UK Hoops making NCAA tournament for third straight year

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It isn’t often that a basketball team can break a record without setting a foot on the court.

UK Hoops (25-6) will do just that Monday, however.

UK Hoops will make the NCAA tournament for the third straight year for the first time in program history, when the NCAA selection committee releases the brackets Monday.

Not only will they make the tournament, but chances are they will be highly seeded and favored to make a deep run into March.

The latest “Bracketology” by ESPN’s Charlie Creme has the Cats slated to be a No. 2 seed in the Fresno Region playing Samford in the first round in Chicago, Ill.

If the two seed becomes reality, it would be the highest-seed for a Mitchell-coached Cats team. They have been a four seed the last two years.

It will also be the first time that Mitchell has led a SEC regular-season champion into NCAA tournament competition.

Mitchell believes that competing against the tough teams of the SEC will help the Cats in the NCAA tournament.

“I think we will be very much battle-tested going into the tournament. I think we have played in a lot of tough games. Won a lot of tough games,” Mitchell said. “Clearly, we won more than anybody else in the regular season. Had to win them in different ways.”

The Cats have reached the Elite Eight twice, once in 1982 and then again with Mitchell’s first NCAA tournament squad in 2010.

Five players from that 2010 Elite Eight squad still play for the Cats — Crystal Riley, Amber Smith, A’dia Mathies, Brittany Henderson and Keyla Snowden.

In addition to drawing on veteran leaders, the Cats will also need production out of SEC Freshman of the Year Bria Goss to achieve success in the postseason.

Goss is the second-leading scorer on the team, averaging 11.2 points per game and 4.2 rebounds.

She had a difficult SEC tournament, however, scoring 11 points in the two games combined, hitting 3-for-16 from the field.

“Bria hustles every day in practice, every game. Even though she wasn’t having her best night, made a mistake here or there, she’s going to try to give it her best and her all,” Mathies said. “We kept encouraging her — kept motivating her.”

The Cats will also need to avoid slow starts in the Big Dance. They can’t afford to dig themselves a big hole to try to climb out of. They gave up double-digit runs to both Florida and LSU in the SEC Tournament.

Against Florida, they were able to come back and claim a victory thanks to their signature defensive pressure.

“We just kept chipping away and battling,” Mitchell said. “I think in the end defensively having the confidence you could get stops, you could pressure the ball you could get some turnover. That’s what we hang our hat on, is pressure defense. It says they’re a tough group of kids to come back from that terrible start.”

The Cats were unable to come back against LSU, however, and were eliminated in the semifinals. The Cats were whistled for 30 team fouls in the game, which made it difficult to ramp up the pressure to create the turnovers needed to come back from a large deficit.

“It’s difficult for us, too, on a game like today. I think they really wanted our post players to try to beat them. They put a lot of pressure on A’dia, Keyla and Bria,” Mitchell said. “They obviously played a much cleaner game and didn’t foul as much as we did. But when you have it like that, you just have to find some way to pull it out.”

The Cats will next play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 17 or 18.   Their seeding, opponent, region and location will be decided and announced Monday, March 12.

Mitchell believes that they still have the opportunity to have a special finish to the season.

“So as we go forward we have to decide how special we want to be. We’re already a special team. We’ve already done something that hasn’t been done in 30 years,” Mitchell said.  “My hope for them is they’re never satisfied with where they are. I think when you do that in life, you have a lot of problems.  If you get to the point of success and you stop working — I don’t think that’s a good formula for them as they go forward.”

Mitchell won’t be satisfied Monday, but he will be part of UK Hoops history when he leads the Cats to the NCAA for the third straight season.