Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Video/Transcript: UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell Pre-Mississippi State Press Conference Interview ~ Senior Night


Video courtesy of kywildcatstv

Head Coach Matthew Mitchell

Opening statement…
“Well, two special seniors tomorrow night and real proud of them and what they’ve contributed to our program, what they’ve meant to this particular team this season. So, that’ll be special. And the game means a lot for us. We have a lot to play for and need to try to continue to improve and tomorrow night will be a great test for us. So, proud of our seniors and we’ve been working hard this week to try to get prepared for what’s an important game tomorrow night.”

On what he thought early in the season seeing Mississippi State and South Carolina to close the season…
“Well, most seasons I don’t look too far ahead, and in particular this season has been unique in the fact it’s been very easy to stay in the present and focus on the practice that’s ahead of you or the game that’s ahead of you. When we embarked on the season, I don’t know that any of us players, coaches, fans, media, anybody knew exactly what this was gonna hold. And up to this point, I’m real proud of the team and how hard they’ve worked and they’ve put themselves in a position to do some really great things here at the end of the year. So, we’re proud of that, but I don’t look at the end of the season usually ever and I certainly didn’t this year. You know, as you look at it game-by-game, we were able to stay focused and have some success. We’ll really have to make sure we don’t look ahead of this game. This is the most important game because it’s the next one, but it’s against the top-ranked team in our league and they’re a very, very good basketball team. So, we’ve got our hands full just getting through each day of trying to get better and trying to have a good practice or play a good game. So, I never look that far down the road.”

On how much of an opportunity he sees for this team…
“Well, it’s a fantastic opportunity. It’s an opportunity to get another really important win in our conference. We’ve been able to get 10. We’d love to get 11 tomorrow night, just win as many as we can. So, it’s a great opportunity to get another conference win and prove our position in the league. Right now, everybody behind Mississippi State and South Carolina are really, really competing and battling for that third and fourth spot. So, you know, it’s really, really important and we’ve got a great opportunity tomorrow night.”

On what makes Mississippi State so challenging this season…
“They just have some great players who play really, really hard. They’re well coached. They are tenacious on defense. I think defense always gives you a chance to win, especially when you’re in an unfriendly environment your offense doesn’t travel sometimes, but I’ve always felt like a really strong, tough defensive team always allows you to be consistent on the road. So, they’ve been that and I think their players have improved. I think they’ve gotten better since last year. It’s a lot of the same players that they had last year and I think as you go down the line and you look at all of them, I don’t really see anyone that didn’t improve. So, that’s a great testament to how hard their coaches and their players worked to develop their team. So, very talented at all positions, tough defensively, certainly have some explosive players who can score and make things happen, turn defense into offense. So, just a well-coached, very talented team.”

On why Kentucky fans love Makayla so much…
“Well, it’s a combination of things. One is the person she is, and she just connects so well with people. You know, she has a beautiful spirit about her. She has a great heart for people. She, I think, takes that extra few seconds maybe to connect with a fan that might be the only interaction they ever have but she takes the time to connect with people because she cares and she has a caring heart. So, I think that’s a big part of it. I think her lineage is important. I think her dad having success here on a really important team in our men’s basketball history and people are very excited about our men’s team in the Commonwealth over a century it’s just a big, big part of the fabric of our Commonwealth. So, his success, and then you have a daughter that comes along and signs with Kentucky and goes to Kentucky, I think that adds to that and then the success our program’s had. She’s had some incredible moments here as a player. I think all of that wrapped into one. But I don’t think any of that would matter if she weren’t the person that she is and have the heart that she has for people. I think that’s the most important part of why people connect with her.”

On if he thinks Makayla would make a good coach in the future…
“I do. I think that she communicates well with people. I think she has a good feel for people. I think coaching is so much that, being able to go beyond the technical and the tactical parts of the game and being able to get more out of a person than what he or she believes they can do. I think she has that quality. She certainly has a great basketball IQ. So, I think she’d be a fantastic coach.”

