UK head coach Matthew Mitchell has emphasized all season that he always tries to savor each season, the only one he’ll get to enjoy with a specific group of players.
And there have been plenty of fond memories to savor so far.
The UK hoops team (23-6, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) has surpassed preseason expectations, wrapping up a second place finish in the SEC, its highest finish since 1983. Junior forward Victoria Dunlap has been leading the charge all season in becoming an SEC Player of the Year candidate, despite no preseason notoriety for her play.
“We’re definitely proud of where we are,” Dunlap said. “We didn’t want to settle for second … but obviously we’re proud of how the season has gone so far.”
According to preseason prognosticators, the Cats were supposed to finish 11th in the SEC. However, the Cats never looked like the 16-16 team they were a season ago or a team slated to finish near the bottom of any conference from the start of the season, when they rattled off a school-record 11 consecutive wins to begin the campaign.
During this hot start, the Cats also defeated rival Louisville to snap a five-game losing streak against the Cards.
Still, naysayers doubted the difficulty of UK’s schedule and thought the SEC schedule would be a stumbling block.
A 79-71 loss to South Carolina, what Mitchell would later call “the most disappointing loss of the season,” that dropped UK to 1-2 in the SEC was actually a blessing for Mitchell and his team.
“I think probably the best thing that happened to us was the way we lost the South Carolina game,” Mitchell said. “So that is always fresh on our mind that if we don’t come in day in and day out and do the things necessary, we’re certainly capable of getting beat.”
Following the loss to the Gamecocks, UK reeled off a school-record eight-straight SEC games before losing to Vanderbilt.
Still, the Cats went on to set a school record for most wins in the SEC (11), finished the season undefeated (17-0) at Memorial Coliseum for the second time in school history and first since 1980-81, and the 23 overall wins are tied for the most in school history for a regular season and the highest since the 1982-83 team posted 23 regular-season wins.
UK has achieved these feats in commanding fashion as it ranks in the top five of the SEC in several categories, including scoring offense and defense, scoring margin, free-throw percentage, field goal percentage, steals and turnover margin.
Dunlap has mimicked her team’s statistical dominance with individual greatness. But more important than leading the team in scoring and rebounding, among other categories, Dunlap has developed into a leader and the Cats’ go-to player.
Unfortunately for the Cats, they’ve experienced a blip in their good play at the worst time of the season, losing back-to-back games for the first time all season to Tennessee and Auburn last week.
Worse yet, backup point guard Crystal Riley suffered a stress fracture in her foot just over a week ago, and Carly Morrow and Lydia Watkins have been hit by an unspecified illness to deplete UK’s bench, which they need for their up-tempo style of play.
Dunlap said her team needs to play every game with energy to compensate for its lack of raw talent: “We can’t just go in (to a game) and walk around … we actually have to play basketball, have intensity, have emotions and not be lackadaisical.”
UK’s success in the regular season has set them up for success in the post season.
“We are in a position we have never been in before as a program,” Mitchell said.