Playing in its second Elite Eight in three seasons, Kentucky gave top-seeded Connecticut fits in the first half, trailing by just two points due to a buzzer-beating layup by the Huskies. In the second stanza, the Wildcats continued to fight, but had their second-worst shooting half of the season, making just eight shots in 31 attempts, and fell to Connecticut 80-65.
"I'm real proud of our players and how hard they worked," Mitchell said. "It's a difficult moment for any season to end, but this was a great group to work with. This is particularly tough to see end. I thought they gave great, great effort in this tournament. I thought they had a very difficult road to get here and showed a lot of character to arrive at this point. I wish we could have gone further."
Kentucky was led by 14 points from sophomore forward Samarie Walker, and a dozen from freshman guard Bria Goss. The Wildcats also hit an impressive 21-of-22 shots from the foul line, but couldn't overcome a 5:39 stretch in the second half where they were held scoreless.
The loss ends Kentucky's season at 28-7, but it shouldn't be viewed as a typical season-ending loss or even a typical season in general. It was a historic season, and potentially a program-turning season.
Just three years ago, the Wildcats were predicted to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the Southeastern Conference. They were a combined 33-32 in the previous two seasons combined. But in 2009-10, Mitchell's third year at the helm, Kentucky advanced to just its second Elite Eight in program history, and a foundation had been set.
In 2010-11, Kentucky advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, but bowed out in the second round to North Carolina.
Then this year, Kentucky validated everything that it had worked so hard for. UK won its first SEC regular-season championship in 30 years, opened conference play a program-best 10-0, defeated a program-record six top-25 teams and won a program-record 13 conference games as well as a program-record tying 28 games overall.
"The program looks a lot different with (the three seniors) walking out of the door than it looked when they walked in the door," said Mitchell when talking about seniors Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley. "I don't know, really, if people were really being honest here, if they thought what's happened now was really possible. We just, historically, have one of the worst winning percentages in our conference. We just don't have a lot of tradition. And now, these kids have come in and they poured their heart and soul into the program."
For Kentucky, the future is bright - no, scratch that. For Kentucky, the future is very bright.
Kentucky will return eight of its top nine scorers next season, and welcome in California-transfer DeNesha Stallworth and prized-recruit Janee Thompson. Also returning for UK will be sophomore guard Jennifer O'Neill, who missed the 2011-12 season due to injury. SEC Player of the Year and third-team All-America selection A'dia Mathies will also return, as well as SEC Freshman of the Year Bria Goss. It isn't how or where the Wildcats wanted their season to end, but it could just be another mark that, when looked back upon, further shows where the program is going.
"With DeNesha Stallworth coming back next year, we'll be as good if not better," Goss said. "We're going to take this loss and we're going to get better from it - (we're going to) remember this feeling."
The test this offseason will be whether that roster of talented players can log the same kind hard work that this year's team used to reach new heights.
"I think it's important to figure out, 'Can you come back with more enthusiasm?," Mitchell said " 'Can you come back with more determination? Can you continue to help the program progress to the point where we can get to a Final Four, where we can win a national championship?' "