LEXINGTON — A record crowd of 23,706 made women’s basketball a winner Sunday afternoon at Rupp Arena, even as the homestanding and No. 5-ranked Kentucky Wildcats came up on the short end of the scoreboard, losing 69-61 to the No. 2-ranked Duke Blue Devils.
The loss was Kentucky’s first in 12 games, Duke improves to 12-1.
The afternoon was remarkable not for the score, the team records or rankings, but the fact that coach Matthew Mitchell’s Wildcats were able to live up to a “Pack The House” promotion, making this the best crowd in UK women’s basketball history by some 6,000 fans.
“What a special atmosphere it was at Rupp Arena,” Mitchell said. “It was really, really tremendous. If you have been around here as long as I have, and been in the league as long as I have, you get a really good perspective on what today meant.
“And I don’t want to beat ourselves up too much — we lost to a good team — but gosh, I sure wanted to reward that great crowd with a victory. But I think they know what our program is about, what our kids are about, and I think you’ll see more days like this.”
Coach Joanne McCallie’s Blue Devils spoiled Kentucky’s hopes for a perfect afternoon by combining an overwhelming height advantage with outstanding guard play from seniors Tricia Liston and Chelsea Gray and sophomore Alexis Jones.
Liston poured in a game-high 28 points and pulled down six rebounds, and Jones had nine points, nine rebounds and five assists to lead Duke’s backcourt, while 6-foot-3 Elizabeth Williams, a junior, led the winners’ big players with 17 points and eight rebounds.
The Wildcats struggled to contain Duke’s guards all game long, and didn’t fare much better keeping the Blue Devils off the boards, though Duke finished with just a 46-42 rebounding advantage. During critical stretches, such as an early 12-2 Duke run that broke open a close game, it was all Duke on the glass and even in transition.
Mitchell’s Kentucky teams are known for their aggressive, trapping defense and transition baskets, and none of that was readily apparent in this one against a fundamentally sound, smart Duke bunch.
“You need to score and get them sped up,” Mitchell said when asked about the strategy against the Blue Devils. “The few times we were able to get the speed where we needed it, we could affect them.
“But they had that long stretch where it went from 17-17 to 29-17, and there were many, many possessions that favored them. And when you are a small team playing against a really big, powerful, skilled team, you have to get the tempo sped up.”
Mitchell said his team was not as sharp mentally as it needed to be, though you can’t say the Wildcats ever quit. Duke led 36-24 at halftime and stretched it to as much as 47-33 four minutes into the second half. Still, Kentucky kept at it, eventually getting as close as 59-55 with 6:07 left in the game.
But Liston re-entered the game at that point after a brief break and scored inside, and then the Wildcats missed a slew of shots over the next 90 seconds to largely end the suspense.
UK struggles shooting
Kentucky shot just 25 of 75 from the field, and you can be assured that 15 to 20 of those misses were gimmes inside five feet, much of that due, at least in part, to the looming presence of Duke’s long arms.
It didn’t help that the Wildcats were without 6-3 senior center DeNesha Stallworth — out for probably two more weeks because of a knee injury — though Mitchell bristled when Stallworth’s absence was brought up.
“You can talk about that all you want to,” said an annoyed Mitchell. “We won’t know unless we play them again, so it’s just not valuable in my mind to talk about it. It was Duke’s players against our players, and we did not get the job done.”
Senior forward Samarie Walker of Kentucky took a kindler, gentler approach to the subject of Stallworth’s absence.
“They had a very big starting lineup, and obviously ours isn’t as big, and I think it had an impact in the paint,” said the 6-1 Walker, who was once again a warrior, leading Kentucky with 12 rebounds to go with eight points.
“They made it hard to drive, made it hard especially for myself to go in there and score. I think it had a really big impact, especially with DeNesha being out — one of our biggest players.”
The Wildcats were also embarrassingly bad at the free throw line, hitting just 8 of 19, to 15 of 18 for Duke. UK junior Azia Bishop was 0-for-5 at the free throw line, though her 10 rebounds helped keep Kentucky close.
“You lose by eight and miss 11 (free throws), so I would say that’s a fair statement to say that was an impact in the game,” Mitchell said.
Sophomore guard Janee Thompson led Kentucky in scoring with 12 points.
Was crowd a distraction?
Could it have been that the cavernous size of Rupp — this was UK’s only game here this season — or the size of the crowd was actually a distraction for Mitchell’s team? Nobody dared bring that up afterward in that context to Mitchell.
“It was a remarkable thing for me, and I really tried to put it out of my mind,” Mitchell said of the crowd. “But I couldn’t help there, right before tipoff, and it was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to see where it had started and where it’s culminated, and we need more days like this. I hope the fans know they’re appreciated.”
“We’re just blessed to be able to have the fan support that we do,” said UK junior forward Bria Goss. “We really appreciate people coming out, and we hope we opened some hearts today, so they will come back to Memorial (Coliseum) and see us play there.”
“Great crowd ... a super crowd for women’s basketball,” McCallie added. “We were thrilled to be here.”
The Wildcats host Grambling Sunday at 2 p.m. before starting Southeastern Conference play Jan. 2 at Alabama.