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SECrets: SEC Game of the Week Looms Thursday as No. 8 Kentucky Hosts No. 7 Tennessee

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Photo Caption: Junior guard A’dia Mathies has led Kentucky scoring in more than half its games.

Photo Credit: Courtesy UK Media Relations/Chet White

By Mike Siroky

Many years ago, at the annual preseason gathering of Big Ten men’s coaches, Bob Knight had a question for the two players he brought to the party.

After all the other players from all the other teams answered the basic question about the biggest game of the year with “Indiana,” Knight asked his own players the same question. They had no answer.

Knight pointed out every game every year against Indiana was “The Big Deal” in the competitive conference.

Tennessee, with its long history of success that predates even its participation in the NCAA and official Southeastern Conference affiliation, knows the feeling. Every game, every season, is a “Yeah, but” game for foes. No matter how well a team does—even if it makes the Final Four—the next statement is always, “Yeah, but Tennessee . . . .”

No change this year.

Kentucky is a team on the rise. It has gained national prominence, ranked No. 8 in the nation in the weekly Coaches’ poll, No. 9 in in the AP media poll. It has beaten some impressive teams from other conferences already in No. 7/6 Duke (72-65) and No. 14/12 Louisville (74-54), and has lost only twice this season—to No. 2 Notre Dame (83-92) and a top-tier, albeit unranked, Middle Tennessee program (58-70)—competing well on both occasions. It is undefeated (12-0) at home this season, and also undefeated in conference play.

“Yeah, but, what about Tennessee?”

That question will be answered Thursday at Lexington, before another raucous home crowd, when the No. 6/7 Lady Vols and the Lady ‘Cats put their undefeated conference records on the line, as the highest-ranked teams in the toughest league in the land face off against each other.

Each team won its most recent outing on Sunday, Jan. 8. Tennessee manhandled Arkansas, 69-38, while Kentucky set a school record for margin of victory in SEC play in its 88-40 beat-down of Mississippi State. 

They did it with a school-record 14 three-pointers. Their “40 Minutes of Dread” defense held Mississippi State to 28 percent from the field. The lead was already 29 at halftime.

All this remains as a building effort.

So how does one reignite the fire for women’s basketball at a school deeper in hoops tradition than anyplace else in America?

Well, you start with a fan-friendly coach, whose passion is evident in every sideline gesticulation but who is worldly enough and confident enough to have a cooking segment on his weekly coach’s show.

And, certainly, you get the best players you can and let them play.

As always, the mantra in a winning program must be, “Offense sells tickets; defense wins games.”

The coach is Matt Mitchell. And the leading player just might be junior guard A’dia Mathies.

Audacious she is not. Confident she is.

Entering conference play, the Wildcats had earned a No. 6 ranking, at the time ahead of even mighty Tennessee.

Kentucky coach Mitchell continues to press for more.

“I told the team you don’t get any credit for past results. You have to do it every night.”

Photo Caption: Kentucky coach is Matt Mitchell is quick to reinforce his team from the sidelines.
Photo Credit: Courtesy UK Media Relations/Chet White

And Mathies, indeed, does it every night. She has notched double figures in 13 of her 15 games this season. Early in the season, she led her team against three Top 10 teams in a four-game stretch. The Wildcats won two of the three contests, losing only at then-No. 3 Notre Dame.

The highlight reel so far for both the Wildcats and Mathies was Kentucky’s home win against No. 6 Duke. The game attracted a record crowd of better than 14,000. The Kentucky women may have their own exclusive home court in Memorial Coliseum, but they don’t mind moving to the men’s court in the larger Rupp Arena because of ticket demands. The fans want to see this team which may be the best since the early glory years of Kentucky Hall-of-Famers Patti Joe Hedges and Valerie Still put the Big Blue women on the map.

After Mathies put up 23 points, including a career-high-tying four three-pointers, plus four rebounds and four steals to lead the ‘Cats in their upset of the Blue Devils, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association selected Mathies as its inaugural Women’s National Player of the Week. She had previously been selected Southeastern Conference Player of the Week for leading the ‘Cats in back-to-back wins against top-10 ranked opponents Louisville of the Big East and Duke of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Since then, Mathies led the Wildcats in scoring with 15 points in their league opener, hitting two three-pointers in a span of 15 seconds as Kentucky took control of a close (59-56) contest at Florida; she also added six rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block to her final stat line.

