Going into tonight's game, three questions still surrounded this Kentucky team. For the most part, we got our answers.
The first question was whether or not this team had learned to play without it's leader. Answer: Yes. A'Dia Mathies went to the bench with two fouls early in the first half, and UK down by 4. She never moved from her seat until the team headed to the locker room at halftime. Kentucky led by 6 at the half. Understand that is not a knock on Mathies. She got one bad call and was out of position on another. It happens. The team, however, picked themselves up, and went about their business. Believe me when I say, business was good.
Kelsey Bone was completely removed from the game equation, even if it took 3 players at times to do it. Mitchell came into this game, I believe, with a plan to keep Bone contained and take her out of her comfort zone, and it worked. Kentucky forced her away from the basket just far enough to keep her passing instead of shooting. For the game she had 9 points. Far less than her 27 point effort in the last game. She had 4 assists on some excellent passing, but it was not enough to offset Kentucky's tightest defensive efforts.
The second question was the hardest one. Could Kentucky play a non-fastbreak game? Could that thunderbolt and lightning defense co-exist with a controlled half-court offense that worked for it's shots? The Answer: Yes (with a caveat) Kentucky still ran, but they ran for position. They forced A&M to run their tails off trying to catch them, then they would (at times) run a set offense to throw Gary Blair's ladies into fits. At one point, Kentucky led by as many as 14 before the Aggies made their second half run at about the 8:00 mark. A&M cut the lead several times to as little as 2 with :40 left on the clock, then yet again, UK made their free throws to put the game away. DeNesha Stallworth's tip of the ball to Bria Goss, who put the bunny in off the board, made the point moot.
The third question? Could UK put away a good opponent on their own floor in a tournament-style atmosphere? the Answer: Yes! This A&M team is as good as most of the teams UK will see in tournament play, including Elite Eight and Final Four action. they play hard, just like UK. And they don't let off the gas until the buzzer sounds. UK took their best twice this season and withstood it. Here is the thing. Kentucky may have to face this team again in SEC Tournament play. Beating a team three times in one year is just about impossible to do. The Hoops squad will have their work cut out for them.
Mathies led all UK scorers with 13, Stallworth threw in another 12, Evans with 12, and O'Neill and Samarie Walker each had 9. Kentucky did not light up the night from the three either. They shot only 26% from behind the arc on 23 attempts. They also were not incredibly hot from the charity stripe as they went 12-19 for 63%, well below their season average. No this game was all about yeoman's work, and dirty work it was. They doubled and tripled Bone all night. They let Walker and Bellock shoot the ball and dared them to beat them. It turned out to be some really smart coaching.
Matthew Mitchell is to be commended for his work as well. He called some very strategic timeouts to keep Kentucky from getting rattled and to help them hold their lead. His calls to fill the lane every time Bone got anywhere near the basket led to 18 turnovers for the Aggies. Mitchell also guided UK through that first half without Mathies and put Walker and Stallworth were they could do the most damage. Spacing and passing were excellent, and you could tell that UK was probably the most prepared for Texas A&M of any team all season. They leaned on the Memorial crowd the first time out, but this time, they relied on their smarts and skills. Stallworth was where she needed to be every time they needed her to be there. Mitchell had her ready for Kelsey Bone.
I said game ball would go to Stallworth, but I changed my mind in the last three minutes. Although DeNesha had a crucial tip, this one goes to Mitchell. He was not only impressive, he was patient, methodical, and never allowed A&M to dictate the tempo of the game. Kudos to Coach Mitchell.
All in all, this was just an awesome game on every point. A blowout would have been nonproductive and gave UK the false impression they were a much better team. They are better, but they needed to learn some lessons before tournament time. They did in this game. Hats off to A&M and Gary Blair, they have a really talented group of players at College Station. They are a fine addition to the SEC.
Also, thanks to everyone who was around for the game thread. We had right at 300 comments for this one, our best effort of the season. It is a great show of support for the program.