LEXINGTON – After winning the Southeastern Conference regular season championship with a school-record 13 league wins, the Kentucky women’s basketball team earned the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament.
Kentucky clinched the top seed with a 76-40 win at Mississippi State on Sunday.
The Wildcats are preparing to square off against the winner of Florida (No. 8 seed) and Auburn (No. 9 seed) in the quarterfinals on Friday at 1 p.m. EST at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. The game will be carried live on FSN and the UK IMG Sports Network (radio) with Neil Price.
Florida (18-11, 8-8 SEC) earned the eighth seed in the SEC standings after falling to Tennessee on Sunday, 75-59. Auburn, which defeated Ole Miss, 46-43, is the ninth seed after finishing with a 13-16 overall record, 5-11 in the SEC.
During the regular season, UK defeated both of its possible opponents. The Wildcats handed the Gators two losses, winning in Gainesville 59-56 on Jan. 1 and in Lexington on Jan. 22, 57-52. UK also defeated Auburn in Auburn, Ala., on Jan. 26, 66-48.
Second-seeded Tennessee is in the opposite bracket.
The Wildcats, who were picked to finish second in the SEC standings by the league coaches and media, have had another remarkable season under the direction of head coach Matthew Mitchell. He has led the Cats to their third straight 20-win season with a 24-5 overall record, including a 13-3 mark in SEC play. The 13 league wins were a school record for SEC wins in a season and UK’s regular-season championship is its first in 30 years.
Leading the way for the Wildcats is junior All-America and SEC Player of the Year candidate A’dia Mathies. Mathies leads the team in almost every statistical category, including scoring (15.3), steals (2.7), 3-point field goals made (44) and 3-point field goal percentage (.370).
SEC Freshman of the Year contender Bria Goss follows in the scoring column with 11.6 points per game. She has scored in double digits in six of the last eight games. Sophomore forward and All-SEC candidate Samarie Walker is the team’s leading rebounder with 6.5 rebounds per game.
Mathies and Bernisha Pinkett scored 13 points each to lead No. 13 Kentucky to its victory Sunday over Mississippi State.
“It’s been a long, long process and journey for them,” Mitchell said. “Starting 10-0, you feel like you’re doing good things, and then comes the three-game losing streak. Battling through that, it’s made the end of the season sweeter.”
Kentucky opened the game on a 19-7 run and led 41-17 at the half. The Wildcats shot 40.3 percent (27-of-67) from the floor and hit 15-of-22 free throws.
Pinkett was five of seven from the field with two 3-pointers, and Walker added nine points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats.
Mathies was 5 of 12 from the field and had four steals to lead the UK defense.
MSU (14-15, 4-12) shot 26.4 percent (14 of 53) from the field in the loss and turned the ball over a season-high 33 times.
“They play baseline to baseline on offense and defense,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “I think what happened to them over the last few weeks was a wakeup call for what you have to do to compete.”
UK forces an average of 28.4 turnovers per game and leads the NCAA in turnover margin.
“You’ve just got to be mentally tough, and focused, and know that you’ve got each other’s back,” Mathies said. “The pressure that we bring to people is, I think, something that they can’t experience anywhere else.”
The Bulldogs finished the season on a four-game losing streak. The loss also marked retiring Fanning-Otis’s last regular-season game.
Fanning-Otis won 218 games and took MSU to 11 postseason berths (6 NCAA, 5 NIT) in her 17 seasons in Starkville and will retire after the SEC Tournament.