As fans on one side of the arena belt out “Blue” and the other side answers with a thunderous “White,” don’t be surprised to hear “Purple” from voices on the Kentucky bench.
“Purple is where you just have to get everything back together, regroup,” UK freshman forward KeKe McKinney described.
Using the color purple was the idea of assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who has seen a group of freshmen struggling with the transition to college at times.
“It’s a code word,” freshman Dorie Harrison said. It’s a way to reset when something negative happens in a practice or a game.
It started as a way to calm down McKinney, who is a bit of a perfectionist, and it’s turned into a teamwide phenomenon.
“Even Coach Mitchell’s in on it,” McKinney laughed. “When he gets all riled up (we say): ‘Purple. Purple, coach. It’s going to be OK.’”
The color of royalty and plums hasn’t fixed all that ails Kentucky, which has lost nine of its last 10 games and faces Alabama (14-6, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) on Thursday night in Memorial Coliseum, but the hue has helped make the growing pains less painful.
“Purple stands for positive,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said he’s learned this season. “They say that and then I started saying it too now because there are a lot of times that I want to go negative.”
This hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for Kentucky (9-11, 1-5) as it tries to recover from the team defections two years ago and not having much experience, especially inside.
“There have been days we have gone negative because it’s been a tough go,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “But what I love about it is they are still coming to practice hungry and that they even care enough to understand that they need to be positive and keep going on. That just tells you about them as kids.”
Making the transition to college hasn’t been easy. Has it been more difficult than the freshmen expected?
“Definitely,” McKinney replied immediately.
“It’s been so hard,” Harrison chimed in before the final syllable escaped McKinney’s mouth.
“But it’s going to be worth it,” McKinney said, and Harrison nodded.
Both of the freshmen saw marked improvement in the last game, a loss to No. 10 South Carolina on Sunday. McKinney scored a career-high 12 points and matched her career best in rebounding with seven while playing 32 minutes.
Harrison had her own career high with 11 points, her first time in double figures since UK’s opener. She added seven rebounds, too.
“We wish we could’ve contributed earlier, but it’s been a slow process getting us to where we need to be,” Harrison said. “We’re glad we’re finally taking steps toward where (coaches) want us to be.”
The light bulbs have been coming on for both of them and fellow newcomer Tatyana Wyatt. But the forward will miss a second straight game working her way through the concussion protocol.
“I see a lot more confidence from both of them, just being a lot more comfortable on the court offensively,” UK junior guard Maci Morris said. “They stay in the gym, work really hard. They had a really tough practice the other day and they both just kept pushing through no matter how tired they got.”
McKinney and Harrison hope they can build on what they’ve learned.
The college game has “definitely slowed down for me,” Harrison said. “At first, I didn’t know what was going on. ... Now, I feel like I’m able to come along with it and be involved.”
Part of that for the 6-foot-3 center from Nashville was decelerating her moves in the post.
“I have to slow down, watch my surroundings,” said Harrison, who said she started to feel strong about her game on Sunday when she was able to fully execute a “spin-back move” that she’d struggled with previously.
“In high school, I could just do whatever I wanted, but now it’s like you have to outsmart the (other) player and be very technical.”
It was a similar story for McKinney, who said she never had to worry much about where her power came from or what her form looked like while playing at Fulton High School in Knoxville.
“In high school I could just stand up, do whatever,” the 6-1 forward said. “But here, you have to load your hips to get over those big girls. That’s one thing I’ve improved a lot on, but I’m still working at it.”
That growth hasn’t always been easy and it’s still ongoing.
“I would rather it be, ‘Blue! Blue!’ for Kentucky,” Mitchell joked of the team code word, noting that purple is a little too LSU.
But he’s happy it’s helped.
“You would love for (progress) to happen real quick and real fast, but I’m enjoying the process of working with them,” Mitchell said of his young post players. “You can see it happening when you work with them every day. You can see it happening.”
Alabama at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Records: Alabama 14-6 (4-3 SEC), Kentucky 9-11 (1-5)
Series: Kentucky leads 28-17
Last meeting: Kentucky won 65-55 on March 3, 2017, in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament at Greenville, S.C.