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For UK Hoops, Final Four trip a matter of when, not if

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Matthew Mitchell looks on as his team falls to Connecticut in the Elite Eight Monday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell looks on as his team falls to Connecticut in the Elite Eight Monday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Wildcats have been on a meteoric rise through the women's basketball ranks over the last four seasons, but they haven't yet reached the top tier of elite teams. For the second consecutive season, Kentucky's season came to a halt at the hands of one of those elite squads in the Elite Eight: Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies.

For the second straight season UK has been unable to get over a pretty sizable hump.

Kentucky has made no secret to the public about its desire to win Southeastern Conference championships and reach Final Fours. After UK took care of an SEC title in 2012, the main focus shifted to making a larger splash on the national scene.

This season, the Final Four was a goal, if not the primary goal, from the outset. Players spoke openly about their desire to reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four, much like the men's team exactly a year ago. After Monday night's loss, UK has now reached three Elite Eights in the last four years, but has zero Final Four appearances to show for it.

Monday's loss prompted the question as to whether or not Mitchell believed that his program would ever be able to get over that hump. His response was emphatic.

"I think if anybody starts to think this is not going to happen, they will not be inside our program," said Mitchell. "Because it is going to happen."

If Kentucky continues reaching Elite Eights, Mitchell is right; it is bound to happen. It's only a matter of time.

For comparison's sake, it took Auriemma six seasons at Connecticut to reach his first Final Four, but he had never reached an Elite Eight prior to the 1990-91 Final Four season. Mitchell already has three Elite Eight appearances to his name in his six seasons at Kentucky.

Still, Kentucky seeks to reach its first Final Four in program history. Mitchell knows that he's developed a devoted fan base, one that longs to see him reach his goals. He also knows those fans are just as disappointed as they are for not having realized them this season.

That won't keep UK from taking another swing at it next year and for many years to come.

"I don't think we're going to get discouraged," Mitchell said. "Maybe people outside the program to see a result like tonight (will be). ... I know our fans wanted us to perform better. I know our players did, too."

Kentucky is at the doorstep and knocking. Just a few years ago, not long before Mitchell got to Kentucky, such a thought seemed impossible. The women's program was merely a middle-of-the-road SEC squad with little chance of ever chasing down a program like Tennessee. Today, the Wildcats are reaching the SEC Tournament final, competing for and winning regular-season crowns and making waves in the national landscape of the sport.

This program has come a long way. The program still has a long way to go.

Much is still left to be achieved, and Mitchell plans on seeing that through.

Thanks to the efforts of a player like A'dia Mathies - to this date, Mitchell's greatest recruit at Kentucky - the UK program has been able to flourish to the point that it's not a surprise when the Wildcats sign a player of Mathies' caliber.

Kentucky has a couple of top-notch recruits joining them next season to help reload the roster when Mathies and fellow senior Brittany Henderson depart from the program. It won't be easy to fill that void, but a greater influx of talent year after year shouldn't put the Wildcats too far off from contending for more SEC titles and that elusive Final Four.

It didn't happen last year. It didn't happen this year. It may not happen next year. But Kentucky won't stop trying. The Cats have come too far to be disappointed with their results. Is there disappointment? Sure. A losing coach and team should be disappointed after a loss if they are truly competitors. However, this is much more to be proud of than not.

So while the question remains, "when will Kentucky reach the Final Four?" The answer isn't a matter of if, but when.

"Because it is going to happen."

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