Bar set high for UK Hoops’ future after historic season


Senior guard Lydia Watkins and freshman gard A’dia Mathies celebrate after No. 4 UK Women’s Hoops beat No. 1 Nebraska on Sunday, March 28, 2010 at the Women’s Sweet 16 Tournament in Kansas City, Mo. The Cats defeated the Huskers 76-67, sending the Cats to the Elite 8 for the first time in Kentucky history. Photo by Allie Garza

Don’t expect the UK women’s basketball team to be picked 11th in the Southeastern Conference next season.

Then again, outsiders’ expectations didn’t do anything to prevent the Cats from rewriting the record books on their path to putting together the most successful season in program history.

Despite being picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the SEC during the preseason, UK set school records for most wins in a season (28), most wins in conference play (11), finished with an undefeated home record (17-0) , reached its first SEC championship game since 1982 and capped its season by reaching its first Elite Eight since 1982, when the NCAA Tournament field consisted of only 32 teams.

“People thought (we) were going to be a bad team; (we) didn’t listen,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “People thought we wouldn’t get to the SEC tournament championship game.  No one probably thought we’d get to the Sweet 16. Certainly no one thought we were going to get to the Elite Eight.”

Yet well before UK’s postseason run, the Cats were exceeding preseason expectations and set the school record for best start (11-0), which included a 34-point win over archrival Louisville. All 11 victories were by double figures.

Still, skeptics didn’t believe UK could maintain its early success through the rigors of the SEC schedule. But UK used a school-record eight-game conference win streak to all but secure a place in the postseason.

Then, in their first tournament appearance since 2006, the undersized Cats knocked off taller teams, Liberty and Michigan State, in the first two rounds to advance to the Sweet 16 where they upset No. 1-seeded Nebraska, 76-67.

However, the Cats’ next game would be their last as their NCAA Tournament run ended with an 88-68 loss to No. 3-seeded Oklahoma, in an uncharacteristic defensive display by the Cats.

The same UK defense that forced 20 or more turnovers in 26 of 36 games this season was not the same defense in the Elite Eight, said UK junior forward Victoria Dunlap following the loss. The 88 points, including the 31 points scored by Oklahoma’s Nyeshia Stevenson, were the most surrendered by the Cats to a team and an individual, respectively, all season.

“All I can say is that it definitely hurts that we lost, but we’re definitely going to cherish this moment, this season, this team because we started something new,” Dunlap said. “The people coming next year are definitely going to have a lot (of expectations) to fill.”

Those players coming in next year are five freshmen that constitute a top-10 recruiting class. Perhaps more important than who’s coming in to the program is who’s sticking around.

The Cats lose Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins to graduation, but will return four of five starters, including Dunlap, the Associated Press and coaches’ choice for SEC Player of the Year, as well as SEC Freshman of the Year A’dia Mathies.

“This team has accomplished a lot, and so for next season, whatever good we can take, whatever momentum builds, whatever standard has been set, I think that’s how you use this season getting ready for the next,” Mitchell said. “(But) these kids aren’t robots; they’re human beings.  They have to go out and go through it and do all the work.”