HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- With Kentucky clinging to a five-point halftime lead, coach Matthew Mitchell asked his Wildcats to pick up the defensive intensity.
They certainly did.The Wildcats forced eight turnovers -- including five steals -- to fuel a 19-2 run to open the second half and lead No. 9 Kentucky to a 79-60 victory Saturday over Southern Miss in the championship game of the Lady Eagle Thanksgiving Classic.Kentucky forced 33 turnovers and came up with a season-high 18 steals."I just thought the five players we had on the floor were able to bring the pressure up a couple of notches and get that going and create some turnovers," Mitchell said.Kentucky overcame the absence of reigning SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap, as sophomore guard A'dia Mathies led six Wildcats with at least nine points.Dunlap missed Saturday's game with a mild concussion after hitting the back of her head on the court while taking a charge Friday night in Kentucky's opening-round 91-59 victory over Murray State. That left the Wildcats having to make up the 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game that Dunlap came into the tournament averaging.They did that with defensive pressure and a balanced offense."To be able to win by the margin that we were able to without Victoria, I think, says a lot about our team," Mitchell said.Mathies, who was honored as the Classic's Most Valuable Player, scored 14 points, while coming up with six steals, three assists and four rebounds. She had scored a season-high 21 points and grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds against Murray State."This freshman class that came in has been very productive and also the returning players, they're carrying their weight," Mathies said. "I think we did a good job [Saturday] with everybody coming together knowing that Victoria was out. There was a big hole there, but we got the job done."Keyla Snowden added 12 points for Kentucky, while Crystal Riley had 11 and freshman guard Kastine Evans -- who also was picked for the All-Classic team -- finished with 10 and seven rebounds.Freshman center Samantha Drake, a starter who missed the previous two games with a bruised knee, came off the bench Saturday to score five points in 11 minutes.Southern Miss (3-2) was led by a pair of forwards -- junior Rachel Vigers, who scored a game-high 21 points, and senior Tanesha Washington, who had 17.