There's no place UK would rather continue its postseason run than the UK Soccer Complex, but things have not worked out that way. Since the Cats will have to leave home in search of NCAA win No. 2, they want it to be an occasion.
"We had a great home game in front of our crowd and of course wish we were home again," UK head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "But if we're not going to be home, let's make it a big deal."
Lipsitz and the Wildcats want to go somewhere they will always remember to play an opponent they will never forget.
"Let's really go someplace," Lipsitz said. "Let's go play the best. Let's go out west. Let's go someplace that's new and exciting."
They are getting their wish.
Kentucky's second-round game will take place in San Diego far from Lexington both in terms of distance (it's more than 2,000 miles away) and climate (Wednesday's high temperature in Lexington is 44 degrees, 68 in San Diego).
The opponent awaiting UK is new too, and certainly fits Lipsitz's "play the best" criteria. The Cats (14-6-1) will face third-seeded and sixth-ranked UCLA (16-2-2) for the first time in program history on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Bruins have made every NCAA Tournament dating back to 1997, reaching at least the second round each time. UCLA has 45 NCAA wins to UK's one and, according to Lipsitz, is one of "four or five" teams most talked about as national championship contenders.
"I have all the respect for UCLA," Lipsitz said. "I have all the respect in the world for what they've accomplished in the past and what they're doing this year."
There's a lot to respect.
UCLA owns an 8-1-1 record against the 64-team NCAA field and has outscored its opponents 44-11 this season. The Bruins have posted shutouts in 11 of their 20 games and their attack is led by the Pac-12's leading scorer and Player of the Year Zakiya Bywaters. Lipsitz and his team have the proper respect for their opponents, but fear doesn't accompany it.
"We couldn't care less about that," Lipsitz said. "That's what people will talk about and they'll talk about us as this upstart team or a big underdog. And we are. We are a big underdog and that's great. We're going to go and we're going to have fun and we're going to play hard."
The Cats are not without reasons to be confident.
Three times this season UK faced a team in the top 18 of the final RPI rankings. UK twice came away with wins (vs. No. 8 Florida and at No. 15 Tennessee) and tied once (vs. No. 18 Texas A&M). UCLA was sixth in the final RPI release on Nov. 5.
"I have a lot of confidence in our players," Lipsitz said. "I have a lot of confidence in their ability to be ready for the matchup and we're just excited to get there."
The Wildcats have had an historic season by playing a possession-based style and refusing to change their approach no matter the opponent. UK will of course prepare for the Bruins, but playing an elite opponent with the ability to turn mistakes into goals in an instant won't make the Cats something they're not.
"It's who we are and we're not going to change that," Lipsitz said. "We have to be who we are. Yes, anybody we play there's a scouting report and there are nuances that UCLA will give us, but the number one thing is we have to be who we are. And we're a possession team and we want to knock the ball around."
UK's will to stay true to that was tested in the first round.
Playing a UT Martin team with a plan designed to attack them, the Cats got off to somewhat of a sputtering start, turning to long passes and direct play more than they had for most of the season. Considering he started a lineup featuring four freshmen, Lipsitz wasn't totally surprised by the uncertain first half.
He wasn't surprised by the way the Cats settled in either.
"As the game went on, we became more and more a possession team knocking it around," Lipsitz said. "I think we were a little tight early in the game they made it difficult to play it through the midfield and we got a little bit too direct. As the game went on, we got better and better at it."
Considering the circumstances, that was particularly impressive.
In spite of a handful of good chances, the match remained scoreless late into the second half and into overtime. The Cats knew one bad touch or errant pass could spell the end of the season, but they persevered. Eventually, Arin Gilliland and Kelli Hubly combined for the golden goal minutes into the first period of overtime.
"To have put the work we did and to win the first NCAA game in the history of this program was a special moment and we're enjoying it," Lipsitz said.
That first NCAA victory has been a stated goal for the team all season and really since Lipsitz arrived four seasons ago. The Cats put great pressure on themselves to deliver it and deserve to celebrate it, but they are not resting on their laurels.
Leading up to the first-round game, Lipsitz was asked whether he was concerned a letdown would follow should UK beat UT Martin. At the time, he thought a lapse in focus for the second round was a possibility. Now that the moment is here, his concerns have evaporated.
"I was worried about it, but not now," Lipsitz said. "Not now that I've seen them. They just want to play. They want to get back out there. They want to show who we are."
With those worries gone, the Cats turn their attention to UCLA. Plenty of new worries over facing a talented Bruin team could take their place if the Cats thought that way. But they don't.
UK doesn't have to overcome two decades of tradition or undo any of the Bruins' impressive victories this season. All UK has to do is be better on Friday.
"The great thing about playing in this format is there's 90 minutes and it's 11 versus 11 and we're going to do our best," Lipsitz said.