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By Les Johns | firstname.lastname@example.org
UK Hoops began the season wanting to be called tough, tenacious and dreaded.
Now they can also be called champions.
UK Hoops celebrated its first SEC regular-season championship in 30 years at Memorial Coliseum Sunday night, hours after defeating the Mississippi State Bulldogs 76-40 in Starkville to secure sole possession of the title.
Several video montages rolled at the start of the event, detailing summer training and a series of season highlights.
The team arrived and danced to the court to the loud cheers of the couple thousand fans in attendance.
UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart addressed the crowd briefly before giving the microphone over to head coach Matthew Mitchell.
Pointing toward the championship banners in Memorial, Barnhart said, “Looking at those banners — I think we need to get them updated.”
Barnhart told the team he would buy the team championship rings with the player’s name and uniform number on one side.
“From here on, you get to decide what the other side of that ring says,” Barnhart said.
Mitchell said he was thrilled to be sharing the championship with the fans at Memorial.
“I am really just overwhelmed with the support that you have shown this team,” Mitchell said. “This is unbelievable. We go on the road sometimes and there won’t be this many people at the games. You fans have had a huge part of this championship.”
The Cats then cut down the nets at Memorial to commemorate the championship. The players, coaches, managers, staff and even a fan got to participate in the net cutting.
One group of fans at the celebration included three generations of Downings.
Lillian Downing said she has been following the team for decades.
“We were first in line tonight,” Downing said. “We just love Coach Mitchell.”
Downing brought her daughter Betty and her granddaughter Emily to see Mitchell and watch the team cut down the nets.
Emily Downing, a business major at UK, thinks the championship will be great for recruiting.
“It is great that the women are getting some of the notoriety that they deserved,” Emily Downing said.
The Cats took the lead in the conference standings with a win over Tennessee on Jan. 12 that lasted until a mid-February three-game road losing streak that left the Cats and Vols tied with identical 11-3 records.
The Cats regained the lead Thursday night when they defeated South Carolina and UT was upset by Arkansas in Knoxville.
“This was a real gauntlet we had to go through this week, playing Monday, Thursday and Sunday,” Mitchell said. “They had to play tough to win these three games. We just had to go back to defensively intensity and it carried us through.”
With a one-game lead going in to the last day of the regular-season, the Cats traveled to Starkville and disposed of Mississippi State 76-40.
The Cats completely stifled the Bulldog offense — forcing 33 turnover and holding them to 26.4 percent shooting from the field.
“We thought we could win the game with defense, and I thought the kids did a wonderful job with that,” Mitchell said.
Junior guard A’dia Mathies and sophomore guard Bernisha Pinkett led a balanced UK scoring attack with 13 points each.
The Cats (24-5, 13-3 SEC) return to action Friday at 1 p.m., kicking off the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. They will face the winner of the Thursday 1 p.m. matchup between Florida (18-11, 8-8 SEC) and Auburn (13-16, 5-11 SEC).