Friday, March 18, 2016

Transcript: UK Hoops Head Coach Matthew Mitchell, Makayla Epps, Janee Thompson Pre #3 UK Hoops vs #14 UNC Asheville First Round ~ 2016 NCAA Women's Tournament Lexington Region Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky Comments

Matthew Mitchell, Kentucky Head Coach:

On what he told the players that helped them circle the wagon after players transferred and a three-game losing streak … 
“I really felt like this season started about this time last year. This time last year the seniors came to me and said that I was going to have to lead the team going forward into the last week of the season and into whatever postseason opportunities we had because we had a breakdown in our culture and things weren’t going the way they needed to go. I was really grateful that the seniors did that. They could have taken a pass on that and it would have been harder for me to figure out what was going on. So, after the season we just wanted to recommit to our core values and the things we want to be about at Kentucky. Things like honesty, a strong work ethic, hard work, having a disciplined program, having players that are coachable, having players that will hold each other accountable and hold themselves accountable and then players who that will be resilient. So we really have broken it down into six things we are trying to have at Kentucky and we talked about that and we tried to make that come to life each and every day since last season ended. I feel like those things have come alive in our program and so through all the things that happened, all the departures, all the inexperience we had to deal with, the three-game losing streak was really, really difficult and really we lost four out of five. There was stretch there where we just didn’t play well and through all that I feel like we’ve come out on the other side and those things that we are emphasizing in our program that we believe can stay with these players long after they get done playing basketball is really the point of having a program like that for it to benefit them now and after they leave. I really feel like those things have come to the forefront and watching them really come together as a team is something that has been just tremendously fun and gratifying. Janee said about 15 times she’s ready to play and I think they are ready and they are ready to play their best basketball of the season. It will be fun to watch and I believe it will happen and hope it does happen because they’ve put a lot into this season.” 

On how he erases the bad play against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament...
“Really, you just don’t think about it. You don’t dwell on it when you have a team you feel is giving you everything they have. It’s a long season and basketball is a funny game. Some days it’s your third game in three days and you have to have some perspective. It was not a typical situation and South Carolina had not made more than five 3s and I was trying to get the team to rise to the occasion and win the game. It was a poor game plan probably so it was just as much my fault as anybody’s. So, I just told them if you look through 30 games and 23-7 and how we got there and how we did it, you just can’t let one afternoon, one two-hour period when we were not at our best, you can’t concern yourself or dwell on that. There are definitely lessons that we need to learn from the game. We had four days off totally where the players were able to catch their breath. We came back and we really said this was a new season. The conference tournament is grueling and very different than this tournament because everyone starts at the same spot and everybody has equal amount of rest and all that kind of thing. That was not difficult to bounce back from that game. South Carolina is a really good team. They are one of the best teams in the country, they are very talented and they played really hard that day. We were not very good that day and so we didn’t dwell on that game.”

On how he has kept his team loose and motivated after the SEC Tournament … 
“There’s tension always as a coach of where to push and where to be patient. It’s really a thought I’ve had for a long time as I have tried to grow as a coach and that idea of when do you push them and when are you patient with them. I had to get that figured out with this team and I got some great advice on a couple of fronts. One was when we were struggling so badly I needed to get positive. What we decided was in areas of attitude and effort and things you are in control of, we’re just always going to push. And we’re going to push you hard and not tolerate a bad attitude or negative outlook. So, if I’m not going to tolerate a negative outlook from them, I certainly can’t have one. The bye week between LSU and Vanderbilt really helped me gain some perspective because I was able to get a couple of days away and really try to see where my mindset was and then come back and say if your attitude is bad or your effort is bad we are going to push you toward a good attitude and great effort. Then, in terms of areas of experience and aptitude or talent or strength. Say Maci Morris, who is a freshman and who is just not as strong as she is going to be as a junior or senior, I’ve got to have some patience. Evelyn Akhator doesn’t understand sometimes or read a screen correctly but that’s not because her attitude or effort is bad, it’s because she doesn’t know. I try to be patient with the players and try to teach better and do all of that as a coach with a great attitude and my best effort every day. I think that helped us get into a good mindset and finally, I was really unhappy with them after the LSU game and we came back and put those thoughts forward and they responded on a Wednesday and a Thursday when we only worked on ourselves and we didn’t have to play a game that night. I felt like we turned a corner when I finally just said I’m going to trust you are going to give it everything you have. The kids have worked hard and we’ve done it with a really inexperienced team. I just stopped fussing so much at them and started trying to model what I was asking them to do. It’s been a great experience with them. They have worked extremely hard. I give them the credit. It’s been fun to come to practice every day. It created a great atmosphere around the team. If you’re not a head coach walking around worried about if someone is going to take a shortcut here or if someone is going to goof off here or miss curfew here and you’re sort of tense all the time waiting on the next bad thing to happen, you can loosen up and have some fun.”

