WBB: No. 9 Wildcats, No. 6 Cardinals set for showdown

Kentucky and Louisville aren't just playing for Bluegrass State bragging rights.

Both the No. 9 Wildcats and No. 6 Cardinals have conference and national championship aspirations. It is the first time they will square off with both ranked in the top 10.

Both teams like to play an up-tempo game with a lot of defensive pressure.

Since losing to No. 1 Baylor, Kentucky (5-1) has won four straight by an average margin of nearly 44 points. The Wildcats are forcing 28 turnovers per game. Louisville (8-0) has also thrived by forcing opponents into an average of 21 turnovers per contest.

Sunday's matchup should be more competitive than recent meetings between the teams. The last five games in this intrastate rivalry have been won by an average margin of 22 points.

Louisville has won three of those games, but the home team has won the last four.

"There really is no explanation for that," said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, who seeks his 150th career victory and 120th with the Wildcats.

"I certainly hope it's not that way this year if we're on the losing end, I can tell you that. I would suspect it's going to be a really tough game, a really competitive game and we will certainly be trying to prepare for Louisville to play their best. I'm sure they are doing the same thing."

Kentucky came up short in its only other meeting with a ranked opponent, getting drubbed by Baylor. This will be Louisville's first game against a top-10 opponent; the Cardinals beat Texas A&M earlier this season when the Aggies were ranked No. 15.

The Wildcats have rebounded since losing 85-51 at defending national champion Baylor on Nov. 13. They broke 100 points on Sunday against USC Upstate and are coming off Wednesday's 92-53 victory over Miami (Ohio).

Kentucky shot 50 percent in both games with a balanced scoring attack. The Wildcats have turned defense into offense lately. They have forced 60 turnovers the past two games, including a season-high 38 against Upstate.

However, Kentucky knows none of its recent opponents have been on par with Louisville. The Wildcats don't expect things to come as easily against Cardinals -- especially on defense.

"They are very smart," said senior guard A'dia Mathies, Kentucky's leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. "They play different defenses and make you think too much and when you think too much you usually make mistakes and turnovers."

Mitchell said it will be another good test for his squad.

"We are looking forward to having a chance to go see how we stack up and how much progress we have made over the past couple of weeks," he said.

Cardinals coach Jeff Walz has similar concerns about how his unbeaten squad will handle Kentucky's pressure.

Louisville is turning the ball over about 17 times a game, which Walz chalked up to playing too fast a tempo at times. But he also knows the Cardinals need to limit those type of mistakes against the Wildcats.

"If we turn the basketball over, they've got to be dead-ball turnovers so we at least get a chance to get back and set up on defense," Walz said. "We're going to turn the ball over. We turn it over five-on-zero in practice. ...

"If we can keep it between 18 and 20, that's about what we're averaging. That's fine. But we have to make sure those 18 turnovers don't lead to 36 points."

Walz has been pleased with his team's performance.

Louisville opened the season with the win over Texas A&M and won the Hardwood Tournament of Hope title last week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Several players played well for the Cardinals during November: sophomore forward Sara Hammond is averaging 10.9 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game and freshman guard Megan Deines (8.4 points) has started every game.

Their play has made the Cardinals a much deeper team and has complemented veterans such as junior and leading scorer Shoni Schimmel (13.3 points) and sophomore Bria Smith (7.5 points). Louisville has needed contributions from everyone while Asia Taylor and Tia Gibbs recover from hip injuries.

"We've just gotten a lot more experienced," Walz said.

Walz expects a competitive game against Kentucky. Like Mitchell, he can't explain why recent games in this series have been so lopsided -- "If I knew why, I'd have won Powerball the other night," Walz joked.

But Walz is looking for a closer game on Sunday.

"I don't expect that on Sunday," Walz said of a possible blowout. "We both expect a very competitive basketball game. I'd be shocked if it was a lopsided game."

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