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Loss doesn't erase what Dunlap has meant to UK Hoops, Mitchell

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4617586.jpegWith 10 seconds remaining in UK's 86-74 second-round NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina, Victoria Dunlap went to the bench for the final time as a Kentucky Wildcat.

She was faced with a harsh reality that so many of even the most decorated players must deal with: only a select few get the opportunity to end their careers with a win.

"There only would have been one great way for (her career) to end and that would have been to cut down the nets in Indianapolis (after a national championship)," Mitchell lamented.

Making the ending even harder to swallow for both Dunlap and Mitchell was the fact that the Wildcats simply did not deliver the kind of performance and effort they expect of themselves.

"I did not want her career to end on a night where we just didn't work very hard and we didn't play very hard," Mitchell said.

UK's lack of effort was particularly evident on the glass, where the Tar Heels held a 55-31 advantage and Dunlap managed just four rebounds, less than half her season average. Kentucky was also consistently exploited in transition as UNC outscored the Wildcats 18-2 on fast breaks.

North Carolina owned a sizable height advantage over UK and plays a similar up-tempo style to UK's, but Dunlap was left wondering why the Cats' intensity was so inconsistent.

"We can make up a lot of excuses for why it happened, but in the end we didn't do the things we needed to do to win the game," Dunlap said. "It started from the beginning. We got up a couple times, then we let down a couple times, so it was like a back-and-forth kind of thing with our intensity, our energy. We just didn't pull through."

With 10:29 left in the game, it appeared that Dunlap's final game would be especially forgettable. UK trailed 63-49 and looked completely overmatched by the Tar Heels considerable size, speed and talent.

Dunlap, though, wouldn't go down that easily.

The senior forward triggered a furious Kentucky rally that pulled the Wildcats to within two points in a 14-2 run that spanned just over three minutes. Dunlap scored six of UK's points during the run and it was the Wildcats' assertiveness that allowed them to get back into the game.

"I think we were just being more aggressive and not really settling for what they were giving us," said Dunlap, who finished with a game-high 23 points. "We were attacking more and being really decisive about what we were going to do."

In the end, the Wildcats simply could not get enough stops nor hit enough shots to finish off the run, leading to Dunlap's exit with seconds remaining. Although the end was bitter, Mitchell pulled his star aside when she exited to make sure she knew what a pleasure it was to coach her.

"I just told her I didn't want it to end that way, but that I was a really lucky son of a gun to get to coach Victoria Dunlap," Mitchell said.

As Mitchell began to build UK Hoops into a national power a few years ago, Dunlap played an instrumental part. She's Kentucky's all-time leader in games played (133) and ranks in the top 10 of 14 career lists at UK, including No. 2 in scoring (1,846), rebounding (1,099), blocks (178), steals (307), free throws made (445), free throws attempted (714) and double-doubles (31).

Dunlap was the centerpiece of a rebuilding project under Mitchell. Although Mitchell didn't recruit her to Kentucky, the program's return to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances would not have been possible without her.

But as much as Dunlap has meant to the program, her impact on Mitchell personally has been equally profound.

"She has meant so much to not only this program, but to Jenna (Mitchell's wife) and me personally," Mitchell said. "She's like family. She has impacted our lives in so many ways and so many people's lives she's impacted by what she's been able to accomplish as a basketball player at this great university."

Even though she was only minutes removed from one of the most difficult losses of her career, Dunlap was able to look back fondly on her time at UK, at least in some small measure.

"I'll never forget it," Dunlap said of her time at UK. "I love this program, I love this school. I'm going to miss it."

Dunlap had to stifle emotion when she thought about how much she has improved.

"It means a lot," Dunlap said, continuing to talk about her time as a Wildcat. "Especially when I think about where I started as a freshman. I wasn't the player that I am now where the coaches have confidence in me to make plays and have embraced the player I am now."

It's that development as a player that has turned Dunlap into one of the top WNBA prospects in the country. Even though the UK careers of Dunlap and fellow graduating senior Carly Morrow are completed, Mitchell sees bright futures ahead of them.

Regardless of what the future holds, Dunlap and Morrow will always be a part of the UK family.

"This season's over, but those kids are Wildcats forever," Mitchell said. "They'll have us 365, 24/7 the rest of their lives. If they need us, they'll have us."

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