Perseverance pays off for Matthew Mitchell

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When things got tough, Matthew Mitchell rolled up his sleeves and went to work. The Kentucky women’s basketball coach overcame a season of turmoil during the off-season by revamping his coaching staff and putting a renewed emphasis on his program.

Players left and negativity hovered over the program, but Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart stuck with Mitchell, who has taken the Wildcats to new heights in his tenure as coach.

Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) defeated No. 3 Mississippi State 78-78 in overtime Thursday night to secure its fifth straight 20-win season and more importantly, a top four finish in the league standings and an automatic bye in next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.

“A lot of negativity swirling around the program (and) I didn’t understand why,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t understand what all was going on. I thought we had a great program. I thought we treated people with respect and had an opportunity to grow as a person. It was very tough, difficult time. People were leaving left and right and there was a point where I just didn’t feel like I could get it stopped.”

However, six returnees decided to stick with Mitchell, a supporting cast which included seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator.

“When those six finally said ‘we’re in’ we finally had a point where we could march back forward. So I don’t know how many months it’s been, nine or 10, or whatever it’s been. But to be on a night where we had to hustle, fight, work and you know we won that game over the course of 106 practices. I mean we’ve been practicing, working hard and so it means a whole lot.

“Thank God for giving us strength to hang in here and play and win an important game down the stretch. Now we’ve got a bunch of basketball left. We’ve got to keep going. We got to bounce back and get ready to compete against a really talented South Carolina team (on Sunday). For tonight, I think for me, the best feeling for us is Makayla and Evelyn will always have tonight. You only had one chance at it and now that they have it you can’t take that from them ever. To have that moment with them at half court with just a jam-packed building. Just thank the fans for coming out and honoring those kids. That will be one we don’t soon forget if we ever do. I don’t think we ever will.”

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