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After another successful season, loss provides outline for UK Hoops' next step

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4617783.jpegALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When Matthew Mitchell took over as the head coach of Kentucky's women's basketball program four seasons ago, he inherited a program that had had only occasional success. To turn the Wildcats into consistent winners while being at times overwhelmed by the size and talent of their opponents, Mitchell would have to get a little creative.

What resulted from Mitchell's creativity was a brand of fast-paced, high-pressure basketball that lifted UK to recently unprecedented heights. Under Mitchell's guidance, UK won 53 games in the past two seasons and advanced to consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since the 1982-83 seasons.

Kentucky has used quickness, effort and pace to overcome opponents during the program's rise, but in the Wildcats season-ending second-round defeat against fifth-seeded North Carolina, Kentucky was faced with an opponent that combined the size UK lacks with the ability to play the up-tempo style that the Cats rely on.

The combination was deadly.

Not only did the Tar Heels overwhelm UK inside, resulting in a 55-31 rebounding advantage, 40 points in the paint, 27 made free throws and eight blocks, but they outran the Wildcats to the tune of 18 fast-break points to UK's two.

After the game, Mitchell credited UNC for the way they played, but also lamented what UK failed to do.

"It was everything they were doing," Mitchell said. "It was a bad combination for us. We haven't had a game like this where we just weren't sending anybody into the paint for rebounds. We just got caught standing in the middle."

Although Kentucky may not have played with maximum effort at times, it is impossible to ignore how North Carolina was able to devastate Kentucky with their size. UNC consistently played three players measuring six feet or taller and had players measuring 6-3, 6-5 and 6-6. UK, on the other hand, had just one player measuring over 6-2 (Samantha Drake), and she played just two minutes on Monday.

"I feel like our size down low got us a lot of rebounds and me being a taller guard in transition helped me catch some higher passes," 6-0 UNC guard Krista Gross said. "My size helped me a lot with that because I was able to catch passes over them."

With UK's style, the Wildcats' room for error is very small, which has been evident all year long and even more so against the kind of opponent Kentucky faced in North Carolina.

"I've always said our style of play is sort of feast or famine," Mitchell said. "When you're not clicking you look really bad and we looked really bad (against UNC). It's a step slow here and a step slow there and against a good team like North Carolina, (they) can really take advantage of you."

On days where the Wildcats turn in their best collective effort, they can beat a team like North Carolina, but for UK to weather days like Monday, Mitchell will need to infuse the program with the kind of talented size that UNC possesses.

That is something he is already beginning to do.

Mitchell is bringing in a highly touted group of signees next season, including 6-3 power forward Azia Bishop from Toledo, Ohio. Bishop is ranked the No. 34 prospect overall and the No. 3 post player, according to ESPN's HoopGurlz rankings.

Additionally, Mitchell scored a coup when UConn transfer Samarie Walker opted to attend Kentucky in January. Walker is a versatile 6-1 forward who was ranked among the nation's top ten recruits in 2010. She will be eligible to play at the conclusion of the fall semester in December 2011.

Walker and Bishop are exactly the kinds of players that exploited UK in the loss to the Tar Heels.

Even though UK loses Victoria Dunlap, arguably the program's second-best player in school history, to graduation, Mitchell returns all of the other 10 players that saw action against UNC, plus star senior point guard Amber Smith, who missed all of this season due to a knee injury.

Add the group of returning players to Kentucky's three talented newcomers and the Wildcats figure to be dangerous again next year.

"You don't lose a kid like Vic and think that's not going to be tough, but hopefully we've been able to put some talent in place and we'll coach them as hard as we can," Mitchell said. "As you look forward to next season, we certainly plan on having a very good team. We will set our goals very high for championships. That's what we want to do at Kentucky."

Even in the shadow of a season-ending loss, Mitchell was able to recognize the 2010-11 season was another year full of accomplishments that could lead to an even brighter future.

"It didn't happen for us this year, but we still took some steps forward with our women's basketball program," Mitchell said. "Next year has some promise. We'll have to work really hard but I think we have some good players in place."

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