On the advantage of playing in Lexington?
“We have to make sure we take advantage of it. I’m in a situation where I have to keep them focused on Asheville. Asheville is a very, very aggressive team and they have taken on the personality of their coach. Brenda is a really great competitor. She’s always exhibited that on the recruiting trail. When you’re out in the summer evaluating talent you can always tell when people are taking it easy or taking their job seriously. What she’s done with that program is really amazing. Just look at the progression, six wins, nine wins and now you’re at 26 wins, so they are a very hard-working, scrappy team that can score points and get to the free-throw line and so I have to work really hard to make sure our focus is on winning tomorrow because none of it matters if we don’t. We certainly want people to be excited here in town for the opportunity to have such high-level basketball. These are some great teams in here. Asheville is a champion of their conference and a really good basketball team. Oklahoma and Purdue have both been to Final Fours and Purdue is a national championship program. Whoever fills out the regional, we just have a great opportunity living in this city to watch some great basketball over the next two weeks. For us to be a part of that would just be amazing from my standpoint. I’m so proud that our administration has supported women’s basketball and this has the potential to be a really great thing for women’s basketball, for all the schools participating and has great potential for our city, too. I want people to be excited but I’ve got to make sure our team gets excited about UNC Asheville so we can get excited about Monday and then if we get to Monday we need to take care of that so we can get excited about next weekend. We can’t get too far ahead right now. We need to work hard to take advantage of it.”

On how much he has had to use his marketing skills to increase interest for the tournament?
“It’s all hands on deck right now. Everybody is working hard at our university to try and make sure it’s a first-class event. We have tried to get the word out. I’ve tried to get my robocall in there in between Hillary (Clinton), Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and their robocalls. I had a great robocall and I hope you guys got it and went out and bought some tickets. Hopefully that helps. I’ve gone on every radio show, podcast and television show that we have, trying to get the word out. We’ve always had great support here the past couple of years. We’ve had great crowds and I expect that we will have great crowds. I do want to be engaged in this. It’s a great sense of responsibility for this to be successful. You can’t imagine how grateful I am that our university stepped up and made the commitment to host the first and second round and also bid for the regional. No matter what happens, I and all of us at Kentucky are very invested in the next two weekends going great. The game deserves a great venue and a great atmosphere. We are going to work like heck no matter what happens to make sure we can do everything we can to impact that in a positive way.”

Makayla Epps, Kentucky Guard:

On the advantage of playing more home games …
“I would say anybody in the country would rather play at home than get on the road and travel. But like you said, for us to have the opportunity to potentially play four home games, that’s just really big and we are excited. We were really excited when we saw our name under the Lexington region and especially for Janee because she will get more games in Memorial. Playing in front of the Big Blue Nation, the best fans in the country, whenever they get to go into Memorial, it’s hard to beat. “

On losing after an eight-game winning streak and if that has been in the team’s discussion …
“That game didn’t define our season. Our season didn’t end after that game. Before that we were on an eight-game winning streak so we know what we’re capable of and we know what Kentucky’s capable of, and we know how to play our best and we’ve showed that numerous times over the season. Just that one game didn’t go our way, so like I said, it’s a new season. We’ve got one game ahead of us tomorrow against UNC Asheville and I am excited for that one.”

On takeaways from the conference tournament that can help in this tournament … 
“We’ve got a lot of young players on the team that got a lot of valuable minutes in the conference tournament that I feel is going to help our team overall in the NCAA tournament. I don’t look at our freshmen as freshmen anymore. You know, we’ve got freshmen playing big time minutes, we’ve got freshmen starting, we’ve got freshmen who have helped us win more games than not. So, we are a team right now and I feel like that will help us going into the NCAA tournament.”

Janee Thompson, Kentucky Point Guard:

On the opportunity to play potentially three more home games …
“I am just really excited we got the opportunity again to play in Memorial in front of our fans. I’ll continue to say it, they love us; we have some of the best fans in the country so it’s really excited for me to be back out there with my teammates. We are just approaching this game like we need to approach any game and that’s playing hard and hustling and hopefully that will get us the win.”

On losing after an eight-game winning streak and if that has been in the team’s discussion …
“The SEC tournament was heartbreaking for a lot of us, but we didn’t feel like we played the way we should have in that game. At this point, coaches told us that we have a new season so it’s been easy for us to mentally put that behind us and start fresh. All the teams are on an even playing field right now. We’ve all had a lot of time off and a lot of time to prepare so we think that we are ready for this game tomorrow. We are excited to play.”

On takeaways from the conference tournament that can help in this tournament … 
“Pretty much what Makayla said; I think the experience was good for a lot of our younger players. That type of competitive atmosphere when there is a lot on the line, so, I am confident in our team and we are ready to go. It feels like it’s been so long and a lot of us are itching to play again.”

On their early turmoil in the season and how that helps the team now …
“That’s the reason why we are a team right now and why we are so together. We continue to say it because there was a lot we had to go through with losing some players and we hit some walls and we hit some adversity but we were able to come out on the other side. I think we are peaking at the right time. There’s no better time than in March and we are ready to play.”

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