On where this team has grown during its current four-game win streak…
“Well, I think the biggest thing is that we’ve learned some valuable lessons in communication and what we all have to do to weather a storm and to stick together, no matter what the outcome may be. I thought in the South Carolina game when they really went on a run, that kind of put us a little too far behind to catch up, we sort of fragmented and we weren’t connected through communication, and I think we’ve worked really hard on that the last couple of weeks, players, coaches, everybody involved. And I think it’s making a difference. I think that we’ve all decided that while we all have flaws and we all still make mistakes – coaches, players, everybody – we’re committed to trying to give everybody our best down the stretch and see how far we can push this. That’s been a fun thing from a coaching perspective to watch happen and develop over the last few weeks, and I’ve said this before, they continue to come back into practice hungry and wanting to improve and wanting to get better. It’s not like, ‘Well, the season’s almost over. Let’s just play this thing out.’ I still think we have some upside on this team. So, that’s some things that we’ve learned and you know, they’ve won some tough games: two tough games on the road and two tough games at home. You know, I think that our overall ability to communicate with each other in a real positive way that leads to keeping your poise and your composure and sticking together. You know, Arkansas, it was incredible that they just kept creeping up, kept creeping up, we kept answering and it wasn’t perfect every time but I felt like we were doing it together. I felt like we were sticking together and that’s probably where we’ve improved the most.”

On what role Makayla plays in the close-knit nature of this team and its desire to get better…
“Well, I think that when you have her combination of stature on the team – she’s one of the top players in the country and the league and certainly on our team – I think that comes with some responsibility. I think she’s handled that well as far as knowing that she needed to work hard and practice hard and if she didn’t, correct it. I think she also understand that when she talks, the players are listening to what she’s saying. I think she goes out of her way at different times to maybe lift somebody up when they’re struggling a bit or if the passions are running high and people are maybe a little bit on edge, she’s got a good way of walking them back from there and settling and calming things down. She’s been a great supporter of mine as far as if there’s a tough decision to be made, ‘Hey, we need to get on board with that and we need to do what Coach is asking us to do.’ And that’s very valuable, instead of the other way around where you’re meeting resistance from that player in her position. So, you know, she’s had a good feel for what she needed to do and you know, we haven’t been perfect. She hasn’t, I haven’t, the team hasn’t, but here we sit at the end of the season among the top teams in the country with a chance to be a good team at the end and that’s what you’re trying to do in basketball, play your best at the end. So, she’s contributed greatly to that.”

On where Makayla Epps would rank all-time in Kentucky-born players …
“Well, she is among the best, but we have some basketball to play and I will wait until she plays her final one to give you my final thoughts on that. Here is the thing, here is where she ranks in my mind. She has been shaped through the adversity she has faced and it’s well documented the adversity she faced after her sophomore year. She had a choice whether to choose an easier path and go somewhere else where I am sure someone would have accepted her and her talent. I am sure she had numerous options had she chosen that path. Or she could stay here and face some opportunities to grow and to mature as a person and she chose that path and not only endured it but embraced it and flourished through that process. That is why she will always be special with me. It is funny, I don’t have a great memory on the stats and who did what in games and how we won games. Those sort of fade, but the kids that really come here and who benefit by making a choice to learn and to grow and it is not easy but it is what you need to grow up and make this experience one you can draw on for the rest of your life, those are the ones that really stand out. From that respect, I will always remember her for making that decision and embracing that process and improving. She will always be real special from that standpoint.” 

