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Future has never been brighter for UK Hoops

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Thumbnail image for 003_kuvsneb.jpgThis was just the starting point.

Although the offseason now looms after an 88-68 loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, there is no room for the Kentucky women's basketball team to be demoralized. Few teams can see hope and promise after a 20-point loss.

This is one of those teams.

"All I can say is that it definitely hurts that we lost, but we're definitely going to cherish this moment, this season, this team because we started something new," junior forward Victoria Dunlap said, who was named to the Kansas City Region All-Tournament team. "I'm proud of my teammates, where we've gone so far and just cherish this moment forever."

The record books have been written, rewritten and amended time and time again this season. The feats the Cats accomplished in Mitchell's third year are both remarkable and historic.

Among the most noteworthy accomplishments this season:

• UK recorded the single-season school record for wins on the back of a program-record 187 three-pointers made and 816 turnovers forced.

• The Cats advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1982, but also for the first time since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams. The three straight wins in the tournament was a school record.

• UK swept the major SEC awards for only the second time in league history en route to school-best second-place finish in the conference. Mitchell was named SEC Coach of the Year, Dunlap was tabbed SEC Player of the Year and A'dia Mathies was selected as the SEC Freshman of the Year. Dunlap was also the first player to be named to the Associated Press All-America team.

It's worth repeating just how small the expectations were for the 2009-10 season and just how far UK exceeded them.

Before the season started, the league's coaches tabbed Kentucky 11th in a preseason poll. It seemed disrespectful at the time, but the Cats' recent track record gave them no reason to think otherwise. Quite honestly, it was a fair assessment.

The players and coaches used it as jet fuel. They flew from the start of the season and their feet never landed. From 11th in the SEC to the final eight teams in America -- the Cats' feet might never touch the ground again.

"This team worked so hard day after day after day," Mitchell said. "People thought they were going to be a bad team. They didn't listen. People thought we wouldn't get to the SEC Tournament championship game. No one probably thought we'd get to the Sweet 16. Certainly no one thought we were going to get to the Elite Eight."

This surprise run has generated the momentum that carries far beyond a year. This type of success is enough to change a program.

"This team has accomplished a lot, and so for next season, whatever good we can take, whatever momentum builds, whatever standard has been set, I think that's how you use this season getting ready for the next, because these kids aren't robots; they're human beings," Mitchell said. "They have to go out and go through it and do all the work. We will go in with tremendous optimism but knowing that we have to stay true to what our principles are."

Some will say Oklahoma discovered the secret to beating UK. For really the first time all year, a team beat Kentucky at its own game.

Nyeshia Stevenson ran wild and scored 31 points, and the Sooners matched UK's defensive intensity by hitting a gaudy 61.5 percent from the field. The Cats continued their affinity for turnovers and forced 21 Oklahoma mishaps, but like the men, the women picked a bad time to start missing shots.

Kentucky hit just 32.9 percent of its shots.

"We've played guards that quick," junior guard Amber Smith said. "It was just we weren't focused in fundamentally on defense. We didn't get to the right position in defense, so that was our fault. We just turned the ball over too much."

Even so, UK will remain a threat next season if it can continue to play defense like it did in 2009-10. Few teams can survive that pressure in the women's game.

The major parts of this year's team will return next year. Believe it or not, leading scorer Dunlap, who scored a game-high 31 points Tuesday night, will return next season as a senior. She'll join super freshman Mathies, whose ceiling is taller than just about anyone in the game.

Seniors Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins helped build the program and will be sorely missed, but a top-10 recruiting class should cushion the blow. Sophomore guard Keyla Snowden became a critical third scoring option down the stretch, Smith is the type of gritty, fearless point guard teams need to win and sophomore Rebecca Gray has shown flashes of brilliance.

Kentucky has always had the facilities, the fans and basketball background to be good, but it never quite caught up to its potential. Quite frankly, the program was a sleeping giant.

Now with the right coaches and the right players, Kentucky may have found its launching pad. Recruits will take notice of this sensational run and presumably build off the foundation that has been built.

Expectations will be different from here on out, but the exposure the team received from this run will only help the program exponentially grow.

"This is an important thing, that we do not take this team for granted," Mitchell said. "One thing that I've been able to learn that's been very valuable is that tradition is important and tradition is great, but really the focus needs to be every year is a new year. Every year is a new team." 

The magical season is over. But the program is just getting started.

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I've watched the girls play as much as possible this year and can honestly say I'm probably more proud of this group than the men's team. You talk about exceeding expectations!!!!

I've especially enjoyed watching the defensive pressure, in-your-face-you're-butt-belongs-to-me defense that any, and I mean any, men's team could watch and learn how to do it right.

Congrats on a great season and I'm so looking forward to next year!

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  • catlinhotlanta: I've watched the girls play as much as possible this year and can honestly say I'm probably more proud of read more