SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Kentucky's season ended Saturday, as it does for all but one of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with a defeat.
The Wildcats fought gamely but fell 90-72 against No. 5-ranked Baylor, which was the No. 2 seed in the Notre Dame Regional and moves on to the Elite Eight.
It was a rematch of the epic 133-130 four-overtime classic that Kentucky won back in December. And although this outcome didn't turn out the same way today, the Wildcats can be no less proud of their effort, or their season.
"I'm really proud of the players for the season that we had," coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We had some heavy expectations on us (before the season) and things started going in a way (in mid-season) that we didn't feel like we were going to meet any of those.
"They were able to get it back together, so we learned a lot, experienced a lot. We became very close as a team this year. I built some great relationships that we wouldn't have done any other way if we hadn't had that adversity, so I'm really proud of them, they had a lot of great moments. I think we'll look back on this season as being very significant in the development of our program."
Kentucky completed the campaign with a 26-9 worksheet, setting numerous accomplishments not just for this season but over the careers of seniors Kastine Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker and Bernisha Pinkett.
- This year extended UK's school-record streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
- The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth time among those five tourney appearances.
- UK has charted at least 25 wins the last five seasons, another school record.
- This year contained five wins over Top-10 ranked opponents -- Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road, South Carolina and Baylor at neutral sites and Louisville at home.
"We've been underdogs for so many years and we've always been able to come together as a team and prove people wrong," Stallworth said. "I'm sure many people thought we wouldn't be in this position with the way we started the SEC but we're just proud of ourselves and what we accomplished during the year."
The second edition of the Baylor contest turned out to be a game of frustration for the Wildcats. It began well enough; UK got an early lead and forced a flurry of missed shots on the defensive end - including six straight misfires by All-American Odyssey Sims - but that is where the trouble began.
The taller Bears grabbed rebound after rebound, controlling 10 of the first 11 boards of the game, and began cashing in on the second chances. Problems compounded on the offensive end as the Wildcats earned good opportunities but saw four layups crawl around the rim and fall off. Baylor capitalized with a 16-2 run and led 20-7.
To their credit, the Cats didn't panic and started scratching out of the hole. Makayla Epps began scoring on drives to the hoop. DeNesha Stallworth tallied post-up baskets. Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill got to the free-throw line, and when O'Neill canned a couple of freebies with 4:31 remaining, the Cats had pulled within 32-28.
Then, the decisive time came. Sparked by a suddenly hot Sims, Baylor closed the first half with a 17-4 spurt, and the Wildcats found themselves on the wrong end of a 49-32 halftime score.
Kentucky battled just as gamely in the second half and got within 12 points on four occasions but could get no closer.
An analysis of the game shows that Baylor's height advantage was simply too much. The Bears outrebounded the Cats, collected 20 second-chance points on offensive rebounds and totaled 50 points in the paint. Sims, who came in averaging 28.5 points per game, was held below her average but still showed why she is one of the nation's best with 25 points.
The Wildcats were led by Stallworth, who totaled 19 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Linnae Harper sparked UK's second-half rallies and finished with 14. As noted above, Goss got to the foul line and made 9 of 10 en route to 13 points.
The ending, however, shouldn't overshadow what was another outstanding season for Kentucky. In addition to the 26 wins, the hallmark of this team was who they were and what they overcame.
This group truly came together as a team. Eleven players saw action on a regular basis. And even though UK had one of the nation's top scoring units with more than 81 points per game, no one averaged more than 13. UK shared the ball, shared the defense and shared the responsibility when adversity hit.
As Mitchell alluded to, the Wildcat ship endured some rough sailing early in the SEC schedule. The Cats were 5-5 in league play with the toughest part of the schedule straight ahead. But Captain Mitchell and his players came together to right the ship, grab some memorable wins down the stretch, reach the finals of the SEC Tournament and go to yet another NCAA Sweet 16.
"I want to thank our players for battling through some tough circumstances and doing a good job this year," said Mitchell, who once again showed his respect for his seniors.
"Bernisha had a lot of great moments on the court but I'm more proud of her for getting her college degree. She comes from a neighborhood where only two percent of kids even try college and less than one percent ever finish college. She is a success story just by walking across that (graduation) stage," Mitchell said. "Kastine, you want your child to be like her, she's just such a wonderful young woman.
"Samarie and DeNesha really gifted us with their presence, transferring here and helping elevate the program. Hopefully they benefited from it, too. A class group of seniors, really proud and feel blessed by God that I got to coach them."
And although their seasons end like almost everyone else's, the seniors can hold their head high when they think of what they've done at Kentucky.
"I'm very proud of the team, proud of the coaches and myself as well," Walker said. "I think we've come a long way from when I was being recruited by UK in high school, just seeing how the program has changed and knowing I've had an impact on that really makes me happy."
Evans also was able to look past today's disappointment and take the long-range view.
"My class (committed to Kentucky in Nov. 2009) before that first team with Amber Smith, Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin went to the Elite Eight (in 2010), so we came in wanting to make a change," Evans said. "A lot of credit goes to our class, although we're still up and coming and still have a lot more to do as a program, I think we have put our face out there and start having Kentucky be recognized."