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In spite of loss, Cats prove they're a team all over again

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DeNesha Stallworth had 21 points in UK's 71-70 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth had 21 points in UK's 71-70 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- For the fourth time in five seasons, Kentucky saw its run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament end one game shy of a championship.

The latest title-game loss was the closest call yet, as UK fell to Tennessee by the narrowest of margins, 71-70.

As frustrating as those near misses may be, Matthew Mitchell isn't reevaluating things. He isn't wondering what he has to do to push the Wildcats over the top.

Of course he's always in pursuit of improvement, but he couldn't have asked for another ounce of effort from his team.

"I don't know that anything was missing today other than they came up one point better than us," Mitchell said.

UK played in high-caliber basketball games on Friday and Saturday in advancing to the championship game, but Sunday was at another level.

When UK (24-8) tried to deliver a knockout blow after building an early lead, the Lady Volunteers had a counterpunch. When Tennessee (27-5) seemed on the verge of getting over the top, UK wouldn't go away, not until the clock read zeroes in a decidedly pro-Tennessee environment at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"We fought so hard today," said DeNesha Stallworth, who scored a game-high 21 points en route to all-tournament team honors alongside freshman teammate Linnae Harper. "Those last few plays, (Jordan) Reynolds made those shots and that was tough. But we just fought so hard and I'm proud of my team."

UK led by as many as 10 points early in the first half, but the sixth-ranked Lady Vols were never going to let the Cats run away and hide. Tennessee battled, finally taking a lead on two free throws by tournament most valuable player Isabelle Harrison with 8:35 left.

That moment, perhaps more than any other, was when it looked like the Cats might wilt.

Samarie Walker committed the foul that sent Harrison to the line, prompting some post-play chippiness that had been brewing all game. Walker and Cierra Burdick were whistled for technical fouls and Lady Vol fans were thinking they had the Cats where they wanted them.

Gathering her teammates in an emotional huddle, Bria Goss had something to say about that.

"I told them that everybody in this arena wants us to crumble and thinks that we're not mentally strong," Goss said. "This is the time that we need to pull together. I could just see it in the look in my teammates' eyes that we just wanted it."

Twenty-five seconds later -- after yet another double technical on Stallworth and Tennessee's Jasmine Jones -- Stallworth buried a 3-pointer to show everyone else what Goss saw in her teammates' eyes.

"I think we fought a little harder after that," Walker said.

UK began building toward that moment exactly a month before.

On Feb. 9, the Cats lost for the fifth time in nine games at Florida. The defeat left UK 5-5 in conference play and cast doubts about the team's ability to advance in the postseason, doubts that were erased by UK's appearance in the SEC final.

"Everybody had us in the coffin and throwing dirt on top of it when we left Gainesville," Mitchell said. "Our team has become a team."

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's loss, that team sat together in the season's most emotional postgame locker room. Eyes still red and damp with tears, the Cats dutifully answered questions from reporters, though they were occasionally overcome by emotion all over again when they were reminded of a particularly painful memory.

"It's hard," Stallworth said. "It hurts. I'm a senior. We played our hearts out and it just hurts right now. But I think the plus part about this team is we're going to stay together. We're not going to let this one loss define our season just like any other loss we had."

That's the good news for Kentucky -- though thinking that way is near impossible for now -- that the loss to Tennessee ends UK's SEC Tournament run, not their season.

"Right now I think everybody's just hurt," Walker said. "Coach Mitchell's very hurt. I don't think anybody's thinking about tomorrow. We're so stuck on this right now, but I know once we get back in the practice gym we'll be fine."

Practice is for tomorrow though. For now, Mitchell has little interest in anything but telling his players how proud he is of them.

"Wouldn't trade locker rooms right now with anybody in the country," Mitchell said.

UK now awaits Selection Monday on March 18, when the Wildcats will learn their seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky has one of the more interesting profiles in the country, featuring four wins over top-10 teams and a top-10 RPI but also a couple puzzling defeats.

Mitchell generally stays away from seeding projections, but he did hear of one recently that had UK pegged as a four seed, which caught his attention.

"I think that's a joke," Mitchell said. "I don't think we're a four. Other than that, that would be my only opinion. I guess I would say we're not a four. But I don't have any control over the seeding, so maybe we'll be a four. Maybe we'll be a five."

Only two things are certain. First, UK will open the NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum. Second, Mitchell is happy to have the team he's taking back to Lexington.

"I'm glad I'm coaching Kentucky going to the NCAA Tournament," Mitchell said. "I don't know if anybody will be jumping for joy if they get the Wildcats in the first round."

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