LEXINGTON – When A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson arrived on campus four years ago at the University of Kentucky, the Wildcats were all but holding bake sales to try to raise money and boost interest in the women’s basketball program.
Sunday at Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats blew out the still potent Tennessee Lady Vols and nearly blew the roof off of Memorial Coliseum in the process, winning 78-65 in front of a capacity crowd.
And Mathies, once again a national player of the year candidate, was a key cog, contributing 16 points, four rebounds, four assists, four steals, two blocked shots and no turnovers in 31 minutes.
Henderson did not see much action in this game but has contributed steadily in her four years at UK, especially on the boards.
Mathies and Henderson were honored on Senior Day Sunday.
Kentucky improved to 25-4 overall and finished alone in second place in the Southeastern Conference at 13-3.
Tennessee, 23-6 and 14-2, had clinched the conference regular season crown with an 81-71 win Thursday over Texas A&M.
Kentucky moves on to the SEC Tournament this week in Duluth, Ga. The Wildcats will play either No. 7 seed Vanderbilt or No. 10 seed Missouri in the quarterfinals Friday at 6 p.m.
And, oh by the way, Matthew Mitchell became the all-time winningest coach in UK women’s basketball history Sunday with 139 victories.
There are so many superlatives to choose from.
Let’s start with Mathies, who hit three 3-point shots early in the second half to help the Wildcats extend a 36-32 halftime advantage to 52-38 with 13 minutes left in the game.
Asked what he told Mathies when his senior star exited the game in the closing seconds, Mitchell said: “I told her thank you for everything she has done for this program and how proud I was of her.
“That’s the biggest thing thank you for coming to Kentucky and thank you for being who you have been and thank you for growing as a young woman and being a spectacular basketball player that has really injected some life into this basketball program.
“I can’t tell you how important it was for us to send A’dia and Brittany off the floor of Memorial Coliseum with a victory. They have meant so much to this program.
“Kentucky looks a lot different than it did four years ago.”
Indeed. The Wildcats have reached two Elite Eight games with Mathies and Henderson on the roster and appear to have a great chance to make it a third this time around.
Kentucky has gone 65-3 at Memorial Coliseum the last four seasons.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is also a Mathies fan.
“She’s fantastic,” Warlick said of Mathies. “I think she is a class-act kid. I don’t personally know A’dia, but just watching her and how hard she plays ... I know she is an incredible athlete and an incredible basketball player.
“It was great today,” Mathies said. “We went out there and wanted to win with a purpose. We came out with great energy and effort.”
Mathies said the Wildcats were pleased to see Mitchell earn his victory milestone in the process.
“He is very passionate, and he really loves his job and being here at Kentucky,” Mathies said of Mitchell. “To get a win on senior night and it being our last night against a rivalry team, I think it was meant to be.”
Mathies is keenly aware of how much the program has changed in her time here.
“When we got here, we would do fundraising things to try to sell 5,000 season tickets,” she said. “By the time we left, we weren’t doing anything. People were coming to see us.
“I think we changed the program around to be a national powerhouse that it is.”
Sunday’s game was a prototypical Kentucky win under Mitchell.
The Lady Vols both out-rebounded the Wildcats (43-37) and out-shot them (40.8 percent to 37.8 percent), but lost because the visitors could not handle Kentucky’s pressure defense.
Tennessee came in with a thin bench bercause of some injuries, and the Lady Vols’ situation worsened with an ankle injury to standout senior guard Kamiko Williams in the closing seconds of the first half.
The Wildcats pounced all over Tennessee as a result, forcing 31 turnovers. Kentucky turned the ball over just 12 times.
“I just thought it was our ability to pressure their ball handlers,” Mitchell said of the key in this one. “Their ability to try and wear them down and play a 94-foot game was really important for us.”
Sophomore point guard Jennifer O’Neil tied Mathies for high-point honors for the winners with 16 while adding six rebounds, three assists, two steals and three turnovers in 34 minutes.
Junior center DeNesha Stallworth added 12 points and eight rebounds, sophomore swing player Bria Goss had 12 points off the bench, and junior forward Samarie Walker had 10 points, five steals and three rebounds.
Junior guard Meighan Simmons had 17 points and seven rebounds to lead Tennessee. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick had 11 rebounds for the Lady Vols.