Ali Vs. Frazier, Foreman Vs. Ali, Hagler Vs. Hearns, Louis Vs. Schmelling, Marciano Vs.Walcott. Everyone of these battles is historical. They were the biggest fights of their day, on the biggest stages. In basketball, the NCAA tournament usually provides these spectacles. There are always exceptions, though. This year Notre Dame and Louisville have so far provided the battle of the year, a five overtime melee that was sheer joy for a college basketball fan.
This game has been the highlight of the UK Hoops schedule all year long. When the schedule became public, everyone knew what the game of the year in the SEC Women’s schedule was going to be. This is the Super Bowl of the SEC season. Tennessee has been a study in perseverance this year. They have played through injuries, struggles on both offense and defense at times, and first year head coach Holly Warlick’s learning curve. No one gave Tennessee anything this season. Tough-minded and set for a battle, they will be coming into Memorial with something to prove, because if they win the SEC Regular Season title without beating their toughest SEC opponent, it will be a hollow victory, but a victory nonetheless.
That’s no fault of Tennessee’s, mind you. This SEC expansion is creating unbalanced schedules and strange end of the season occurrences. It is simply a fact of life at this point. In years past, there would be both home and away games in addition to SEC Tournament play to decide who was best. This is no longer the case. We get one shot at this, and since we shot ourselves in the foot over and over when we had ample opportunity to seal the deal sooner, this game is for nothing but pride.
Oh, it might make a difference in seeding, especially now that Penn State stubbed their collective toes, but it isn’t likely to matter much. No, this game is about that Kentucky across the chest that we are so quick to point out when the men are playing. This is about Holly Warlick stepping out of Pat Summitt’s shadow and forging her own destiny. This is about Matthew Mitchell taking this Kentucky team to the next level by beating a Tennessee team that has already taken away something he wanted.
Oh yeah, it is also Senior Day. For the last four years, A’Dia Mathies has run the court in Memorial and used her considerable skills to help forge UK into a national contender. The day she signed her Letter of Intent to come to Kentucky over her hometown Louisville squad, this program changed. The die was cast that she would be the one to lead UK from mediocrity to excellence.
Overall this season, Mathies leads Kentucky in scoring and ranks second in the SEC averaging 18.3 points per game. As the preseason SEC Player of the Year, Mathies currently ranks in the top 15 of six SEC statistical categories, including second in scoring (18.3) and 3-point field goal percentage (.443), and third in 3-point field goals made (2.3). She also ranks No. 2 in scoring and No. 3 in steals. She is the first player in Kentucky history (men or women), to accumulate over 1,800 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 250 steals in her career. Mathies needs just one more steal to become the third player in school history with 300 or more and 10 more to tie the UK steals record of 309 set by Stacey Reed (1991-95).
Brittany Henderson is the other Wildcats Senior that has devoted four years of her life to this program. She has gone from inexperienced freshman, to starter, to reserve player in the last four years. Before Matthew Mitchell was able to fill his bench with McDonald’s All Americans and implement his Forty Minutes Of Dread, Henderson was in the trenches, fighting for rebounds against bigger and faster players who made her life more than difficult each and every time she stepped onto the court. The pair are the winningest senior class in UK Hoops history, having totaled a 105-28 overall record, including a 63-3 mark at home.
You would think that all of the above would be enough to generate interest in this game. It is not, however, the only story line. Head Coach Matthew Mitchell stands to become the winningest head coach in the history of the UK Hoops program with a win today. Throw in the remote outside chance that a win here might bump the needle in the Cats favor come seeding time, and it makes for the most explosive mix in a regular season game that Kentucky has seen in a long time.
At the end of the day, no matter what happens, A’Dia and Brittany will both have a framed jersey, accolades galore, and the gratitude of the entire Big Blue Nation for their contributions in raising this program to heights it has never seen before. I am betting they would both trade it all for a win against UT today, no questions asked.