Kentucky can’t look away.
The word is everywhere.
In big, bold letters across the chest of every Cats coach during every single practice since February.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Makayla Epps said. “You can’t escape it.”
After UK lost back-to-back games — at home to Vanderbilt and then a few days later at Florida — Matthew Mitchell had to find a way to emphasize defense.
“We were in both of those games, but when you looked back and looked at the tape, we should’ve won both of those games if we would’ve just hustled on defense,” Mitchell recalled.
So the Kentucky coach had a staff member order shirts for the coaches to wear to every practice the rest of the season. The shirts come in blue, white, gray and black, so they had a rainbow of options.
“They have a certain color they wear every day,” senior guard Janee Thompson said. “But they all have the same message. They all say ‘defense’ because that needs to be our focus every day.”
Mitchell is always looking for new ways to motivate Kentucky (24-7), so the T-shirt with the all-caps, singular message was no surprise to the senior.
“He loves that kind of stuff,” she laughed. “But it’s good for us. We got the message pretty much.”
Long before the Nike shirts arrived, Mitchell tried sending that message to his players loud and clear — literally.
“He’s brought in megaphones, brought in air horns,” Epps said. “He blows the horn if we’re not in the right position. He’s screaming in the megaphone if we’re not in the right position.”
Since getting the T-shirts, the Kentucky defense has improved dramatically. The Cats have won nine of their last 11 games with the only losses coming to third-ranked South Carolina.
Kentucky has limited opponents to just 58.2 points a game on 36.4 percent shooting and 29 percent shooting from three-point range.
“We were trying to send a message to them that we need to get our defense fixed, and so it was just one of those corny things that coaches come up with,” Mitchell said.
The players and coaches are hopeful that “DEFENSE” carries over into the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Memorial Coliseum on Monday night against Oklahoma, rated No. 24 in the final Associated Press poll. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena later in the week.
“Oklahoma does an outstanding job of spacing the floor to create matchup problems and to really allow their two outstanding post players to make plays,” Mitchell said of the Sooners’ Kaylon Williams and Vionise Pierre-Louis.
Kentucky’s defense was certainly on display in its first-round victory over outmanned UNC Asheville on Saturday.
The Cats held the Bulldogs to 31 points, the fewest by a UK opponent in tournament history. UNC Asheville’s shooting percentage (20.6) and three-point percentage (12) also were new lows for a UK opponent.
UNC Asheville was held scoreless for the final 5:30 of the game while UK rolled off 15 points.
But even in a blowout of that magnitude, there were plenty of chinks in Kentucky’s defensive game plan.
“It’s all about time to sharpen our defense,” Mitchell said of preparing for Oklahoma (22-10). “It’s really about our positioning. And we still, as an inexperienced team, don’t understand what position we should be in and that we have to play defense as a team.”
Kentucky’s defense has had to evolve from the 94-feet-of-chaos the Cats had attempted to inflict on opponents in seasons past.
But Sooners Coach Sherri Coale said she still sees a UK defense that can cause problems for opponents.
“Their complexion is just a little different than it has been in the past, but they still guard you like crazy,” said Coale, whose team shoots 41.8 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from long range. “They play hard.”
They didn’t always play hard.
Thus the coaches’ aggressive attire alterations.
The players can see it when they close their eyes at night to sleep.
“It’s a constant reminder,” forward Alyssa Rice sighed.
This week, it’s been a reminder of what Kentucky needs to do to perhaps get a chance at another Sweet 16 and a trip just down the road to Rupp Arena.
“We’re a very sound offensive team,” Epps said. “We can score the ball, but all of our hard work comes on the defensive end. And if we can stop teams on the defensive end, we can be a pretty good team.”