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Even in defeat, UK Hoops wowed by record Rupp crowd

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A record 23,706 fans were in attendance for UK's annual A record 23,706 fans were in attendance for UK's annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Earlier in the week, Matthew Mitchell allowed himself to reflect on how far his program had come as UK neared a sellout for its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena.

But on Sunday, Mitchell had coaching to do, so he didn't want to let his mind wander.

In the final moments before UK's matchup with No. 2 Duke neared, Mitchell couldn't help himself.

"I really tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn't help it there right before tipoff," Mitchell said. "It was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to see where it had started and where it's culminated. We need more days like this."

The day was the first of its kind in Kentucky women's basketball history.

UK announced on Friday that the game was a sellout -- the first ever for a women's game in Rupp -- but not even that fact could have foretold what the atmosphere would be like. A record 23,706 fans filled Rupp, the fifth most to ever watch a regular-season women's game.

"It was a great crowd, a super crowd for women's basketball and I think that's really important to have those," Duke head coach JoAnne P. McCallie said. "So we were thrilled to be here. Last time we came, there wasn't that crowd. There was a big crowd, but there wasn't that crowd."

The crowd was there every step of the way as UK tried to battle back from a Duke lead that grew to as large as 14 points early in the second half. Tricia Liston scored 29 points, coming up with seemingly every big basket the Blue Devils needed to stymie UK's various runs.

The Cats (11-1) cut the deficit to four points with 6:07 left on a pair of Janee Thompson free throws -- two of her team-high 12 points -- but the Blue Devils (12-1) had the answers in a 69-61 victory.

"Just giving credit to Duke, they played a really strong game," Bria Goss said.

UK, meanwhile, was left ruing 11 missed free throws in 19 attempts, as well the numerous points Duke scored in transition after beating pressure. The Cats, facing a substantial size disadvantage, knew they would need to speed the pace, but found themselves unable to do it consistently enough.

"You need to score so you can get them sped up," Mitchell said. "I think you saw the few times we were able to really get the speed where we needed it we could affect them."

UK managed just 25-of-75 (33.3 percent) shooting against Duke's confounding zone defense, a significant departure from the first 11 games of nonconference play when the Cats averaged 96.2 points. Kentucky played without 6-foot-3 star DeNesha Stallworth -- who is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery -- but Mitchell wasn't overly interested in playing the what-if game.

"You can talk about that all you want to," Mitchell said. "It's not anything that--We won't know unless we play them again and DeNesha is in the game. So it's just not valuable in my mind to talk about it."

What is valuable to talk about is what the Cats can take from the defeat, because there's plenty of that.
"We learned that we've got some things to work on," Thompson said. "We just gotta be ready to play. I don't think we were as sharp and as focused as we needed to be today."

As disappointing as that may be, it doesn't erase all UK has accomplished so far this season.

Playing one of the toughest December schedules in the nation, the Cats sit at 11-1 with victories over a pair of top-10 opponents in Louisville and Baylor and three more road wins over teams that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago.

"I don't want to beat ourselves up too much," Mitchell said. "We lost to a good team. They're a really excellent basketball team. But, gosh, I sure wanted to reward that great crowd with a victory. I think they know what our program is about. I think they know what our kids are about and how hard we'll work."

Sunday is the last time those fans will see UK play in Rupp this season, but they still have nine more opportunities to pack the Cats' real house: Memorial Coliseum.

"We're just blessed to be able to have the fan support that we do," Goss said. "We are so thankful that it was a sellout game we really appreciate people coming out. Hopefully we opened up some hearts today to where they can come back to Memorial and see us play there."

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