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UK Hoops recaptures magic in historic win at Tennessee

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Matthew Mitchell celebrates with his team following UK's first win at Tennessee since 1985. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell celebrates with his team following UK's first win at Tennessee since 1985. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell boasts an unmatched list of accomplishments as UK head coach.

On Sunday, he added another line to his resume.

For the first time in his seven-year tenure and the first in school history since 1985, the Wildcats won at perennial Southeastern Conference power Tennessee.

"Anytime we do something we haven't done before or in a really long time is good, but I am just happy for these players," Mitchell said. "They have worked real hard over the last few weeks so they could get their minds in the spot where they could come in and win a big game like this today."

The victory touched off a jubilant locker-room celebration. Surrounded by current Wildcats as well as Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies and Carly Morrow -- three players who played central roles in building the UK program -- Mitchell climbed a chair to dance after a 75-71 victory.

But it wasn't surprise that was drove the team's reaction. You see, Mitchell knew No. 18/18 UK (19-6, 7-5 SEC) was capable of taking down No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-5, 9-3 SEC) for the first time in Thompson-Boling Arena. In fact, he spent the early part of the week reminding his team why.

"We have a good team, and we knew that. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been focusing on making sure our players know we have a good team. What they did today is something they have already done this year.

En route to an 11-0 start, UK took down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. The Cats won four true road games and ascended to the top five of both major polls in the process. To remind his players of just how good they can be, he opened up the archives and showed them tape of those early-season performances.

Watching themselves, the Cats saw what they can be when Jennifer O'Neill keeps it simple and attacks. They saw what they can be when DeNesha Stallworth shows the All-American form typical of her pre-injury self.

In a dominant win over Ole Miss on Thursday, the Cats proved they still have that ability within them. Against Tennessee, they showed they might just be on the way to showing it consistently.

"We were questioning ourselves, but we came down here and played a good game and got a victory," O'Neill said. "That is all that matters."

UK led 38-34 at the end of a back-and-forth first half, but the Lady Volunteers retook the lead, 46-42, by the first media timeout of the second. As recently as a week ago, the Cats may have been derailed in that moment. Instead, they rallied to take their largest lead at 60-52 with 9:09 left.

Tennessee, however, responded again with the kind of stretch that has made it so difficult for UK to win in Knoxville, Tenn., over the last three decades. With 3:57 to go, the Cats found themselves trailing by three.

After Kastine Evans had a layup blocked out of bounds, UK came to the sideline for the final media timeout. On the ensuing possession and with the shot clock running down, O'Neill pulled up from the right wing and banked in a long 2-point jumper. It was a bit of good fortune for the Cats and just enough to give them the confidence they needed to close out the kind of game Mitchell worked so hard to show his team it could win.

Less than a minute later, Stallworth -- who battled all game with a physical UT front line to post 17 points and nine rebounds -- came up with a steal. O'Neill then went on the run and scored in transition to stake UK to a 70-69 lead the Cats would not relinquish.

After another UK stop, O'Neill scored the final two of her game-high 24 points on a jumper. O'Neill has now scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games.

"My coaches are being positive with me," O'Neill said. "They have just been telling that I need to shoot the ball and not keep hesitating. They also told me not to overthink things. It is just a matter of coming out and playing my game, not just myself but for them too."

Kastine Evans would go on to hit three clutch free throws and come up with a game-clinching steal in the final seconds to prevent Tennessee from getting off a potential game-tying shot.

The win provides a lift to UK's position ahead of next month's SEC and NCAA tournaments, but it's much more important for what it says about the Cats as a team. As Mitchell will be quick to remind everyone, the issues with UK's confidence and mentality that led to five losses in nine games don't disappear after a history-making Sunday.

Then again, UK hasn't looked this much like a potential Final Four team since December.

"This something that you look back at after the season when you highlight some things, but this team needed to win today because they could," Mitchell said. "They needed to believe in themselves, and they did. That is the significant thing in my mind."


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