LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky has a couple of impressive winning streaks that it plans to keep intact when No. 20 Texas A&M comes to town.
The No. 6 Wildcats (14-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) have won a school-record 13 consecutive games and 30 in a row at home. Extending the streaks won’t be easy against the Aggies (12-4, 2-0) on Thursday night.
Texas A&M features the league’s top rebounder and No. 2 scorer in 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone (17.8 points, 10.0 rebounds), who forms a strong duo with senior forward Kristi Bellock.
Kentucky counters with center DeNesha Stallworth (13.2 points) and forward Samarie Walker (9.9). The mission is similar to what the Wildcats faced against Baylor and center Brittney Griner — keep the ball out of the post as much as possible.
“They run a bunch of different things offensively, so that puts a real stress on you defensively,” Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said of the Aggies. “They can score in a lot of different ways and it’s the best post tandem we will have seen since the Baylor game. Bellock and Bone are really, really good post players and their bench is strong.
“What’s great about us is that I feel good about our matchups, too. I feel we have a great chance to win the game because our players are talented too. This game’s going to come down to who’s able to execute better, who’s able to persevere and hang in and maybe get a break here or there. I think it’s a very evenly matched game.”
Thursday’s first meeting between the schools pits a Kentucky squad picked to win the SEC against a Texas A&M program in its first league season. The Aggies, three years removed from a national championship, have lived up to expectations of being contenders with victories over Alabama and No. 23 Arkansas behind double-doubles from Bone, named the conference player of the week on Monday.
Bellock, 6-1, contributed 15 points and 10 points to help beat Alabama and ranks 11th in the SEC at 6.8 rebounds per game. Though she and Bone pose the biggest concerns for Kentucky, Mitchell said that if the Wildcats play effective perimeter defense, neither can get the ball nor be factors.
“We have to really do a good job of making sure they can’t find her as often as they would like,” he said of denying Bone. “They are going to find her some, she is just a really good player. The post defense, the job is on the guard to really do a good job tomorrow night to keep the ball out of the paint.”
Not surprisingly, the Wildcats hope to achieve that goal with their trademark pressure defense that has served them well through two league games. Kentucky held off stubborn Florida in its league opener by forcing 19 turnovers and holding the Gators to 37 percent shooting, following up with 16 takeaways including seven steals to pull away from Alabama 87-70 on Sunday.
As if Kentucky’s ability to create turnovers wasn’t scary enough for Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, the Wildcats’ knack for sustaining that pressure over the whole game makes him even more nervous.
“Their pressure’s unbelievable,” Blair said. “We faced Notre Dame, who I consider with Connecticut the two best teams that we’ve played this year, and their defense was very good. It was kind of like my days at Arkansas and watching Nolan Richardson’s teams of ‘40 Minutes of Hell.
“We’re fixing to have 40 minutes of hell in Lexington when we go up there because of the amount of pressure that they put on the ball. They’ll front the post, they’ll deny the wing and you better be able to handle the ball and not turn it over.”
And Texas A&M certainly doesn’t want to be error-prone at Kentucky, which is motivated to extend the nation’s second-longest home winning streak and fulfill expectations as the conference favorite.
“I think our home court is the best in the SEC just because of how passionate our fans are and how our fans were turning out before we had any type of streak like this,” Mitchell said. “That is why we try to work so hard in the summer and in the offseason to prepare ourselves. That is why we try to communicate to the players how special it is because these folks really work hard to spend the money to come and the time and the effort to come. We just try to honor them with a great effort every time out.”
Kentucky will be playing without backup center Azia Bishop, out for at least three to four games with a fractured left (non-shooting) wrist sustained in a fall on Sunday in which the 6-3 sophomore also hit her head. Mitchell said Wednesday that Bishop did not suffer concussion-like symptoms.