Coach Matthew Mitchell’s Kentucky Wildcats slayed two dragons this weekend, but came up a whisker shy of a dream finish in the women’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, losing the final to Tennessee, 71-70, Sunday in Duluth, Ga.
Twelfth-ranked Kentucky beat a pair of teams that had swept the Wildcats during the regular season, edging Florida 75-70 in Friday’s quarterfinals, and then dominating the nation’s fifth-ranked team, South Carolina, 68-58, in Saturday’s semis.
The Wildcats were shooting for their first SEC tournament crown since 1982, but lost a late lead and fell to Tennessee’s Volunteers Sunday.
UK had won at UT 75-71 Feb. 16 in Knoxville.
“I’m just extremely proud of our team,” Mitchell said. “They had a great tournament and worked really hard. Just couldn’t be prouder of how they came together. Just lost a real tough game today.”
Still, the Wildcats move on to the NCAA Tournament at 24-8, with renewed momentum and realistic hopes of a Final Four run.
Kentucky has lost in the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons, and there was a long stretch this winter when such lofty heights looked to be a distant memory.
Kentucky was picked by many to win the SEC regular season crown this time around, but finished in fourth place at 10-6 in the league after a reeling 5-5 start.
The Wildcats’ struggles came to a head Feb. 20 in an 81-58 home loss to South Carolina.
Kentucky then won five of six to close the regular season.
“The good thing for us is we’ve become a team,” Mitchell said. “So we have a team heading into the NCAA tournament. That’s what we needed to be to have a chance to get to the Final Four. I think we accomplished that.”
Sunday’s game was a heated affair, with a pair of double technicals called in the middle stages of the second half involving UK seniors Samari Walker and DeNesha Stallworth and Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick and Jasmine Jones.
“I was talking to them (officials), that 11 (Burdick) was starting that kind of activity in the game,” Mitchell said. “It’s not the first time that’s happened with that player. It’s a loud arena. It’s a tough game. I guess they (officials) didn’t see it.
“I hate our players lost composure. But it’s real, real difficult in this kind of competitive environment. It should be stopped at the beginning of the activity. Unfortunately, today, it was not.”
But all that could soon be a distant memory. Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum has been chosen as a site for first and second round games in the NCAA Tournament, and the Wildcats expect to be there.
“Now I’m really excited about the NCAA Tournament,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people thought we were dead in the water. We’re not. We’re here and we’re ready to roll.”
Stallworth led Kentucky Sunday with 21 points and five rebounds, and said the Wildcats will use the Tennessee loss as motivation going forward.
“Definitely, it’s a motivation,” Stallworth said. “Like coach said, it was a great day for us to come together. Everybody is focused going to the NCAA Tournament. We just have to focus on the task at hand, and that’s going to the Final Four.”
Junior guard Jennifer O’Neill and freshman guard Linnae Harper added 12 points each for Kentucky.
Senior guard Meighan Simmons had 17 points and junior center Isabelle Harrison 16 to lead 27-5 Tennessee. UT’s Burdick, a 6-foot-3 junior, led all players on the boards with 10 rebounds.
The Wildcats led 38-32 at halftime, and were still ahead, 57-54, with just over five minutes left. But the Lady Vols cracked down defensively late.
Tennessee led by four points in the closing seconds until UK’s O’Neill hit three free throws with 0.7 seconds left.
“We were trying to make the first two and miss the third one,” Mitchell said of O’Neill’s trip to the free throw line. “Like I told Jen, we don’t practice missing enough. There have been times we tried to miss it, but made it. That’s what we were trying to do, get an offensive board and tie the game up.”