On his relationship with Evelyn Akhator …
“Yeah, it is a remarkable blessing in my life to have her come to Kentucky and be around her for this length of time. I have only really known her for three years. I recruited her for one year and coached her for two years. I do feel like she is someone that I have been connected to for a long time and will remain connected to. We talk about it all that time that we are family at this point. She is given as much as anyone could ever give in the amount of time that she has been here because she has given her all. She has given everything that she can give. I don’t know that we will ever sign anyone that is higher character as her. She is really high character and we have had some great people come through here. But, like Makayla, who is shaped through adversity that she experienced here, Evelyn experienced adversity before she got here that shaped her and strengthen her. She lost her mother at an age that was far too young. It is never a good time to lose your mother. But she came from a different country and a different culture and has made the most of her opportunity. She is someone that I love very much, just like Makayla, very deep. I have a family connection and love for those kids like they are blood relatives. I just really appreciate both of them. We laugh all the time because we don’t know how a young woman from Lagos, Nigeria and a old guy from Louisville, Mississippi have a connection, but we do and God is important to both of us. We talk about those things and share that and I do think that is something that connects us and something that I love about her. But what she has meant to our program, we have a chance here to be a really great team down the stretch and have a chance to go into the NCAA Tournament and compete for a national championship. If she weren’t here I don’t know if we would have that opportunity and neither would we if Makayla wasn’t here. So both these kids have contributed greatly and particularly this year they have done a great job.” 

On looking back at the offseason and imagining being at this point …
“Well, I will tell you it was a very tough time in my life. It was a very difficult time for our program. What all happened, I will be honest with you, at the time it was hard for me to believe the severity of everything as it related to what I thought that happened, but it happened. You don’t have any other choice, as far as I see it, than to look at it and see what role you played. At the end of the day and I said it at that time, I was in charge of all of it and it happened. So it doesn’t matter if I thought it was deserved of should have happened or thought it was a possibility of happening, it happened. So at that point, you have to take ownership of that and try to figure out what went wrong. From that standpoint, it has really been one of the more beautiful experiences I have bene apart of. I was strengthened by my faith and I never once thought I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. That helps you kind of stay in it and stay there and be patient and open your mind, ears and eyes to see what is going on. So my faith helped me do that and once I stayed there and started opening my mind to learn some lessons, I felt like I learned some great lessons and I felt like I am continuing to learn lessons. I think this team continues to teach me very valuable things for our immediate future and for the future of the program. At this point in time, I am nothing but grateful for everything that has happened, but I don’t think I would have learned what I needed to learn any other way. Obviously, that was the way I was supposed to learn what I needed to learn. I am grateful to this team. Like we said before we started, we didn’t know what it would be and we still don’t know where we are going to end up, but at least we have a large enough sample size to know that this is a good team and we can play some good basketball. We need to play some good basketball tomorrow night and that is what we are going to work hard on. But I am grateful for the experience.” 

On changes in how he coaches or manages time … 
“Well, that has been an evolution over the nine months, but yeah. I have tried to engage and be more attentive to players because I didn’t want to miss anything and make sure I was strongly connected to them personally and weren’t going through any surrogates that were passing my messages along. So I did try to do that. I think the staff and the wisdom on the staff has helped greatly where they are in a position where all of us are sort of here because we want to be here. No one is climbing trying to go to another destination and everybody is here and two feet in here for each other. And you get feedback there that is valuable that maybe someone who is not all the way in or has an eye on another place might say, ‘you know, I don’t want to tick coach off so I am not going to confront him with you ought to do things differently,’ things like that. I think the wisdom on the staff has helped me. Having someone like Lin Dunn and Kyra and Niya, people who have been in the game for a while able to confront you with, ‘hey, I would think about this differently,’ makes you stop and think. That has really helped me. I just try to rise very, very early in the morning and spend some quiet time trying to get things ready for the day. I spend some time praying and scripture and reflecting and making sure I am the very best I can be when I hit the office. That was a time management thing that if you get going crazy and from task to task (you lose focus). So I found that I needed that really early in the morning and that has been an adjustment. I always got up early, but now I am getting up a little bit earlier so I can have that time to get myself settled and strengthened for the day, because a bunch of things can get at you in this job and you never know what the day holds. All of those things are great gifts I have been given because of what we went through.” 

On what time he normally gets up …
“On a normal day, 4 or 4:30, something like that.” 

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