As far as early season games go, Sunday's Kentucky-Notre Dame showdown was as good as it gets.
Faced with an NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere in front of a near-packed house of 6,794 fans at Memorial Coliseum, the No. 9/10 Kentucky women's basketball team made a pretty significant statement to the rest of college basketball with an 81-76 win over No. 12 Notre Dame:
Last season was no fluke. And this year's team, still very much a work in progress, could be just as good, if not better, than last year's team by season's end.
"I don't think anyone is making statements two weeks into the season," UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Notre Dame clearly has some talented players and a good basketball team, and we were fortunate to win. We are just happy that we could get better this week and the players could be rewarded with a win."
But the emotions of Sunday, from the relentless defense to the electric "Pack the House" crowd inside Memorial Coliseum and even Mitchell's foot-stomping tirades on the sideline, said all one needed to know about the type of statement Kentucky was hoping to send with a victory over the Fighting Irish.
Fitting of a team with a motto "Can You Hear Us Now?" the Cats screamed they're once again for real.
"It shows that we have worked hard," junior guard Keyla Snowden said. "In the practices in the summer, in the preseason, we worked hard. Every day we try to take advantage of our fundamentals and take advantage of how we come out. Last year was not a fluke. Every day we are trying to prove that and just keep improving on our legacy."
The legacy of this 3-0 Kentucky team remains very much a tossup, but already these Cats, mixed with news faces and old, are establishing a very similar identity to last year's team.
UK forced 17 Notre Dame turnovers, scored 18 points off Fighting Irish mishaps and came up with timely big plays when they were needed the most.
The veteran, Victoria Dunlap, played like an All-American; the rising star, A'dia Mathies, fought through an off game and came up with a key late steal; the sharpshooter, Keyla Snowden, hit the biggest shots of the game whenever Notre Dame inched close; the versatile newcomer, Maegan Conwright, held Fighthing Irish star Skylar Diggins in check until late in the game; and even the young, naive freshman, Bernisha Pinkett, banked in an unlikely 3-pointer.
Kentucky no doubt caught some good fortune Sunday, but good teams somehow find ways to manufacture a few breaks.
"I was very concerned about our young team handling zone offense execution," Mitchell said. "As you saw, it's rough at times. For us to win a game, we had to have a break like that on this day. Hopefully we will continue to progress as a team and we won't have to bank one in from the corner. But I'm glad we did today."
Pinkett doesn't make that banked 3-pointer, though, if the Cats don't play with the type of unwavering confidence they exhibited against Notre Dame.
Despite missing their first 12 attempts from behind the 3-point line, the Cats kept shooting, sometimes at almost a head-scratching rate. But by the second half, the long-range bombs started to pay off, especially for Snowden.
Returning from a right knee sprain that sidelined her for a game, Snowden drilled four momentum-killing 3-pointers in the second half. Three of Snowden's second-half 3s came after Notre Dame cut the lead to four points or fewer.
"I really thought that No. 4 won the game for them," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Snowden. "I thought the 3s that she hit were unforgivable defensively for us. They were huge shots when we were trying to guard her. I really thought if we could have guarded her we could have won the game."
Snowden hit just 1-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half, but like any good shooter, she had a short memory.
"As a shooter, you just have to stay confident and keep shooting," said Snowden, who finished with 17 points on 5-of-12 perimeter shooting. "Whether you are 0-for or not, you just keep shooting. That is just something a shooter has to do. You have to have that confidence. It's like that old saying, 'You miss 100 percent of the shots that you don't take,' so you just have to keep shooting."
Just ask Dunlap. Despite a rough start to the season shooting the ball (last year's Southeastern Conference Player of the Year entered the game 9-of-30 from the field), Dunlap helped will her team to a win Sunday.
Without the services of freshman center Samantha Drake, who sprained her left knee against Miami (Ohio), Dunlap had to play like a one-man frontcourt. Based on her final stat line of 25 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals, it looked like she did.
"I think I could go another game or two right now," Dunlap said. "I think I got my mindset this week during practice. I was telling the coaches in practice this week that if I looked tired to not let me come out of the drill. I knew that I would have to contribute minutes for our team, and I think I did that."
Dunlap's biggest contribution came on the boards. When a taller, stronger Notre Dame team took over on the boards, Dunlap provided key rebounds, often times grabbing the ball between two and three players as she was slung to the ground.
"I don't know what we would've done without her," Mitchell said. "We were absolutely destroyed on the boards and it looked like to me that the important ones we did get, it was Victoria going to work. She showed up big in a big-time game, and that's a high level to play at in the early part of the season. That's two teams that have aspirations of being on the national scene, and Victoria played like a big-time player."
Asked after the game if Sunday's victory was a statement win, Dunlap thought so.
"For people to see that we actually can play with a team of that caliber says a lot," Dunlap said. "Even though we may not have as much hype as them as a program, we still think we have the capability of going out on the court, being aggressive and knowing what to go in big games."