She stepped things up in Kentucky’s second conference outing, with 21 points and six assists in the Wildcats’ 84-72 romp over Arkansas. And in the Wildcats’ latest effort, she scored 20, topped only by teammate Keyla Snowden’s game-high 22 points. Together, the pair outscored the entire Mississippi State squad.

Quietly, with determination, Mathies has built herself into a leader of this resurgent team. Maybe it’s her psychology major that has made her so good at analyzing things. More than likely, it is a combination of upbringing, coaching and teammates, is what she will tell you.

Kentucky is one of those scrappy guard-oriented teams, and Mathies, an energetic 5-9 guard out of Louisville’s Iroquois High, fits the system well.

As Mathies says of the battles so far: “We know we are a small team. Coach stresses, ‘Defense wins games.’ So we just have to take it to another level.”

Coach Mitchell calls it “40 Minutes of Dread.” Even in Kentucky’s first loss of the season in South Bend, that defensive intensity showed itself when Kentucky forced the Irish, no defensive lightweights themselves, into 22 turnovers, scoring 27 points off the takeaways.

Mathies selected Kentucky over her hometown and in-state rival school, Louisville, because, “I knew, overall, this was a basketball school,” she said. “And it is a little away from home yet close enough to the family.”

Just as he recognized the potential in Mathies, who has started in 69-of-70 games during her career and has netted double-figures 51 times, so, too, Mathies see potential in the Kentucky team. She expects her team and several of its players to have a “breakout season,” their 14 wins to date just the beginning of good things to come.

“This is exactly what we expected,” she said. “We play in the best conference in the nation. Every night, everyone can lose, so many teams have so many weapons. Every place is tough.”

And she credits her teammates for the Lady ‘Cats’ success to date: “There are a lot more players than just me doing this,” she said.

She also credits the Kentucky faithful.

“So, our fans have a lot do with how we play,” Mathies said. “If we get in a slump they cheer us back up; they are very enthusiastic. You get a lot of opportunities when you have a great place to play. You find out they do really care about you.”

Mathies cites the usual SEC standard, Tennessee, as having “status.” The Lady Vols typically average crowds of 13,000 when they play Kentucky, a figure the Wildcats would love to equal or better when they take on Tennessee, but Memorial Coliseum, the venue for the game, maxes out at 8,000. The Wildcats do a pretty good job of filling that house, with an average attendance of 6,068. Mathies says she sees that as “exciting, not a distraction.”

Now in her third collegiate season, Mathies is finally beginning to master time management, having adjusted to the class schedule vs. the workout schedule vs. the games themselves. Among the important things for which she has found time: Bingo at Kentucky Children’s Hospital; volunteering at the YMCA’s Fall Festival; participating in Cats Cultivating Character, where student-athletes teach character lessons once a month to third grade students at a local elementary school; volunteering to pack and deliver food for God’s Pantry BackPack program; serving lunch at the Lexington Hope Center.

She has transferred that caring attitude to the younger players. As a veteran, it has come to her it is time to “take players under my wing,” as older players of past teams once mentored her.

“It’s confidence,” she said. “If they mess up, we stick with them. We all mess up, I’ve messed up plenty of times. As humans, we are never going to be perfect.

“But, on any given night everyone has the chance to make a great play.”

That attitude, Mathies said, emanates from Coach Mitchell.

“First, he really wants to win. Next to that, he wants us to become better women.”

The other man in her life, her dad, introduced her to the game.

“He convinced me I could do the things I can do now. So, if I help a teammate out and she becomes a better player, I am just following my daddy. He taught me the game and saw my potential so I always have known it was there.”

And, just now, the rest of the world is getting a peek.

Summing Up Last Week’s SEC Results

Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012

  • No. 6/7 Tennessee 80 v. No. 16/15 Georgia 51
  • No. 11/9 Kentucky 84 v. Arkansas 72
  • Florida 59 @ Ole Miss 55
  • South Carolina 65 v. No. 24/21 Vanderbilt 55
  • LSU 53 @ Mississippi State 48
  • Auburn 65 @ Alabama 55

Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012

  • No. 11/9 Kentucky 88 v.  Mississippi St.  40
  • No. 6/7 Tennessee 69 @ Arkansas 38
  • No. 24/21 Vanderbilt 68 v. Ole Miss 52
  • LSU 84 v.  Alabama 40
  • No. 16/15 Georgia 70 @ Auburn 45
  • South Carolina 49 @ Florida 44

