When this season started, I was not just optimistic about the UK Hoops Squad and their chances, I was downright jubilant. There was no reason to think that they could not better last year’s record with the improved players like DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker coming back, and more time in the Forty Minutes of Dread system that Mitchell spent the last two years perfecting.
After all, A’Dia Mathies was coming into her own, fresh off a SEC Player of the Year season, and every indicator was pointing in the direction of better and better things to come. They ended last year with 28 wins, tying their mark of most for one season, and they had momentum like they have never had before. Today was the culmination of what a lot of hard work and determination can produce when it meets with talent and desire, and the season is not even over yet,
As of today, the Kentucky Wildcats are coached by the man with more victories than any coach in their history. As of today, Kentucky stands ready to have more wins in one season than ever before, and if they only can duplicate their postseason of last year, will end with 30 wins. Another UK first. However, what made it sweeter than anything else was that the opponent was none other than the Tennessee Lady Volunteers.
Tennessee has earned more of my respect this season than any other. They took an untested new coach, a roster that was at times this year completely decimated by injury, and they pulled off another SEC Regular Season title, their 17th. They passed UK three weeks ago when Kentucky stumbled and could not seal the deal against lesser teams that they should have beaten. They played like champions. So when this game started, Tennessee had nothing to prove. UK however, did.
We end the season at 25-4, 13-3 in SEC play. Tennessee finishes 23-6, 14-2. Two stellar seasons.
The game was really never in question, although a lapse in the last two minutes of the first half allowed Tennessee to get back to within 2 points of the Cats. Then, when play resumed, Kentucky came out of the break with nine straight points and the run to eventually stretch its lead to 57-38. Tennessee got back to within 10, but no closer. Had Kentucky been able to keep Tennessee off the FT line (22-26), the game would have been over 5 minutes into the second half.
Matthew Mitchell decided that he was going to continue his hockey-style, 5 for 5 substitution system in this game, obviously wanting to prepare this team for post-season play. The UK women literally just ran Tennessee all day long. That was the game plan, and Kentucky never varied from it. Every player on the bench contributed at some point.
With this being Mathies and Brittany Henderson’s last home game, Mitchell took no chances when it came to a loss, though as he coached this game just like it was already the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four was within his grasp. The Wildcats had five players in double figures, including Mathies, Stallworth, Walker, Jennifer O’Neill, and Bria Goss. A’Zia Bishop just missed it at 8 points herself.
Before the game Mathies and Henderson were honored in a pregame ceremony in which Mitchell held his emotions in check as he bid farewell - at home, that is - to Kentucky’s winningest class. The two entered the game with a 108-25 record during which the Wildcats went from mediocrity to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and two Elite Eight berths. Should Kentucky expand on that record, they will both have seen more success in a Kentucky uniform than any other players in the history of the university, save Wayne Turner, who played on two NCAA championship teams in 4 years.
This team is special. Beyond words special. They have made some mistakes this year that cost them some huge accolades. 14 points spread over three games are all that stood between the Cats and SEC perfection this season. Other than LSU at Baton Rouge, they did not lose to a team ranked outside the top 20 all season. They have lost one game at home in two years.
The next four weeks are going to be the culmination of four years of effort from Mathies and Henderson. Since their arrival, this team has gone from a footnote in the SEC to Champions. If they are not favored to win the SEC Tournament, I will be amazed. With nothing less than a #3 seed in the NCAA’s firmly in hand, they are looking to push deeper into post-season play than ever before. I for one, think that this is their time. A little luck, combined with even more effort until the end of the season, this team may finally be able to hang one of their own NCAA banners.