Matthew Mitchell was bordering on surprised, not that his team won, but at how well the Wildcats played during Saturday's NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Wright State.
Even with all the momentum the Kentucky women's basketball team took into the NCAA Tournament coming off a nice run at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Mitchell just wasn't sure what to expect.
Hosting a NCAA Tournament game for the first time, having not played in two weeks and facing a relatively unfamiliar opponent with postseason pressure Mitchell had good reason to feel that.
He ended up witnessing -- and contributing to -- one of the better all-around performances Kentucky has put together all year.
"I certainly didn't come into today with this kind of expectation that we would play this sharp," Mitchell said. "We've historically kind of struggled in this game for whatever reason, because of the long layoff and so my mindset going into the game was just to let them know that they had clear advantages in the game."
Mitchell may not have anticipated his team would play as well as they did, but he certainly enjoyed the 106-60 victory. Much of the success may have been down to his simplified message before the game: to exploit Kentucky's physical advantages be them in terms of size and speed.
"I didn't go in thinking we were going to win by 20, or 40, or anything like that," Mitchell said. "I sort of showed up with the mindset (Saturday) of let me do my part for the victory, let me coach the best that I can and let's see what happens. Nothing that they did really surprised me, but I was extremely pleased and grateful to the players that they came out and executed the game plan."
And so Mitchell turned his attention to Syracuse, Kentucky's second-round opponent, and the challenges the Orange will pose to UK when the two tip off Monday at 6:40 p.m. ET inside Memorial Coliseum.
But instead of focusing on the painstaking details of the matchup, Mitchell has been stressing a similarly simple approach to the one UK used going into Saturday's win. The Wildcats will need to continue to excel in every aspect of the game from here on out should they hope to advance.
Standing in the way will be Syracuse and the many variables that could affect how people play them.
"What I see with them is a team that is able to create some turnovers in a different way than we do," Mitchell said. "They full-court press you, three-quarter court press you, they've got some half-court traps that we're going to have to deal with and then the 2-3 zone, which we've had some success against, but it certainly hasn't been automatic this year. There have been times where we've struggled against the 2-3 zone."
The Orange -- in Mitchell's eyes -- match up far better with UK than Wright State. Thus Mitchell and his Wildcats will look to play even better than they did on Saturday morning. In other words the Wildcats are looking to improve on what was already arguably their best-played game of the season.
"We had a great day yesterday and we had a significant advantage in personnel," Mitchell said. "This game, the difference in personnel is not as great, the advantage is not as great and we have to be ready to play."
Arguably the biggest challenge for the Wildcats could be executing offensively against Syracuse's base 2-3 zone defense, which UK struggled against early in the SEC schedule. But the Wildcats have since shown they can make shots and get the ball to the paint no matter what defense they face.
And yet like their coach, the Wildcats themselves are embracing the challenge of facing a formidable zone defense in the high-pressure NCAA Tournament.
"I think it should be easier for us because it's just one thing we have to focus on, it's the 2-3 zone," UK guard Jennifer O'Neill said. "We don't have to worry about them playing man or trying to switch it to a 3-2 or stuff like that. We know what they're going to play and now we just have to go out and perform and execute."
Samarie Walker also doesn't seem to sweat the prospect of facing a 2-3 zone so long as UK can execute its offensive counterattack to the zone.
"It's a little frustrating for inside players because we don't know where were going to get the ball, we have to work just a little bit harder than (against) man (defense)," the senior forward said. We might not always get the ball on the block which is where we want to get the ball, it's a lot more movement for us but I think by now we should be used to it because that is what we got played most by in the SEC."
For his part, Mitchell seems more concerned with his team playing its best more than he focuses on specific opponent game planning. Although he likely watches plenty of opponents' game film and develops schemes to attack other teams too, Mitchell indicated he goes into big games keeping it simple, focusing more on his team positioning itself to play its best than preventing other teams from playing theirs.
Mitchell admitted as much when asked how he would prepare the Wildcats for playing Syracuse without knowing the injury status of one of the Orange's best players: Brittany Sykes.
"I don't know if this point in time with our team that we make it totally about the opponent," Mitchell said. "We really try and have a good plan that we can execute whether she's playing or not."
The Syracuse sophomore guard has since been ruled out for Monday's game, but the news likely won't change the broader theme for UK.
Mitchell is focused on his team playing its best as early and as often as possible as UK continues into the second round of the the NCAA Tournament.
Samarie Walker had 12 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 106-60 first-round win over Wright State on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On paper, UK had a significant inside edge against Wright State. The Wildcats were bigger, stronger and had the stats to back it up.
In an NCAA Tournament win, the Cats made sure that edge counted on the floor.
"They had physical advantages in size, speed, depth, and so I really tried to go into the game thinking about just playing 40 minutes, coaching them, encouraging them and making sure that we moved on to the next round," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.
UK (25-8) blew past the visiting Raiders (26-9) in hosting a first-round game for the first time in school history, claiming a double-digit lead in barely five minutes and never looking back. The Cats set school NCAA Tournament records for points and margin of victory in a 106-60 that saw them do much more than survive in advancing to the round of 32.
"I think our personnel and our depth probably helped wear them down a little bit physically, so I think just our depth and our overall talent was the reason we were able to be so successful," Mitchell said.
From the very beginning, it was UK's potent post game that set the tone against a Wright State team that primarily played a four-guard lineup.
Samarie Walker --a proven producer in the NCAA Tournament -- had a double-double by halftime and finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds in just 24 minutes. Walker, a senior, seemed intent to make her final shot at playing in March count.
