High Character—By John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell believes in new beginnings. He’s mentioned on several occasions his time as a troubled youth and as a less than upstanding young adult. He talks freely of his early failures, difficulties, and pain. The lessons he’s learned along the way have undoubtedly contributed to the recent success of the program he aims to build.
Just two short seasons ago, Mitchell was scrambling to deal with a slurry of mass defections. Many thought his job was in jeopardy. He responded with a masterful coaching performance worthy of his signature dance moves—bopping and grooving to the tune of a 22-11 (11-5 conference) record and a top 25 national ranking. Like I said, Matthew Mitchell believes in new beginnings.
This year, after losing his two most prolific team leaders to graduation and subsequent professional careers, Mitchell starts anew again with a collection of talented, athletic young stars who are sure to dazzle BBN with their own brand of exciting full-court basketball.
Start with a stable core of returning upperclassmen in Makenzie Cann, Jessica Hardin, Maci Morris, Taylor Murray, Paige Poffenberger, Alyssa Rice, and Jaida Roper. Mix in some new freshman faces in Dorie Harrison, Keke Mckinney, Kameron Roach, and Tatyana Wyatt. For some additional depth, blend in junior college transfer Amanda Paschal and walk on Lashae Halsel. Sprinkle in transfer Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who remains a vital part of the team even while recovering from ACL surgery. Combine all that with the wisdom, experience, and enthusiasm of assistant coaches Kyra Elzy, Niya Butts, and Lin Dunn and you’ve got the concoctions for a team bursting with unbridled expectations.
Thus far, the Wildcats are off to a fantastic 5-0 start with two impressive road victories already on their resume. As I write this, the 22nd ranked Cats just dispatched Morehead State 86-53 in workmanlike fashion at Memorial Coliseum. Maci Morris led the team with 19 points on 5-6 three point shooting while Makenzie Cann had her second straight double-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. Kentucky displayed their signature grit, effort, and hustle, jumping out quickly on the Eagles and never looking back. These early season successes always bode well for the difficult SEC schedule ahead, as the team looks to build confidence and cohesion.
Besides physical talent, this athletic group boasts a singular quality Coach Mitchell intentionally aims for during the recruiting process. “All of them are individuals of extremely high character,” he said recently. “As we try to educate these players on being national champions in basketball and being the very best basketball players, we think that is helping us as a basketball team to have high character people who are on that pursuit to strengthen their character every single day… We just want people who are interested in coming here and being a giver and a great teammate and maybe sacrifice some personal gain for the team to do well. That is important for our team right now but also that is something they can take with them if we make any impact on that area in their four or five years here.”
It’s obvious that Matthew Mitchell wants to win, but he knows that life is about more than just winning. He’s seen first hand the suffering, heartache, and torment resulting from bad choices and poor decisions. As teacher, coach, and mentor, he’s trying to instill in all his players the core values and proper perspective needed to succeed.
“Well, one thing that we’re talking to our players about is being high character people,” he repeatedly emphasized. “So, everybody’s got to decide what that anchor is for them, and for me it is my faith. So, I don’t know how I could explain the success that we’ve had here any other way than the strength that I’ve been given through my faith to make decisions and choices or however you want to describe that. It’s something that’s very important to me and is my anchor and where I try to begin and end every day. So, it’s an important thing for me. Hopefully when I walk in that room they have a coach that’s prepared to lead them well that day.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. During this season of Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Coach Mitchell’s faith and the freedom for him to express it. I’m also thankful for an undefeated UK Women’s Basketball team and for the group of high character athletes proudly representing my university, my state, and all the Big Blue Nation. Win or lose, it’s going to be a heck of a ride. Here’s wishing everybody a very Happy Thanksgiving!
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.