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UK Hoops looks to shake off late-game hiccups, win SEC title outright

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UK Hoops clinched a share of the SEC regular season title with a 53-50 win over South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK Hoops clinched a share of the SEC regular season title with a 53-50 win over South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With three games left in the regular season, the Kentucky Wildcats controlled their own fate.

Tied atop the standings in the Southeastern Conference, UK needed only to win out to guarantee a share of its first conference title in three decades.  

Deep into each of the first two legs of that final stretch, the Cats were in firm control. Against Vanderbilt, UK led by 17 with just 6:44 to play. Hosting South Carolina, Kentucky was up nine with 5:05 left.

Both times, things got much more interesting before the final buzzer for UK Hoops.

"It was very concerning because we got some good shots and we were coaching every possession," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We found some good shots there and they just did not fall."

UK would survive comeback bids in both games. The Commodores closed to within six points in the final minutes while the Gamecocks got as close as two before a bizarre final sequence, only for the Wildcats to come away with a pair of wins.

"We all have to realize these kids are going through this for the first time," Mitchell said. "I'm going through this for the first time. I don't care what you say, it's difficult to go through. I hope experience will help the next time we go through something."

With the benefit of a Tennessee loss on Thursday night, the No. 13/10 Wildcats (23-5, 12-3 SEC) clinched a share of that conference title and will have a chance to grab sole possession of the championship and a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in a trip to face Mississippi State (14-14, 4-11 SEC) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

"The respect that I have for this league growing up in the SEC country and just seeing all the great champions throughout my lifetime and what it's taken to win a championship in this league, I just have a tremendous respect for an SEC championship," Mitchell said. "It would be hard for me to think of the words to say what it would mean."

A native Louisville, Miss., Mitchell has been familiar with the quality of basketball in the SEC from an early age, and Mississippi State coach and former UK head coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is a part of that. Fanning-Otis will be coaching her final home game as she plans to retire following the season and Mitchell owes a debt of gratitude to her.

"There weren't a whole lot of people when I was staring out as a high school coach in Mississippi that I learned more from than her," Mitchell said. "She spent a lot of time with me as a high school coach. I worked her camps. She is a great lady. She has meant a lot to me. She has meant a lot to this program too, she has the second-most wins of any coach in this program."

Though UK defeated Mississippi State 88-40 earlier this season in Memorial Coliseum, the Bulldogs figure to be motivated to play for their departing coach and players on Senior Day.

Also working against the Wildcats are the bad memories of their last three road games. Before besting Vanderbilt and South Carolina, Kentucky lost three in a row to allow Tennessee back in the SEC race.

"The LSU game, we let officiating bother us," Mitchell said. "We didn't adjust to that. Tennessee game, we let our offense bother us. And then Alabama, I don't have any explanation for you on that one but we learned something. Our back got against the wall and now we've had a three-game season and we've completed the first two successfully."

There were different factors at play in those three losses, but defense was the common denominator in Mitchell's eyes. Fortunately, UK's ability to defend is what allowed the Cats to hold on down the stretch of the two recent wins.

Mitchell also believes that familiarity played a big part in the Commodores' and Gamecocks' furious comebacks.

"I just have to believe we're going to play through that at some point in time," Mitchell said. "I always think in the NCAA Tournament you get a bit of a refresh button because now you're not as familiar. With South Carolina, we play them year after year after year. Dawn Staley and I watch each other coach and we're going on four or five years or whatever it's been. It's tough when people know you that well so I'm not terribly concerned about any late-game issues."

Though the prospect of winning a conference title outright is certainly exciting, the NCAA Tournament is ultimately how the Wildcats will judge their season.

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