WNIT isn’t the tourney the Cats wanted, but they’ll take it

Every year around spring, hundreds of women anticipate being asked to “The Big Dance.” And whether it’s the high school senior prom or the NCAA Tournament, the excitement and disappointment is similar for both.

So you’ll have to excuse UK women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell if he sounds a little disappointed about being asked to the women’s basketball equivalent of the junior prom — the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

“On one level, we are disappointed that we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament,” Mitchell said Monday night after learning his team failed to make the 64-team cut. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”

The Cats found out late Monday that they were an automatic qualifier for the WNIT. UK earned a first-round bye and will play Middle Tennessee State tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum.

“I think we are deserving of (the bye),” Mitchell said. “How we finished and how we played down the stretch, I think we were deserving.”

Although the Cats didn’t reach their ultimate goal of making it to the NCAA Tournament, the WNIT bid isn’t all that disappointing, given how they began the season. UK started the year with a wealth of senior-laden talent, but the Cats struggled to find their game under first-year UK coach Mitchell, stumbling out of the gate to a 6-8 non-conference record.

After junior guard Carly Ormerod went down with a foot injury, it appeared the Cats’ season would only get tougher as they headed into conference play. Instead, the Cats made waves in Southeastern Conference play by upsetting a ranked Georgia team twice and a ranked Auburn team.

An 8-6 conference record earned the Cats fourth place in the SEC final standings, but a loss to South Carolina at home on Senior Day might have done the Cats in. Still, if not for the Cats’ turnaround in conference play, UK might not have been asked to any dance at all.

“We’re excited to be in the postseason,” Mitchell said. “Going into conference play, not a lot of people thought we had a chance to be in postseason.”

And it’s not like UK isn’t a common dance partner with the WNIT. The Cats have made a postseason tournament the last four years, three of them being the WNIT. Last year, UK made it to the third round of the tournament, winning two straight road games before falling to Wisconsin.

With a first-round bye, a second-round home game and a bevy of experienced Cats — 10 of 15 UK players have postseason experience — UK could be prime for a run in the WNIT. Led by senior All-SEC selections Samantha Mahoney and Sarah Elliott and All-SEC freshman Victoria Dunlap, the Cats have high hopes after being the first fourth-place SEC school to be denied a NCAA Tournament bid.

“We have a chance to win it,” Mitchell said. “You have to focus one game at a game. A survive-and-advance mentality.”

But first UK has to get past  MTSU, who easily dispatched of Western Carolina 104-69 last night. The Cats hold an 8-2 overall record against MTSU but hasn’t met the Blue Raiders since 1990. With all the experience on the Cats’ squad, Mitchell hopes UK can use its past knowledge wisely.

“(We) definitely have the opportunity to use experience as an advantage,” Mitchell said. “But the players decide how to finish this season. I’ll work as hard as I can as a coach to prepare them.”