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Mitchell leaves it to Mathies to make game's biggest play

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Not even once had Kentucky practiced the play.

After all the time spent in the gym working on every conceivable scenario, Matthew Mitchell turned to an offensive set that had merited scarcely a mention to that point in the most pressure-packed possession of the 2011-12.

The decision wasn't about believing in his coaching acumen or confidence that the play would work. It was all about his belief in one player: A'dia Mathies.

"A'dia had just taken us so far and brought us to that point so I just thought we'd put the ball in her hands and see what happens," Mitchell said.

Trailing Tennessee 60-59 with 28 seconds left, the Wildcats had the ball with a chance for the go-ahead basket. Initially, Mitchell called for Mathies to handle the ball and navigate a pair of on-ball screens from Samarie Walker and Azia Bishop. The Lady Volunteers were prepared, trapping Mathies near mid-court and forcing UK to use its final timeout with 12.6 seconds remaining.

Mitchell looked at his junior guard, who had tallied over half her team's points with 32 by that point, in the ensuing huddle and knew he had no choice but to put the ball in her hands. Using any screening action would surely result in another double team, so he called out "1-4 flat."

Mathies would receive the ball at the timeline and her four teammates would retreat to within a few feet of the baseline, giving her a chance to do what she does as well as anyone: beat her defender off the dribble.

That's precisely what she did.

She drove into the lane and came upon 6-foot-3 Glory Johnson and 6-foot-4 Vicki Baugh, but managed to get up a shot from seven feet out. Her floater glanced perfectly off the glass and settled into the bottom of the net with 4.2 seconds left.

Kamiko Williams used the remaining time to drive the length of the floor, but when her 16-footer missed, Mathies' shot became the game winner in a 61-60 thriller, propelling No. 9/8 UK (15-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) to its first win over No. 6/7 Tennessee (12-4, 3-1 SEC) since 2008-09. Kentucky's perfect start through four games in conference play is the first in school history.

"I took a one on one and I got past her," Mathies said. "I saw a couple trees and just shot it and it went in."

If Mathies appeared confident on the final play, that's because she was. She may never have run "1-4 flat" in practice, but she saw the same thing that led Mitchell to call the set.  

"Actually, I was going to try to request it because I knew on another ball screen they were going to trap and I was probably going to have to give the ball up," Mathies said. "I wanted the ball in my hands."

Quiet and deferential by nature, Mathies isn't normally the type to demand the ball, but when the game is on the line, she becomes a killer. The game winner on Thursday night in front 7,961 fans in Memorial Coliseum was the second of her career, following last season's Senior Day shot against Arkansas.

Mathies playmaking ability is proof of Mitchell's refrain that the continuing rise of UK Hoops is more about bringing talented players into the program and putting them into position to make game-changing plays more than anything else.

"That was a great player making a big-time play," Mitchell said. "That's the formula. That's how Tennessee has won so many games over the years - great players making great plays. We did a good day's work when we signed A'dia Mathies."

 Mathies' game winner gave her 33rd and 34th point, breaking her previous career high of 32, but for a while, it appeared her heroics wouldn't even be necessary, mostly because she had been so spectacular from the opening tip. She scored 15 of UK's first 21 points in a defensively oriented first half that ended with the Cats leading 25-21.

In the second half, Mathies helped keep UK in the lead throughout before the Wildcats exploded in an 11-2 run to extend the lead to 48-37 with 9:23 left. The spurt was capped by Mathies' most jaw-dropping play of the night: a desperation 3-pointer with the shot clock running down that turned into a four-point play because of a foul by Baugh.

Momentarily, it appeared the final minutes would be a prolonged celebration.

"For about two or three minutes (he thought the stars had aligned) and then I thought they had gotten out of whack again when Tennessee started throwing in shots," Mitchell said.

The Volunteers made their run, turning what was once a 12-point deficit with less than eight minutes to play into a 60-57 lead with 1:28 to play.

"We just got so tentative on offense," Mitchell said, "maybe playing not to lose instead of playing to win and then Tennessee, back against the wall like a great team does, just came out with haymaker after haymaker."

It should come as no surprise that it was Mathies that shook UK from its passive offensive ways. She drove and missed a shot on Kentucky's penultimate possession, but tracked down her own miss and put it back in. Freshman Bria Goss then stepped in and drew a charge on Shekinna Stricklen to give UK the ball with a chance to win.

Since Tennessee had not lost a conference game in its previous 36 outings, beating the Lady Volunteers inevitably leads to proclamations about the win's significance, particularly for a Kentucky program already making waves. Even so, Mitchell isn't about let himself get swept up in the euphoria.

"You have to make certain that you understand what it is," Mitchell said. "It's a win on a Thursday night in the Southeastern Conference. Emotionally, you have to understand it could've gone either way. It was not as good it looked tonight and wouldn't have been as bad had we lost by one."

Any win over Pat Summitt's Lady Volunteers is a momentous achievement, but the dominance that Tennessee has continually exerted both in the SEC and in the series against Kentucky is not magically reversed. There is work ahead, and it begins on Sunday against No. 24 South Carolina.

"We are getting closer but look at the series record," Mitchell said. "It is one-sided. We have a lot of work to do to even up that series. We are getting closer and that's what we need to do. We need to work really hard and focus on making Kentucky basketball as outstanding as this place deserves."

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