LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats were far from razor sharp Sunday against the Vanderbilt Commodores, but UK coach Matthew Mitchell wasn’t quibbling about style points after his team escaped with a 65-63 victory.
Mitchell was just grateful that a crowd of 6,551 turned out with nasty weather threatening to send his four seniors off with a win in their final regular-season game at Memorial Coliseum.
The seniors — center DeNesha Stallworth, forward Samarie Walker and guards Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett — have been key components in putting the UK women on the national scene in their college careers.
Kentucky is a host site for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, so Stallworth, Walker, Evans and Pinkett may have more work ahead at the coliseum, but that didn’t make Sunday’s pre-game senior ceremony any less emotional.
“I got teary eyed ... it was very emotional,” Stallworth said. “Just walking out on the floor being with my parents and giving Coach Mitchell a hug was tough.”
Ditto, Mitchell said.
“You work so hard all season long, and it comes down to the final game of the season and you’re at home, and just want to get a victory so badly for the seniors,” Mitchell said. “They’ve contributed to so many victories, but they’ve also contributed so many things off the court that nobody ever sees, and they’ve impacted my life in an unbelievable way. I’m real grateful I’ve had a chance to coach them.”
Those four seniors lead Mitchell’s team into the women’s SEC Tournament Wednesday through Sunday in Duluth, Ga., just outside Atlanta.
The Wildcats move on at 22-7 overall and 10-6 in the SEC and receive a double bye for their efforts. Kentucky opens tournament play in the quarterfinals at 2:30 Friday as the No. 4 seed.
Kentucky will meet the winner of the Florida-Missouri/Mississippi State game.
Florida swept Kentucky in the regular season. And if the Wildcats can escape win a quarterfinal win, they will likely face top-seed South Carolina in a semifinal Saturday at noon.
USC also swept Kentucky this winter.
The Wildcats are coming off Elite Eight finishes in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, but they’ll have to take their play up a notch to reach that kind of level again.
Sunday against Vanderbilt, Kentucky blew a 32-15 lead late in the first half and had to hold on down the stretch.
Sophomore guard Janee Thompson hit a jumper with 1:19 left to break a 56-56 tie, and then junior swing player Bria Goss hit five of six at the free throw line in the final 38 seconds.
The 6-foot-3 Stallworth paced Kentucky with 18 points and five rebounds.
The 6-1 Walker scored just two points, but added eight rebounds to lead the winners to a 35-33 rebounding advantage.
Stallworth and Walker were nearly unstoppable early when the Wildcats built the 17-point advantage, but both went to the bench with two fouls midway through the half and that played a key role in Vandy’s comeback.
“Coach told the guards that we have an advantage on the inside,” Stallworth said. “So that was our big emphasis. I think Samarie and I played well for the most part.”
“When DeNesha and Samarie went to the bench, we just didn’t have much inside presence, and that’s where our advantage was,” Mitchell said. “I was real proud of the team for playing steady enough to win, because we never got it to a real comfortable situation to where it was like, ‘Well, we’ve got this one in the bag.”’
Goss added 12 points and four rebounds.
The Wildcats shot 42.1 percent from the field on 24 of 57, while Vanderbilt was 24 of 56 for 42.9 percent.
Kentucky hit just 14 of 21 at the free throw line, while the Commodores were 9 of 11.
Senior guards Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister led Vanderbilt in scoring with 23 points and 15 points, respectively.
The Commodores (18-11, 7-9) move into SEC Tournament play as the No. 8 seed and take on No. 9 Georgia at noon Thursday.
The other top seeds in the SEC Tournament are Tennessee at No. 2 and Texas A&M at No. 3.
In other quarterfinals Friday, South Carolina plays the Vandy-Georgia winner at noon, Tennessee will play the LSU-Alabama winner at 6, while Texas A&M plays the Auburn-Arkansas/Ole Miss winner at 8:30.
The second semifinal game is Saturday at 2:30, with the championship game Sunday at 3:30.