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UK Hoops hoping 'historic night' the start of memorable March

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Players react to receiving a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Players react to receiving a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
A season full of firsts continued for Kentucky women's basketball on Monday night and the Wildcats didn't once have to deploy their vaunted "40 minutes of dread" pressure defense.

Instead, the Cats relaxed in the basement of head coach Matthew Mitchell's house to watch the Selection Show and learn their NCAA Tournament fate.

Doing nothing more than a little eating and a little television viewing, UK Hoops added a couple new accomplishments to a list that already includes a conference title, three victories over top-10 opponents and a record 24 regular-season wins.

"It's a really historic night for us, and we're so excited," Mitchell said. "It's the first time in our school's history that the women's program has been to three straight tournaments. It's the first time we've ever gotten a seed this high (since 1982)."

UK received the No. 2 seed in the Kingston, R.I., regional. Kentucky will open its tournament run in Ames, Iowa against McNeese State (26-7) on Saturday at 4:20 p.m.

The team may have gotten to celebrate the news on a comfortable couch, but the groundwork for this night was done in the gym.

"(I was) driving out after practice tonight thinking about how proud I am of this team and how hard they've worked from day one," Mitchell said after the Selection show. "It's really remarkable where we've gotten in a relatively short amount of time. Four years ago, we're not in the tournament and three years later you're the number two seed. So it's been a lot of hard work from a lot of people, particularly these players."

It was yet another display of that kind of hard work that is making Mitchell optimistic his team can capitalize on the more favorable draw that goes with a second seed.

After racing out to a 21-2 start, including a perfect mark through 10 games in Southeastern Conference play, the Cats were uneven down the stretch. UK lost three in a row before rebounding with a three-game winning streak to clinch the regular season title. Kentucky would then win one game in the conference tournament before bowing out against LSU in the semifinals.

The team has spent the eight days since returning to Lexington working to bounce back on the loss. Mitchell has seen consistently positive signs, but the Cats took a leap forward in a session immediately before the Selection Show.

"I was really excited leaving practice (Monday)," Mitchell said. "I thought we had a real excitement about us and real pep in our step and we got back to really some up-tempo stuff and the kids, I think, enjoyed that."

Sophomore forward Samarie Walker agreed, saying UK looked like a "championship-level team" in returning the fast-pace that has become a hallmark of the program. Junior guard A'dia Mathies even saw new dimensions being added to the Wildcats' game.

"We're doing a lot more things that we haven't been doing in the past," Mathies said. "We're getting better every day, whether it be shooting or being strong on layups, crashing the (offensive) boards, just a lot of stuff we've been improving on. I'm glad we're taking the steps in the right direction."

Regardless of how much UK improves heading into the tournament, the journey to reach the Final Four in Denver won't be an easy one. If the Wildcats advance to the second round, a matchup with a 30-win team in No. 7 Green Bay or with host Iowa State, a No. 10 seed, awaits. In the Sweet 16, No. 3 Miami (25-6) would be the opponent if seeds hold, while No. 1 seed Connecticut (29-4) looms in the regional final playing close to home.

There's no question challenges awaits UK Hoops, but this team wouldn't have it any other way.

"As I was examining it, all of them are going to be difficult," Mitchell said. "I think we could have maybe gotten a smoother road and we probably could have gotten a more rocky road. It looks to me like we have a chance. That's really all you can ask for."

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Congratulation Ladies, You worked very hard for it!!!

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