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Senior Day win over Tennessee the perfect sendoff for Mathies, Henderson

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A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson were honored before UK's 78-65 Senior Day win over Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson were honored before UK's 78-65 Senior Day win over Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell just wasn't going to have it any other way. He was going to do everything in his power to ensure Kentucky sent A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson off with a victory in their final home game.

"I just made it very, very plain that nothing was acceptable today but victory for those kids," Mitchell said. "... Nobody wanted to be around me today if we lost."

Mitchell just believed that Mathies and Henderson had done too much for the Kentucky program not to finish up their careers on Senior Day with a victory on Sunday against Tennessee. He spent the days following his team's win at Ole Miss drilling that into the Wildcats' heads. In both their preparation and execution, players demonstrated just how clearly the message had been delivered.

"We went out there wanted to win for a purpose and they wanted to send me and B-Hen off the right way," Mathies said. "I think we definitely did that today. We came out with great energy and effort and it was just exciting to get a win in Memorial Coliseum for the last time."

Not only did the Cats get the win they all wanted, they did in a way that perfectly honored exactly how much Mathies and Henderson have meant.

First and foremost, the Cats couldn't have picked their opponent better.

The No. 10 Lady Volunteers have been atop the heap in the Southeastern Conference for as long as any current player can remember and were just days removed from clinching the conference title. Before Mathies and Henderson - who comprise the winningest class in UK history - arrived, UK had won just twice in the past 30 matchups with Tennessee. With Kentucky's 78-65 win, the Cats have now won two of the last three games in the series.

Sunday's environment was also the ideal backdrop for the sendoff. The game was announced as a sellout more than two weeks prior to Sunday and 7,965 fans - the sixth-largest crowd in building history - showed once again why Memorial Coliseum is among the toughest places in the nation for road teams to win.

Mathies and Henderson can remember the campaign they were a part of during their freshman year when a goal of 5,000 season tickets sold was the goal. Back then, a crowd like Sunday's would have been nearly unthinkable. But as the two seniors end their career with a 64-3 mark in home games, it's become the norm.

"To see fans outside with signs saying, 'I need tickets,' " Henderson said, "I would have never thought in a million years people would be outside to get tickets."

Along with Mathies and Henderson, UK's home-court advantage has played a key role many victories over the past four years, victories that have now made Mitchell the all-time winningest coach in program history. In just six seasons, Mitchell now tops the head-coaching wins list at 139.

After the game, Mathies - who had 16 points, four assists, four rebounds, four steals and two blocks -presented her coach with a special framed poster to commemorate the record. In accepting it, Mitchell said he wanted the day to be about his seniors and not himself. But in reality, it could not have been more appropriate that he should set the record on the day two players who have participated in more than 75 percent of his victories had their Senior Day.

"He's very passionate and he really loves his job and being here at Kentucky," Mathies said. "So to get a win on Senior Night, me and B-Hen's last night, against a rivalry team, I think it was meant to be and it happened."

And that doesn't even take into account what actually happened on the floor.

The career of Mathies and Henderson has coincided with a four-year period during which Mitchell's "40 minutes of dread" style of play has revolutionized UK Hoops. The Cats have used fast pace, high pressure, supreme effort and depth to overwhelm opponents and achieve success never before seen at Kentucky. In perhaps no game have those things been more in display than on Sunday.

In a game that featured 82 possessions for both teams - a high number by any standard - the Cats came at their opponent in waves. Barely four minutes in, Mitchell called for a five-for-five substitution, setting the tone for the game. Eleven different players saw time for Kentucky to just eight for Tennessee.

"We had more people to rotate," said point guard Jennifer O'Neill, who had 16 points, six rebounds and three assists. "We had more bodies so why push the tempo? I think that was the smartest thing to do."

Even though the Lady Volunteers had lost just once in SEC play prior to Sunday, they were unable to cope. By halftime, UK had forced 19 turnovers. The Cats, however, had just a four-point lead at intermission. But when Kentucky scored off a turnover on the first possession of the second half, the tone was set. UK would lead by no fewer than six points the rest of the way as Tennessee committed a season-high 31 turnovers, which led directly to 33 Kentucky points.

"I think that us just rotating and speeding them up caused them to make a lot of unforced turnovers they didn't expect to have," Mathies said. "That's just the way we play night in and night out."

The only moment from the entire day that anyone involved would like to have back came in the final minute. Looking to remove Mathies so the crowd could give her one final standing ovation, Mitchell called timeout with less than 45 seconds left. Mathies checked out, but did so during the break and the crowd was unable to cheer her properly. As a result, Mitchell had to put Mathies back in and hope there would be one more stoppage. After first pleading with his team to foul, Mitchell was told by assistant coach Matt Insell he could simply ask for a chance to substitute after a Tennessee basket. Mathies had her curtain call.

"I can't sub nearly as well as she can play," Mitchell said.

As Mathies came to the sideline, Mitchell embraced her. He delivered a simple 'thank you.'

"I told her thank you for everything she's done for this program and how proud I was of her," Mitchell said. "That's the biggest thing I can say to A'dia Mathies is, 'Thank you for coming to Kentucky and thank you for being who you've been and thank you for growing as a young woman and being a spectacular basketball player that has really injected some life in this program.' "

That's just a little too much past tense for Mathies. In reflecting on her career and thinking about what life will be like when it's over, Mathies was sure to remind herself and everyone else that she's not done putting a Kentucky uniform on just yet.

"It's definitely going to be missed, but I'm not going to dwell on it," Mathies said. "I've spent four years like everybody's going to spend four years. My time is up, but we definitely got a long season to play and we're looking forward to the rest of the season."

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