By Alex Forkner
As No. 5 UK Hoops scrambled in the final seconds, attempting to score 100 points for the second straight game, not everyone in Memorial Coliseum was as thrilled as the 5,372 fans in the stands.
After the 97-53 blowout, Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy was — how should I put this? — a little grumpy. After admonishing the media for not having any questions right away, she questioned the integrity of UK’s “40 minutes of dread” strategy.
“I thought it was pretty un-classy to continue to press when you’re up by 46 points,” she said. “We’re a pressing team also and at some point, we do take the press off because that becomes not respectful of the other team.”
UK head coach Matthew Mitchell spent little time dismissing any drama.
“If anybody is unfamiliar with how we play and what our goals are, then that is their problem. That is not mine,” Mitchell said. “I am really proud of our players and I thought they conducted themselves with tremendous poise today and followed the scouting report and beat a team that can give you a lot of trouble if you didn’t play well. I am really proud of our team.”
And why wouldn’t he be? For a long stretch of the game, the Cats played better than they had all season.
A 24-2 run buried Auburn under an insurmountable deficit. UK hit 12 3-pointers, tying a season-high and notching the best they’ve shot in conference play. That relentless press helped the Cats record 12 steals, another SEC-best, and all five starters scored in double figures, led by newly crowned SEC Player of the Week A’dia Mathies, who missed only one shot all day en route to 24 points.
“We kept putting pressure on them and running them as much as we could and we felt like we had depth so we could sub where they couldn’t,” said Mathies. “We feel like they eventually got tired and we were able to open up the game.”
Wide open, until Auburn made a miniature run midway through the second half to cut the lead to 24. Mathies said revamping the defense became necessary.
“There was a point right before the eight minute mark that they cut it down to 20-something so we feel like they were on a run and if they were to deal 10 more (points) in the last couple of minutes then we really would’ve had a game,” Mathies said. “We felt we had to step up the pressure and it paid off in the end.”
Which brings us back to Williams-Flournoy’s “un-classy” comments. It’s fair to say UK’s pressure is demoralizing — unfair considering the Cats’ athleticism across the roster. But classless? I don’t think so.
Mitchell is coaching a high-level basketball team, one aiming for the ultimate achievement in college hoops — a national title. In order to even have a chance at such a feat, UK must blossom into the best team it can be by tournament time.
And how do the Cats do that? By demanding the highest level of play possible at all times, something this team is starting to do.
“I just think this team continues to build trust and show up and play hard and maybe we could have played less hard today and still won, but that is not the goal for us,” Mitchell said. “The goal for us is to play our best.
“We are trying to hold ourselves to high standards. We are not trying to look at the scoreboard. We are trying to play the best that we can because that is what we have committed to doing.”
Mitchell cannot afford to allow complacency to creep into this team’s mentality. Taking a foot off the gas might be allowable against teams like Auburn, but times will come when the Cats will need to have a lead foot all 40 minutes of the game. Teams like UConn and Baylor aren’t going to fade away just because they are behind.
That’s the scenario Mitchell is coaching for. And when all is said and done, the “un-classy” team might just be the class of all of NCAA women’s basketball.