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By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3
In the six years since UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell has taken over the program, he has changed an entire culture.
Sunday’s win over Tennessee seemed to symbolize that shift. The celebration of Senior Day turned into an observance of what UK has become under Mitchell.
Seniors A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson, honored before their final home game, took the floor as the most successful class in UK history.
A relentless defense forced 31 turnovers; an opportunistic offense scored 33 points off those turnovers. Call it a style of play if you want, but it’s really more of an ideology.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Cats’ 78-65 win over Tennessee made Mitchell the program’s winningest coach with 139 victories.
When Mitchell gripped a microphone to address the boisterous blue fans that packed a sold-out Memorial Coliseum, he was met with a reception fit for a rockstar.
“Four years ago we had two players come to Kentucky at a time when things are very, very different than they are now,” Mitchell said. “Before they got there it was not rare that we lost at Memorial Coliseum. Well, four years later, that’s changed.”
In those four years, UK is 64-3 on its home floor.
The 13-point victory is UK’s largest margin of victory against Tennessee since 1986, when the Cats topped the Lady Vols, 96-82. The win is only the ninth ever against Tennessee, and the third since Mitchell became head coach.
Mitchell was quick to downplay his accomplishment, preferring to focus on his joy at sending Mathies and Henderson out winners.
But without Mitchell, today’s game would have been radically different, perhaps another shellacking from a superior Tennessee team — an oft-seen conclusion throughout the years.
Who knows if Mathies and Henderson would even have been in a Kentucky uniform, let alone receiving a framed one before the game, if Mitchell hadn’t recruited them to UK, back when there weren’t a lot of great players coming to UK.
“They came here when we were selling a dream, and they made it a reality,” Mitchell said.
As head man, Mitchell not only transformed UK from an SEC non-factor to annual contender, but made the Cats a topic of discussion on the national scene. They have won at least 25 games each of the past four seasons, making runs to the Elite Eight last year and in 2010.
Mitchell has presided over a women’s basketball renaissance at UK, which would make him akin to Leonardo da Vinci, fashioning a team and program that is beginning to resemble a work of art.
“Kentucky looks a lot different today than it did four years ago,” he said. “It’s a very special place to coach basketball. We’ve had the time to build something … to make this a program people can be proud of.”