As she walked off the floor of Rupp Arena on Thursday night, the senior point guard couldn't help but stop and think about the big picture. She had just been a part of a showcase for UK Hoops. The Wildcats played their signature fast-paced, high-pressure brand of basketball and it carried them to a 72-65 win over No. 6/5 Duke with a record-setting crowd loudly lending their support.
When Smith looked out on the 14,508 that filled Rupp Arena, she took a moment to pause and consider just how special it all was.
"I thought about that today," Smith said. "I came to Kentucky to change this program around. To see it and be a part of it and have it happen in front of my eyes is just awesome."
Smith has been a part of many big wins in her time at Kentucky, but this one feels just a bit different. She listened as assistant coach Kyra Elzy told the team about what beating Duke could mean and now that the Cats have done it, she understands what she was talking about.
"It just says so much about this program," Smith said. "Coach Elzy said this would be a program changer, and I think it is. It just shows you can't come into Kentucky and say, 'Oh that's an easy win.' You have to fight and when we play at home it's real tough to beat us."
Junior guard A'dia Mathies, who scored a season and game-high 23 points, hasn't been a part of program for quite as long as Smith, but it doesn't feel that way to her. The Louisville native was a fan before she stepped on campus and couldn't be more excited to be a part of it.
"It's really amazing," Mathies said. "I was watching the program when they were winning half their games or being below .500. To be considered a top team in the nation and to beat top teams in the nation, it's very humbling. I'm very proud I'm at this school."
Guard Bria Goss is new to the whole thing. The freshman poured in a career-high 19 points and the chance to play in this kind of game was exactly why she opted to follow in the footsteps of Smith and Mathies.
"I grew up watching basketball, watching these good teams and big games like this," Goss said. "I couldn't be happier with the turnout of the crowd. Kentucky, by far, has the best fans for men's and women's basketball and I think we set the tone tonight."
A matchup between two top-ten teams, Kentucky vs. Duke was expected to be a marquee game, but playing it in Rupp was not without its risks for UK. The Wildcats are very comfortable on their home floor in Memorial Coliseum and a change of scenery could have prevented them from playing the best game. Additionally, if the Big Blue Nation didn't come out in droves to support the Cats, venerable but cavernous Rupp Arena could have actually been a home court disadvantage.
Instead, Mitchell decided to place faith in both his players and his fans. He approached the evening as an opportunity to advance the program and neither his team nor his fan base disappointed in the least.
"That was the whole key tonight, was this opportunity," Mitchell said. "You don't want your kids to play tight. We didn't really talk about it, but that was in my mind, boy, just hoped we could play well. If we could find a way to win, you capitalize on a moment like this and you just try to continue to build and create energy."
The result was nearly 15,000 fans who left the downtown arena buzzing and countless more watching on television, elated but disappointed they had not come out to support their team. Luckily, those that were left out will have plenty of opportunities the rest of season in Memorial, which figures to be rocking for more than a few Southeastern Conference games this winter and early spring.
"I just encourage everybody to come back and everybody see us play and this is just one of many and we are just going to keep going from here," Goss said. "This isn't where we are going to stop. We just have to keep having our fans and just keep having that support and I feel like our outcome is just going to be great."
Mathies and Goss were electrifying on the big stage, hitting 3-pointers, making steals and flying around the court. Their play, combined with freshman forward Azia Bishop's 12-point, 11-rebound double-double in just 19 minutes, should give fans plenty of incentive to continue providing that support, and maybe more.
"I hope that it brings out more fans for women's basketball to see that our games are just as exciting as the men's games," Mathies said. "Hopefully we can carry this forward and use this momentum the rest of the season."
Mitchell, who has proved himself to be somewhat of a marketing whiz, expects that support to continue with a performance like the one his team turned in against Duke.
"The win is the best marketing tool we can ever have, is win a game like this," Mitchell said. "I think people will come back."
There could be many more such wins in store as well. With a pair of freshmen in Goss and Bishop still getting their feet underneath them at the college level and two more McDonald's All-Americans ready to hit the floor soon in Samarie Walker (eligible next week after transferring from UConn) and Jennifer O'Neill (recovering from foot surgery), the immediate and distant future looks even brighter.
"There's no ceiling (for this team)," Smith said. "We have a lot of depth and we haven't played our best yet. That's scary."