By Boyd Hayes | @KernelHayes
Seniors A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson were honored before No. 10 UK Hoops took the court to face No. 8 Tennessee on Senior Day. Two hours later, they walked off the court in Memorial Coliseum for the last time victorious, beating the Lady Vols, 78-65, on Sunday.
“I can’t tell you how important it was for us to send A’dia and Brittany off from Memorial Coliseum with a victory,” said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell. “They have meant so much to our program. Kentucky looks a lot different today than it did four years ago. I thought that the team really understood that those kids deserved to leave here with a victory.”
Mathies and Henderson have won more games than any senior class in school history, and Mathies delivered a signature performance in her last 20 minutes of regular-season college basketball.
“(Walking off the court for the last time) felt great, especially because it was with a victory in front of so many fans who care about us and support us,” Mathies said. “I’m glad that we got the victory today. It means a lot to me.”
Of Mathies’ 16 points, she scored 13 in the second half, and added four steals, four assists and four rebounds.
Though the Cats jumped to an early lead behind two 3-pointers apiece from sophomore guards Jennifer O’Neill and Bria Goss, the Lady Vols climbed back behind 10 first-half points from freshman center Bashaara Graves.
Mathies contributed only three points in the first 20 minutes, but her defense on Tennessee junior guard Meighan Simmons was vital in helping the Cats hold on to a 36-32 lead at halftime.
“I just wanted to be out there and be aggressive,” Mathies said. “If I could deny (Simmons) the ball and not let her get it in the first place, I think that’s a big thing.”
UK’s defense dictated much of the game, as the Cats forced 19 Tennessee turnovers in the first half and 31 on the game, the most the Lady Vols have given up all season.
The Cats exploded into the second half. Three steals, four points and one rebound from junior forward Samarie Walker in the first two minutes back helped UK quickly expanded its lead to 45-32. Also bolstering the Cats’ second-half performance was junior center DeNesha Stallworth.
“I thought DeNesha was big on the offensive boards at some critical times,” Mitchell said. “I thought Tennessee was making a bit of a run, and one of those putbacks when we were struggling to score kind of settled us back down.”
Stallworth finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. The second-chance opportunities generated by UK’s 37 rebounds were plenty, as the Cats shot 31 of 82 (37.8 percent) for the game.
Simmons kept attacking for the Vols in the second half, despite her team’s deficit. She finished with 17 points, 12 of them in the second half. She was joined in double-digit scoring by Graves with 12 points.
The victory gave Mitchell the most wins in school history at 139, surpassing Terry Hall.
“I’ve said many times that I’m real fortunate to be in this position to coach at Kentucky,” Mitchell said. “It’s a very, very special place to coach basketball.”
The win clinched the No. 2 seed for the SEC Tournament. The Lady Vols clinched the No. 1 seed Thursday.
The tournament starts Wednesday, but the Cats will not play until 6 p.m. Friday against either Vanderbilt or Missouri. All games will be played in The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.