This loss was coming — but UK Hoops’ future is still bright

Two years ago, the UK women’s basketball team beat then-No. 1 Tennessee 66-63 in Rupp Arena. Going into that game, the Cats had only beaten the Lady Volunteers five times in 45 chances.

The victory changed the outlook of the program and was a great building block for the future.

Currently, the program has hit a road block. They unexpectedly lost a coach and they will probably miss the NCAA Tournament again this year. That won’t last long though because they’ve built a solid foundation for the future.

That foundation started with that win over Tennessee. They’re still feeling the benefits of that victory on Jan. 26, 2006. Even though the Cats lost to Tennessee 65-40 last night in the Vols’ first return to Lexington since that game, the program is still benefiting from that victory.

The first place to look to see how much that win meant to the program was the stands. If they did it in 2006 against unbelievable odds, why can’t they do it again in 2008, most of the fans presumably thought?

The 7,278 fans that packed Memorial Coliseum were a very diverse and enthusiastic crowd. UK students were in attendance. Old men and women were there.

So were young men, with pompoms no less, to cheer on the lady Cats.

Even members of UK’s football and men’s basketball teams showed up on a Thirsty Thursday night.

The second place you could see the impact of that game was on UK’s roster.

Amber Smith is the future of the women’s basketball program at UK. The 5-foot-5 freshman guard from Winter Haven, Fla., was the quickest player on the floor, and she has a special ability to finish shots in traffic.

“We have a really, really good one for this season and the future in Amber Smith,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said.

Freshman forward Victoria Dunlap came into the game after a 17-point, nine-rebound effort against Mississippi State on Sunday. Throw in fellow starter and sophomore guard Amani Franklin, and freshman center Catina Bett, the first UK player off the bench, and UK has a lot to look forward to in the future.

Those are the first signs of Mitchell’s recruiting ability, something UT head coach Pat Summitt spoke very highly of after the game.

“He can really talk,” she said. “…he’s very convincing. I’m sure he’ll be a great recruiter.”

Because of those young players, the Cats are going to have the chance to be very good in the future. But right now, they’re just an average team in the Southeastern Conference.

UK never really had much of a chance to win the game.

Tennessee won the national championship last season, and they return four starters from that team. They start three seniors, not including junior Candace Parker, by far the nation’s best player.

Plus, UK trailed 8-0 and didn’t score its first field goal until the 14:20 mark of the first half.

Parker plays more like her boyfriend, former Duke star Shelden Williams, than she does any other woman on the planet. Her ability to dribble, shoot and play in the post has, and will continue to change the game. Think of her as the Tim Tebow of women’s basketball.

Parker’s supporting cast is also spectacular, which means Summitt has a chance to win her eighth national championship, further adding on to the Lady Vols’ hoops empire.

Maybe one day, when the Queen has left UT, the Cats can try to build an empire of their own. With an exciting coach and a young squad, maybe they can do it sooner rather than later.

But either way, it began the night the Cats beat Tennessee.

Just like the UK football program will feel the benefits of beating national champions Louisiana State this season 20 years from now, the women’s basketball team can build on that victory for many years.

Jonathan Smith is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]