As recently as three years ago, Kentucky's final home game was a way to close the book on a season and say goodbye to a group of players with a ceremony before the game. Sure, there were trips to the Southeastern Conference Tournament and Women's National Invitational Tournament to follow, but Senior Night still seemed like a conclusion
The 2012 edition is anything but.
The home fans will have a chance to bid adieu to seniors Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley, but Matthew Mitchell and his UK team have far too much to play for to think in those terms.
"This is not a night that I'm going to make a real big deal about anything other than trying to beat South Carolina because this is not a night where we need to get nostalgic at all," Mitchell said. "This team has a ton to accomplish."
Heading into Thursday's game at 7 p.m. against South Carolina (20-7, 9-5 SEC), No. 13/10 Kentucky (22-5, 11-3 SEC) sits tied atop the SEC standings with Tennessee with just two games left in the regular season. With so much still to accomplish, UK's three seniors can't help but approach their final home game as more of a beginning than an end.
Smith is the lone member of this senior class to play her entire college career at Kentucky and is now in her fifth year after sitting out 2010-11 due to reconstructive knee surgery. The Winter Haven, Fla., native played on teams each of her first two seasons that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament and finished a combined 13-15 in SEC play.
Back then, competing for an SEC title was a far-off goal. Now, it's just the start.
"God has a plan and I think He meant for this team to be together at this time," Smith said. "I'm just very blessed to be on this team. We have a great chance to first compete for an SEC championship, but then a national championship. I haven't said that many times being here five years. I haven't said that and really believed but this time it's just a different vibe from the team."
Like Smith, Snowden and Riley are fifth-year seniors, but they arrived via transfer from Akron and Louisiana State, respectively. They formed a sort of "accidental" group of three that was a part of a turnaround season in 2009-10 that ended in an Elite Eight berth and ushered in a new era of UK Hoops.
"We watched the team evolve from back where it was back then to where it is now," Snowden said. "That transition period, it was a tough period. The team just changed completely within a year."
Even with all the talk about focusing on the task at hand, it's hard for Snowden not to take a moment for reflection when she recalls how far both she and the program have come in the years since she elected to transfer to her hometown school. She remembers what Senior Night was like for Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin before her, so keeping her emotions in check won't be easy.
"Me personally, I cried for everybody else's Senior Night, so I can only imagine mine," Snowden said.
Smith, the vocal leader of this Kentucky team, has half-jokingly exhorted Snowden to "Keep it together."
"We've all talked about it," Smith said. "I already told them, 'Don't cry because we've got to play a game. Let's get this win and then y'all can cry.'"
Beating South Carolina won't be an easy task though.
The Gamecocks are the top defensive team in the conference, allowing just 49.9 per game. UK managed to score 66 in a hard-fought eight-point win in Columbia, S.C., earlier this season, but South Carolina will have plenty to play for between that earlier loss to UK and the and four-team tie for third place in SEC play in which they currently find themselves.
"Coach Dawn Staley does such a great job of trying to find where your weakness is and trying to find the mismatch," Mitchell said. "They do a good job of that. I just think that with them being so well coached and having such versatile guards poses a lot of difficulty for us."
A sweep of the Gamecocks would give UK a perfect 17-0 home record, which would mark the second time in three seasons the Wildcats won all of their games in Lexington.
"I place priorities in the program, competitive priorities," Mitchell said. "I think if you're going to be one of the top teams in the country, if you're going to be one of the top teams in this conference, you have to establish a tough home court."
Establishing home-court dominance will certainly be a part of the legacy of this senior class, but the three hope to be remembered first and foremost as leaders.
"Coach Mitchell is always on us," said Riley, who will stay at UK as a student assistant next year. "We take blame for anything that goes on in practice, outside of practice. Anything that we have problems with, we basically take blame for it. I hope they remember us as leaders."
With all the contributions Riley, Smith and Snowden have made to the Kentucky program, they are deserving of the honorary starting positions often granted to seniors for their final home game. Mitchell is opting against that, but not because he doesn't want them all on the floor.
"I will start Amber but Crystal Riley is a very important part of our rotation and our backup point guard so she'll be a huge part of the game," Mitchell said. "Keyla is a huge part of our rotation coming off the bench. I think she's the best sixth player in the league and I hope she wins that award. There's so much on the line tomorrow night that I think those kids want to win an SEC championship or beat South Carolina more than they want to do something ceremonial."