Looking Back at the Weekend’s SEC Highlights

  • Tennessee used a 31-11 first-half edge to cruise at Arkansas, 69-38. Shekinna Stricklen made scored 19 in the final home-state showing of her college career for the Morrilton, Ark. native. “It felt great coming back home and playing in front of my family and friends and people from my community,” Stricklen said. “It’s just great to come back.” Glory Johnson recorded her fifth straight double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds in the win, becoming just the fourth player in school history to surpass the 1,000-career mark in both categories. “Our defense was just outstanding,” Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “We were swarming, and that’s the type of defense that a Tennessee team should always play. “Shekinna, I know there’s a lot of pressure on her to come home and play,” Warlick added. “But she seems to thrive on playing in this gym. If we could take this gym back home for Shekinna, we would.”

  • No. 16/15 Georgia bounced back from last Thursday’s 51-80 loss at Tennessee, easily handling Auburn on Sunday at Auburn in a 70-45 walk-over. The Lady Dawgs kicked things with a 13-0 run and never looked back. The Jasmines—Howell and James—scored 14 each. “Our team and coaches are very proud of this performance,” coach Andy Landers said. “It was motivated by our game Thursday in Knoxville that we thought was very lacking in just about every way. We thought we needed to be more aggressive and leave everything on the court, and I think they did that today.” Georgia out-rebounded the Tigers, 47-35, including 23 offensive boards. Auburn made more free throws (16) than field goals (13). “I was pleased with the fact we were ready to play and the way we played,” Landers said. “I thought we started the game and took the floor with the right attitude and kept it there. That attitude was, ‘We are going to dominate you. We’re going to get after you. We’re going to be the aggressor.’ “It was consistent,” Landers continued. “I don’t think we could’ve played much better defensively. We could play better offensively. We left some points on the board. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great game and a great performance, but we can play much better on the offensive end than we did today.” Hasina Muhammad led the Tigers with 15 points, while Blance Alverson tacked on 13.

  • LSU dominated both halves in an 84-40 home romp over Alabama. Senior forward LaSondra Barrett scored a game-high 16 points and collected a career-best seven steals. It was LSU’s ninth straight win and, according to Tiger fans, a nice precursor of Monday night’s national championship football game between the same two schools. Coach Nikki Caldwell talked about how she has used the football team’s success as an example for her team. “We talk about the difference between being hungry and starving, and I know Coach Miles’ team is starving to get on that field and win a championship,” said Caldwell. “They all are in sync and they have that = togetherness that you need even when adversity hits. You never see LSU football team waver. We pay close attention to some of the things that they have been able to do this whole season.” The Lady Tigers out-rebounded their 10th straight opponent and converted 20 Alabama turnovers into 26 points.

  • No. 24/21 Vanderbilt, the other SEC team in the national Top 25, got a season-high 19 points and 10 rebounds from Tiffany Clarke, her tenth-career double-double, in a 68-52 win over Mississippi Sunday. Also in double-figures for the Commodores were Jasmine Lister (15) and Christina Foggie (11). Coach Melanie Balcomb thought Clarke’s ability to step-up in the big game was pivotal. “She was the only one at [Thursday’s 55-65 loss at) South Carolina that was aggressive and successful,” Balcomb said. “She built confidence from that and brought it from South Carolina and perhaps played even better.”
  • South Carolina remains a rising team in conference, picking up an impressive 49-44 road win at Florida Sunday. The Gamecocks, now 14-2 overall and 3-0 in SEC play,  have never before had 14 wins this early in the season. Markeshia Grant and La’Keisha Sutton led the South Carolina offense with 11 points each, with Sutton’s final two coming on a pair of free throws with five seconds left to seal the deal. Aleighsa Welch added 10 points and six rebounds off the bench. The Gators were fouling at the end, forcing the Gamecocks to win the game at the line. Offensive rebounding bailed South Carolina out, staving off the Gators’ final surge. At a missed front end of a 1-and-1, Sancheon White, who finished scoreless but contributed a crucial team-high seven rebounds, soared between Florida defenders for a rebound. Another missed free throw and this time Charenee Stephens (seven points, six rebounds) boxed out, got the rebound and put it back in for a 47-42 Gamecock edge with 13 seconds left.

