Matthew Mitchell and his Kentucky women's basketball team set out from the beginning of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament to win it - and even before that in reality. He and his team were excited about the opportunity, their third try over the last four seasons, in the championship game. But like the others, they fell just short.
In the 75-67 defeat at the hands of the Texas A&M Aggies, UK did not deliver the type of effort that Mitchell and his staff expected.
"We're just disappointed," said Mitchell. "We've been here three out of the last four years, haven't been able to get a victory. It's very, very disappointing."
Kentucky's head coach was quick to give the Aggies praise, and it was well-deserved. After losing four of out of their last five in the regular season, Texas A&M mounted an impressive run in the SEC Tournament. The Aggird took down three consecutive ranked teams on the way to the tournament title, first defeating No. 17 South Carolina in the quarterfinals, No. 9 Tennessee in the semis and then No. 7 Kentucky to cap off the university's first-ever SEC championship and avenge their two regular-season losses to the Wildcats in the process.
While Texas A&M's performance was impressive, Mitchell and his athletes felt that they left their opportunity to win the championship in the locker room rather than on the floor.
After Kentucky had struggled in the first half against Georgia and scored just 19 points, the Cats mounted a monumental effort in the second half to win comfortably to advance to the title game, outscoring the Lady Bulldogs 41-14. It would be essential for the Wildcats to deliver a complete performance to win only the program's second tournament title in its history and its first since 1982.
They got off to a strong start, hanging tough with the suddenly hot Aggies. Kentucky forced center Kelsey Bone into foul trouble and got her out of the game early. From there, the Cats battled late and managed to grab a 36-34 advantage at the half led by Jennifer O'Neill and DeNesha Stallworth who managed nine and eight points respectively to lead the way.
Kentucky had managed to play a strong first half and withstand the first blow from the surging Aggies.
The first half was frenetic and chaotic. Up and down each team went and the Wildcats looked to continue to use their depth to stay fresh and wear the Aggies down. Texas A&M never slowed up, even with Bone out early, as Karla Gilbert stepped in and performed admirably in her absence.
But it was Bone in the second half that brought about the end to Kentucky's title hopes.
"You really have to have a good team effort to guard her. We did that very effectively at in College Station," said Mitchell. "But if you let her get that close to the rim, she's going to have a big day on you. She certainly did."
Kentucky's defense did fine on her in the first half, limiting her to just four points in eight minutes. The second half, as it was for UK Saturday night against Georgia, was a different story.
Bone dominated the interior, scoring 18 points with 15 rebounds and four assists on her way to SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. There was seemingly nothing the Wildcats could do to stop her, though fellow all-tournament team selection and senior Kentucky guard A'dia Mathies felt otherwise.
"I think our posts did an OK job of trying to push her off the block," said Mathies. "It was up to us guards and other posts to swarm her today. She got a lot of deep positions and easy buckets."
Mathies performed as well as could be expected of an SEC Player of the Year playing in her final SEC Tournament game. She finished the night with a game-high 19 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two assists against the Aggies and was named to her third SEC All-Tournament Team (2010, 2012, 2013).
Despite the loss and the disappointment, Kentucky still has plenty to play for going forward. The Cats are currently projected as a two seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament - Selection Monday is set for March 18 on ESPN - and they have a chance to avenge themselves to play for something even greater.
For now, however, it's back to the drawing board.
"When you want something really bad, you come up short, the pain is there," said sophomore guard Bria Goss who finished with nine points in the loss. "But I'm just going to use this pain as motivation to get better for the tournament because we got a lot more basketball to play. We're just going to use this game as a learning tool and try to move forward with it."
Mathies' disappointment was due to the fact that her team did not live up to its own expectations. The team motto of "40 Minutes" has appeared all over UK Hoops posters, t-shirts, and throughout various social media platforms. She didn't think Kentucky brought that full 40 minutes of effort to The Arena at the Gwinnett Center floor Sunday night.
"It's just disappointing because we know we had the capabilities to win this game," said Mathies. "We didn't come out there and play for 40 minutes like we should have. We are going to use this game to move forward because we're not going to let this game define our season."
What Kentucky does plan to do is regroup and take what they learned and how they feel after this loss and put it towards a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. Though the Cats haven't had much time to digest the loss, they are already looking forward to learning from this missed opportunity.
"Just come out when you're on the floor, don't take any second for granted, play like it's your last game, like it's the last opportunity you have," said Goss. "We just gave away an opportunity."
"We need to be sharper and focused throughout the whole game," Mathies said. "We can't have mental lapses. We need to make every four-minute segment like our last. We didn't do that tonight, but we're definitely going to do that moving forward."
With now a full week of practice ahead of them until they even find out who, where and when it will play in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky will look to recapture the energy, focus and desire it lacked Sunday night. No matter what it takes, Mitchell, who assumed much of the blame for Kentucky's poor shot selection and inability to control the lane, will make sure he does all in his power to make sure the Cats are prepared when they tipoff in the first round of the Big Dance so that they don't have to feel experience the sting of a loss again any time soon.
"A large majority of the season we've been really tough," Mitchell said. "I think what I'll try to do is figure out the best way to get our team in position to be ready to play in the NCAA Tournament. If I can affect the toughness, bring that out of them, great. If it's what we have, I have to figure out on a day like today, I need to do a better job of being able to help them get some baskets."