Senior Night is one of those traditions I both love and dread: I adore taking time to recognize athletes who have given so much to the University before they play one final home game, but I simply hate saying goodbye. As fans, we love our Cats and when you spend years supporting them, you feel almost as much pride as a parent when you see them wearing the Blue and White in Lexington for the last time. It's a combination of love, admiration, loyalty, and a little fear of the unknown future they will face when they leave campus and join "the real world". I am not ashamed to say I've cried every time, and have shed a few just typing this paragraph as I know what words come next: a loving but reluctant farewell.
The 2015 Senior Class for UK Hoops is no different from any other group under the Mitchell era, in that they are all extraordinary athletes and remarkable people who honored us by proudly wearing KENTUCKY across their chests. But each has a unique story, and we're going to take a few minutes to salute these women and their accomplishments:
- Jelleah Sidney: a transfer from Chipola Junior College, this Queens native played high school ball with fellow Wildcat Jennifer O'Neill at St. Michael Academy in NYC. Knee issues have plagued Jelleah this season, drastically reducing her play time but when on the court few other players make the most of their minutes the way Jelleah has. Majoring in social work, Jelleah spends time off the court serving as a mentor in a Lexington Day Treatment center for children.
- Azia Bishop: this tall Toledo, OH native has been steadily working towards an explosive senior year, where she's the Cats leading shot blocker and rebounder. Azia ranks fourth on UK's all-time block leaders' list. Azia has blossomed this year into our most effective interior post player, and is sinking an impressive 58% of her shots. Also majoring in social work, Azia has been inspired to work with children in honor of her autistic young brother.
- Jennifer O'Neill: The first Kentucky woman to ever wear a zero, this Bronx native was also the first McDonald's All-American ever signed by Matthew Mitchell. Possibly best known for her 43 point performance against Baylor in 2013, Jenn is a member of the 1000 point club at Kentucky, and needs one more point today to move to #14 on the All-Time Scoring List. Jennifer is majoring in kinesiology.
- Bria Goss: The team captain and heartbeat, this Indianapolis native has just been named to the SEC Community Service team as well as the Wildcat Society of Character. Despite missing 6 games for a broken thumb sustained in December, Bria's senior has been an impressive one, where she once again leads the squad in free throw shooting at 80%. Bria is majoring in communications, and hopes to have a career in sports broadcasting. (If you've not seen Bria hosting the "Behind the Blue" segment on Mitchell's TV show, you're missing out on a treat.)
Wherever these Seniors go after their days at Kentucky end, we wish them nothing but success. It has been a true honor and privilege to cheer them on, and their hard work and sacrifice for the Blue and White will long be remembered by UK Hoop fans.
OK, ok - there's still a game to play! And what a game it will be. Kentucky has delivered the W for six straight Senior Nights and we'll need the best from every player, coach and fan in Memorial if we want to get a victory over South Carolina tonight.
Today sees all 14 SEC women's teams in action, and as usual, it's fraught with drama as every team looks to improve its position for the tournament in Little Rock. The Cats are currently sitting at 5th, just one game behind Mississippi State and Texas A&M. IF Kentucky gets the W today, and either State or TAMU lose? We will move up into the #4 spot and get that desperately coveted double-bye for the tourney. TAMU is playing at LSU today, where they will take the court without one of their key players, Jordan Jones. Mississippi State is hosting Ole Miss today, the team who beat Kentucky just days ago. (Edited to add: mea culpa, we stay in 5th with a win due to State and TAMU having better overall records.)
A loss to UK would cost the Gamecocks outright ownership of the the SEC regular-season title. There is minimal impact to South Carolina in relationship to the SEC tournament, as a loss would knock them to 15-1 but their overall record would still keep them in the #1 slot ahead of UT. (Tennessee is hosting Vandy, which means you can pretty much sharpie another W for the Vols.)
In short: Drama, drama, drama. And in the SEC? Expect nothing less.
As for the Cats, the last time we faced South Carolina we lost both the game and Janee Thompson. Makayla Epps was healthy, but Bria Goss was still sidelined with that broken thumb. We lead by 3 at the half, but a Gamecock rally combined with Janee's injury and Matthew getting tossed was just too much for the squad. Tonight, the shoe is on the other foot as Memorial will be packed to the rafters with fans howling for UK to win.
Keys to victory? Look, South Carolina isn't the best team in the conference because it was their turn: they are GOOD. They lead the SEC in blocked shots, field goal percentage, and scoring defense.
But they are beatable, especially if we:
- Make smart shots. No jacked threes. I thought the Gamecocks would rank a little higher in defense rebounding than they do, but believe it or not that category is led by Missouri. If we can pick our shots and out rebound the trees to ensure we get at least half of our second chances? It's a winning strategy.
- We may be smaller but we're no slouch on man-to-man D. Aggressive, in your face defense is what helped the Cats win the first half in Columbia. We'll need it for 40 minutes tonight.
- Effective north-south ball handling. (We get wonky east-west.) Minimize turnovers and make sure they don't steal our pocket.
- For the 1,978,322nd time: MAKE THE FREEBIES. I mean both free throws and layups.
There's SO MUCH riding on today, both in Lexington and around the conference, that it would be a crime not to televise the game. Happily, it's on ESPN2! Tipoff is at 5 PM EST - BE THERE!
Until gametime Cat fans...well, you know what comes next! (it rhymes with So Fig True.)