Current SEC Standings

SEC Women’s Basketball Standings
(As of January 11, 2012)
Rank School Conf. Pct. Overall Pct.
1 Kentucky 3-0 1.000 14-2 .875
2 LSU 3-0 1.000 12-3 .800
3 South Carolina 3-0 1.000 14-2 .875
4 Tennessee 3-0 1.000 12-3 .800
5 Georgia 2-1 .667 13-3 .813
6 Vanderbilt 1-1 .500 13-2 .867
7 Auburn 1-2 .333 9-7 .563
8 Florida 1-2 .333 11-4 .688
9 Alabama 0-3 .000 10-7 .588
10 Arkansas 0-3 .000 11-4 .688
11 Ole Miss 0-3 .000 10-6 .625
12 Mississippi State 0-2 .000 10-5 .667
Source: secdigitalnetwork.com

Coming Up Thursday, Jan. 13, 2012

1. No. 6/7 Tennessee @ No. 9/8 Kentucky Only one of these two Top-10 teams, neither of which has been defeated in conference play, can emerge from this battle in that condition. It should be an exciting and relatively high-scoring game, as the Wildcats (82.4 ppg) and Lady Vols (79 ppg) rank No. 1 and 2 in the league, respectively, in scoring offense. Kentucky gives up fewer points per game, but may have a tough time holding their own on the backboards against the taller Vols.

When: 7:00 p.m. EST, Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky. (FSN)

2. Florida @ No. 20/16 Georgia Though Georgia (13-3, 2-1) is nationally ranked and Florida (11-4, 1-2) is not, this contest features two relatively evenly matched teams. No question Georgia owns both a talent-based and home-court advantage, but don’t expect a romp. Both teams rank near the top of the SEC pack in scoring offense where only 2.6 points per game separate the Lady Dawgs (71.9 ppg) from the Gators (69.3 ppg). And while Georgia has long been known for its defense, this year’s edition, which has been allowing only 56.1 points per game, is not nearly as stingy as those of years past nor that much more miserly than Florida (59.9 pgg).

When: 7:00 p.m. EST, Stegeman Coliseum, Athens, Ga.

3. South Carolina @ LSU Expect a defensive grinder, as the Gamecocks bring their eight-game winning string to Baton Rouge, where the Tigers haven’t lost since late November.

When: 8:00 p.m. EST/7:00 p.m. CST, Maravich Center, Baton Rouge, La.

4. Arkansas @ Ole Miss Well, this is unlikely to be a game to remember, but on a bright note, at least one of these teams will emerge with its first conference victory. Ole Miss owns the all-time series between this pair, 22-10.

When: 8:00 p.m. EST/7:00 p.m. CST, Tad Smith Coliseum, Oxford, Miss.

5. Auburn @ No. 25/24 Vanderbilt Auburn, which enters the game at 9-7 overall and 1-2 in conference play, has struggled for much of the season due to a lack of firepower and poor rebounding. Hasina Muhammad and Tyrese Tanner, with 10.8 and 10.3 points per game, respectively, lead the Tigers in scoring, while Parrisha Simmons is the top rebounder at 5.8 per contest. Look for an easy win for the ‘Dores, who are led by sophomore guards Christina Foggie (16.7 ppg) and Jasmine Lister (12.7 ppg, 5.7 apg), with help in the middle from another soph, redshirt center Stephanie Holzer (11.6 points, 7.0 rebounds per game).

When: 9:00 p.m. EST/8:00 p.m. CST,  Memorial Gymnasium, Nashville, Tenn. (CSS)

6. Mississippi State @ Alabama This will be Thursday’s second match-up between two teams in search of their first conference win. ‘Bama is riding a three-game slide, the most recent loss a 40-84 confidence bruiser Sunday courtesy of LSU. The Tide also suffer from a serious depth problem, with junior Jessica Merritt and sophomore Shafontaye Myers both day-to-day with concussions. Mississippi State also ended up on the wrong end of a rout, falling 40-88 at Kentucky last weekend. But the Bulldogs boast two serious scoring threats in Diamber Johnson (17.3 ppg) and Porsha Porter (14.4 pgg).

When: 9:00 p.m. EST/8:00 p.m. CST, Foster Auditorium, Tuscaloosa, Ala. (FSS)


Originally published Thu, January 12, 2012

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
Rank remains unchanged since last week
Ranking has risen since last week.
Ranking has dropped since last week.
Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.