previewed the game against the Lady Vols. “She is really, really tough.”
UK practiced after the media availability on Sunday afternoon, and he said Thompson’s status would be determined after that.
“She’s getting a lot of treatment,” Epps said of Thompson, who is averaging 32.9 minutes a game and is second on the team in scoring and leads the Cats in assists. “Nobody really knows about tomorrow, but I say she’ll be out there.”
Thompson had surgery on the same leg at around this time last season. Mitchell said doctors have told him that the current sprain has done nothing to derail her progress.
“It was great news that nothing was broken and everything looks good on the x-rays,” Mitchell said. “So for now, it is just a painful sprain and we would list her as questionable. She is not ruled out of the game, but she is not in it yet either. We will see what happens.”
▪ Monday’s game will be part of the league’s “We Back Pat” initiative, which focuses on bringing awareness and recognition to The Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer’s disease, which the legendary Tennessee coach was diagnosed with in 2011. As part of the initiative, both teams will wear special warmup shirts and coaches on all staffs will wear purple. Donations can be made at Patsummitt.org.
No. 18 Tennessee at No. 9 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: Tennessee 12-6 (3-2 SEC); UK 14-3 (3-3 SEC)
Series: Tennessee leads 53-10
Last meeting: Tennessee won 75-64 in last season’s SEC Tournament semifinals
Radio: WLAP-AM 630