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A tale of two titles: UK men, women bring home SEC championships

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Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart celebrated UK Hoops' SEC title with the team on Sunday night in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart celebrated UK Hoops' SEC title with the team on Sunday night in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Within 26 hours of one another, the Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams clinched the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship outright.

With the double title, UK asserts itself as the center of the SEC basketball world and it's not just about the tradition-rich men's program this time.

"The only other time in our league history that the same school held the title, men and women, simultaneously was LSU in (2006)," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart told fans at a celebration of UK Hoops' title. "(This is) only the second time in conference history that the same school held both the titles (outright) in the same year."

The achievement may be the same for the two basketball programs, but the circumstances surrounding each title couldn't be more different.

One was the 45th in school history. The other was the first since 1981-82.

One was clinched in a tight, comeback win at home with a week to go in the regular season. The other was clinched in a never-in-doubt blowout road victory on the regular season's final day.

One was celebrated by a few words said by the public address announcer after a win. The other was rung in with a net-cutting ceremony in Memorial Coliseum attended by hundreds of fans.

After his team upended Vanderbilt 83-74 in Rupp Arena on Saturday, Anthony Davis reacted to winning the SEC with a few simple words.

"We came out here and put in work, did our job and kept this thing going," Davis said.

Matthew Mitchell was slightly more excited.

"When I first arrived as an assistant, to see it today, what Coach (Mickie) DeMoss started and what we've been able to try to accomplish, this is the stuff you were dreaming of doing," Mitchell said. "I think this team has so much more they can accomplish, but this is a special night."

The difference in emotion between the two teams is understandable. The men's team has been on the throne of the SEC for the better part of 70 years and has come to view winning the conference as a step along the way to a run in the NCAA Tournament.

The women, on the other hand, have been trying to forge themselves as a threat to a team that has been similarly dominant to UK's men's team: Tennessee. Finishing a game ahead of the Lady Volunteers, while not an endpoint, is clearly a sign of progress.

As Mitchell, his staff and his players have looked to close the gap in the conference, they've turned to their allies across the hallways for support. Rather than viewing at the men's team as an obstacle and a competitor for fans and interest, Mitchell used that storied history to try to help build something similar.

"I think the men's program's done nothing but help us," Mitchell said. "The excellence the men have created over the last hundred years has made Kentucky such a great brand name for basketball, college basketball in particular. It's been a real, real resource that we've tried to use and it's been great for us."

Making the championship even sweeter is the path UK Hoops to get here. Like the men, the women charged through the first half of the conference season, going unbeaten through 10 games. Unlike the men, the women stumbled, losing three games in a row, including a lopsided loss to Tennessee.

Just a week ago, UK Hoops was in a tie with Tennessee atop the standings with just three games to play. The Wildcats would face two likely NCAA Tournament teams and a road test in their quest to win the conference.

"That was such a disappointing night (against Tennessee) and we clearly didn't play our best and then suffered another real tough defeat in Tuscaloosa," Mitchell said. "So this was a real gauntlet we had this week: Monday, Thursday, Sunday. They had to play tough to win these three games. We just tried to go back to defensive intensity and it carried us through."

While almost everything about the two titles looks different on the face of things, there is one unmistakable similarity: there's still basketball left to play.

"I think this team can continue to get better," Mitchell said. "I think that we have a lot of room for improvement so we'll get a couple days of rest and a couple of practices and we've done a pretty good job in the tournament. Hopefully we can not be satisfied right now and keep going."

"We have won over the years a lot of conference championships and tournament championships, but I'm telling you ... that isn't what we are playing for," John Calipari said. "It's all about that seed (in the NCAA Tournament). So hopefully we are doing what we need to, getting better. It's nice, I told (the players), congratulations, but you all know, this is not why we are playing, and they know that."

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