Women miss Big Dance, earn WNIT bid

For the second year in a row the UK women’s basketball team got asked to a post-season dance — just not the one they wanted.

The Cats finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference with an 8-6 record in SEC play — including three upsets over ranked SEC opponents — and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament. But that was not enough for the tournament selection committee to include UK in its field of 64 teams last night. The Cats missed out on making the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.

UK was announced as an automatic qualifier for the 48-team Women’s National Invitational Tournament later last night and will be one of the 16 teams to receive a first-round bye. The Cats will play the winner of Middle Tennessee State and Western Carolina on Friday at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

After missing the NCAA Tournament, the Cats were almost certain of a bid to the WNIT, thanks to a rule set by the WNIT that requires it to take the best remaining team in any of the 31 conferences that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. UK finished fourth in the SEC and did not win the conference tournament, while all three schools ranked higher than the Cats in the conference made the NCAA Tournament.

Five SEC teams earned spots in the NCAA tournament, including 11th-seeded Auburn and eighth-seeded Georgia, two of the ranked teams UK beat during the regular season. One-seeded and defending national champion Tennessee, second-seeded LSU and fourth-seeded Vanderbilt round out the remaining SEC bids for the NCAA Tournament.

Seven other opponents of the Cats also made the 64-team field, including rival Louisville, which earned a four seed, and in-state foe and Sun Belt Conference champion Western Kentucky, which earned a 10 seed.

But the WNIT is not unfamiliar territory for UK, which made it to the third round of the tournament after winning two road games last year. The Cats eventually lost to Wisconsin, ending their 2007 season. The WNIT differs from the men’s NIT in that it selects 48 teams instead of 32, with the top 16 teams receiving first-round byes.

Under first-year head coach Matthew Mitchell, the Cats couldn’t find much consistency amid a plague of injuries to the team. Senior center Sarah Elliott, junior guard Carly Ormerod and freshman guard Amber Smith all missed significant time during the season. The Cats only won back-to-back games twice, and their longest win streak on the year was three games.

Hampered by a rough 6-8 start in non-conference play, UK couldn’t make up enough ground to make the women’s version of the Big Dance. The Cats were only 3-8 against top-25 competition with no quality wins outside of SEC play.