By ASHLEY SCOBY
Early in the second half of the UK Hoops game against Tennessee Sunday, Bria Goss jumped off the bench and sprinted towards her teammates after a Jennifer O’Neill three-pointer and a timeout. Jumping up and down, she screamed and gave high-fives as if Kentucky had already won the game.
That kind of energy from Goss has been coming off the bench for several games now, after Kastine Evans was given Goss’ traditional spot in the starting lineup. It has been a coaching move from Matthew Mitchell that has reaped benefits, including better offensive output from both Evans and Goss.
Even more than that, however, the bench as a whole is now putting forth more production and energy, especially after Mitchell made yet another strategic move. Before the Ole Miss game Thursday, Mitchell told his bench players they were all going into the game during the second four-minute segment.
“I just told them (the bench) for the Ole Miss game, ‘You’re going in. You’re playing the second four minutes. That’s the plan. I don’t care what happens. Now what you do with it will dictate the rest of the game,’” he said. “I think that that energized them a little bit… It’s a long season and I just thought some of the kids had gotten discouraged so hopefully that sharpened them up a little bit to where they were over there talking on the bench, ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on. We’re going in.’”
The five-in, five-out approach is something that carried over into the Tennessee game as well. During the segment of the game during which only bench players were on the court, the Cats’ lead against the Volunteers actually increased, giving them the boost they needed for the 78-65 victory over the regular season conference champions.
The groundwork for the success of this substitution pattern was laid earlier in the week during a bench players-only meeting with Mitchell. He sat down with several of his non-starters to help better define what he was looking for from them once they stepped onto the court.
“I just thought that that group (bench players) had really been practicing poorly, lacking focus,” he said. “So as a coach… it’s your job to get people performing. It was a very short meeting: ‘Hey, Bernisha, this is what we need from you. Azia, this is what we’re looking for from you.’ Hopefully that helped them a little bit. We’ve certainly gotten better results. You might say, ‘Hey, Ole Miss didn’t have a great season and certainly didn’t win a lot of games.’ But it carried over very well into the Tennessee game. We have talented players and I think our bench is critical for us to be the team we want to be.”
Against Ole Miss, two non-starters scored in double figures: Janee Thompson had 11 points and Goss finished with 10. The bench as a whole scored nearly half (49%) of UK’s points that night, with 44 total.
That production dropped some against Tennessee, but was still significant: Goss finished with 12 against the Volunteers, and Azia Bishop contributed 8 points and 4 rebounds.
As the UK Hoops squad hurtles towards postseason play – the Cats’ first SEC tournament game will be Friday against the Missouri-Vanderbilt winner – having depth is crucial. It’s even more crucial when considering how fast of a tempo Kentucky is used to playing.
“It’s going to be huge,” Evans said of the importance of bench play during this portion of the season. “Just the dynamic of how both tournaments are. Playing back-to-back games or just one day in between games is going to be really tough, but if we use the tools we have, being such a dynamic team, it could be very good for us.”