In any sport, the commitment, sacrifices and hard work put forth behind the scenes go largely unnoticed.
That’s part of the job description for the young men who serve as practice players for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team.
While their contributions don’t garner praise from the masses, those within the UK program are fully aware of the value practice players brought a Wildcats team with a short roster this season.
“They do whatever they’re asked of, and that’s what we tell them now when they come through the door,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “You’ve got to understand it’s about helping our players get better, and you’re not ever going to get the type of recognition you truly deserve, and you need to be OK with that.”
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The Wildcats (23-7) take on UNC-Asheville in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum.
Each practice player finds personal benefits in his role and responsibilities.
Alex Golonka, a three-year practice player and aspiring basketball coach, said getting to be a student of the game is one of his most significant rewards.
“I’m able to see how the coaches go through their day, what drills they use, and how they’ve been able to develop players throughout the season,” he said.
For Andy Keating, another three-year practice player, the benefits derive from his love for the program and being a contributor to Kentucky’s success.
“I’m a big UK fan,” Keating said. “I just feel like when they win, I’m a part of their success.”
Mitchell reiterated that, saying, “He’s been here his entire career, and he’s contributed to these wins as much as any player we’ve had. He’s really been a huge part of our program.”
This season, the practice players proved especially valuable after player transfers and injuries.
I’m a big UK fan. I just feel like when they win, I’m a part of their success.
Andy Keating, UK practice player
To that end, as senior guard Janee Thompson noted, having the additional bodies around allows Mitchell to put limits on his players in practice.
“Having practice players also allows us to rest and save our legs,” Thompson said. “We have a short bench. We’re not as deep as we usually are, so we don’t have to play against each other that often.”
Having only 10 scholarship players and nine eligible to play might have been a blessing in disguise for Kentucky.
With Mitchell often using the practice players in scout-team simulations, their size and athleticism prepared Kentucky in ways the team might not have been otherwise.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be ready to play,” Thompson said.
Mitchell also credited the practice players’ talent.
“The most beneficial thing is the guys this year have had a great talent level, but they’ve also had really good basketball IQ,” he said. “and they’ve been able to simulate the opponent in a really great way.”
Thompson said Kentucky sometimes saw stiffer competition in practice than it did in games. Mitchell agreed.
I’m able to see how the coaches go through their day, what drills they use, and how they’ve been able to develop players throughout the season.
Alex Golonka, UK practice player and aspiring coach
“They’ve been a remarkable group this year because we’ve been able to compete at a really high level,” Mitchell said. “This group this year has worked so hard. They’ve been able to make practices tougher than games, at times.”
Golonka, who played in high school at Bishop Watterson in Columbus, Ohio, said he likes working with UK’s bigs.
“I always go against the post, so it’s always fun to play against Evelyn (Akhator) or Alexis (Jennings),” he said.
As the Wildcats prepare to open play as the No. 3 seed in the Lexington Regional this weekend, a hypothetical question surfaced: What if the Cats had the practice players as their first opponent?
That’s a matchup Thompson says would end quite favorably for Kentucky.
“We’ll win every time,” Thompson said, laughing. “They’re really good, but we can’t go out like that. We’ve got to show them this is our court at the end of the day.”
Keating, who played high school ball at Lakota East in Liberty Township, Ohio, claimed a seven-game series would be required to produce a true winner: “It’s tough, but I’ll give it to them in a seven-game series, in game seven.”
NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional
Where: Memorial Coliseum
1:30 p.m.: Oklahoma (21-10) vs. Purdue (20-11)
4 p.m.: Kentucky (23-7) vs. UNC-Asheville (26-6)
TV: UK game on ESPN2
Tickets: Available Ukhoopstix.com, at the Joe Craft Center ticket office or by calling the UK Ticket Office at 1-800-928-2287. Single-session reserved tickets:$22 (ages 19-64) or $15 (ages 18 and younger, 65 and older). All-session tickets: $36 (ages 19-64) and $24 (ages 18 and younger, 65 and older).