Walker, as well as she played, was hardly UK's only player to get it done inside.
DeNesha Stallworth (11 points, nine rebounds), Azia Bishop (10 points, eight rebounds) and Linnae Harper (12 points, seven rebounds) nearly had double-doubles of their own. The Cats had a school-record 67 rebounds as a team, tying an NCAA Tournament record for all schools and holding a plus-27 rebounding edge --tying a season high -- in a fast-paced game.
"Rebounding is always an emphasis for us," Mitchell said. "Coach makes sure that we know that's what we need to do every game no matter who we're playing. This time, he definitely emphasized that and especially since we had a size advantage, there was no reason for us to lose the boards today."
In topping the century mark, UK shot 55 percent from the field -- its second-best percentage of the season -- getting good looks inside over and over. The Cats outscored Wright State in the paint, 66-26, setting up a second-round matchup with either No. 6 Syracuse or No. 11 Chattanooga at 6:30 p.m. ET on Monday.
"That's the way we've been practicing," Jennifer O'Neill said. "Today everybody was just clicking on all cylinders. We had seven people in double-digits so everybody was clicking on all cylinders today."
When UK did venture away the basket, it was O'Neill who most often did the damage. She scored a game-high 21 points and hit all four of her 3-point attempts. O'Neill credited her big day to the way her bigger teammates played.
"It freed us up a lot," O'Neill said. "We were able to play an inside-out game and that's something that we have been struggling with. We've been struggling to get post touches, and this game Matthew told us that height was going to be an advantage and we just looked to go to them as much as possible."
That advantage paid off on the defensive end of the floor as well.
Wright State entered Saturday's game fourth in the nation in scoring at 84.0 points per game, but the Raiders never could find a rhythm against Kentucky. UK held its opponent to 19-of-82 (23.2 percent) shooting and blocked a season-high 12 shots in the process.
"I think that we had a real advantage personnel-wise and we had some size advantages that made it difficult for them to score at the rim," Mitchell said.
Stallworth had five of UK's blocks, Bishop four, Jelleah Sidney two and Walker one, helping to frustrate Wright State's Kim Demmings. Averaging 22.7 points before facing UK, Demmings scored just 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting.
A raucous home crowd loved every second of it, helping build the energy the Cats brought from the opening tip. In past years, UK has had its struggles against first-round opponents, but not this time.
Nearly two weeks removed from heartbreaking loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game, the Cats were raring to go.
"I think we kind of felt that sadness from the loss and we wanted to make a run in the tournament," Walker said. "That's what we came here to do."
UK will host Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 11 a.m. ET on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
It's not that the Kentucky women's basketball team ever came to take playing in the postseason for granted.
Not long ago, UK Hoops was on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in. Matthew Mitchell was building his program, and that meant NIT berths in both 2008 and 2009.
Nonetheless, the Wildcats enter March Madness 2014 with a different perspective than in the first four years of their school-record five-year NCAA Tournament streak.
"Five or six weeks ago we were wondering if we would get in the tournament or whether we would play in it, so I think this team is very excited to play and I think they are looking forward to the opportunity," Mitchell said. "I think they appreciate the opportunity."
It's an opportunity third-seeded UK (24-8) will get only because of the way the Cats responded to adversity.
The beginning of Southeastern Conference play was rough for UK, bringing five losses in nine games and burying the Cats in the league standings. The Final Four aspirations Kentucky brought into the season and built on with two December wins over top-10 opponents seemed farfetched.
But rather than succumb to his team's struggles, Mitchell swallowed his pride and solicited help.
"When we were not playing well, I just went to the team and asked them for their feedback and God bless them they gave it," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, you aren't real engaged with the team.' "
For Mitchell, that wasn't easy to hear. That didn't stop him from listening.
"I showed up every day knowing that I loved all of them in my heart and working hard and doing things I thought were important to try to get us better and they said they needed something different," Mitchell said. "They needed a different level of engagement off the court and it was surprising to me because it was a lot of veteran players that I felt like I knew them and they knew me."
Casting surprise aside, Mitchell took the message to heart and learned a powerful lesson in the process.
"You don't want to believe that about yourself and your initial reaction is, 'You're wrong, I do love you and look at what all I've done for you,' " Mitchell said. "Then you start playing that game and you have to stop that very quickly and listen to what they're saying. It was pain but I don't know that you learn a whole lot without some pain along the way."
Helping to unburden the Cats of the expectations he said had "weighed down" his team, Mitchell and his coaching staff placed a renewed emphasis on being there for their players outside the game.
"We're spending a lot more time together off the court here the past couple of weeks and I think that has helped on and off the court with our relationships and just getting to know each other better," junior captain Bria Goss said. "The coaches also are around a lot more, we commend them because we went and talked to them about it and they have responded so positively and I think that really helps us."
The proof is in the results.
The Cats have won seven of nine games entering an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with No. 14 seed Wright State (26-8). Their only two losses have come to No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Tennessee, but UK also has wins over both during the stretch, as well as tournament teams Florida, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
UK was particularly impressive in the SEC Tournament, taking down Florida and South Carolina before falling to Tennessee by a single point in the championship game.
"I thought we were the more aggressive team and that's where we need to be tomorrow morning," Mitchell said. "We need to be the more aggressive team on the court and stay in attack mode and I think that was the greatest lesson we've learned out of the SEC Tournament."
It's a lesson that Wright State won't make easy to apply.
The Raiders have grabbed Mitchell's attention in preparing for Saturday's first-round game at 11 a.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, especially for the way they play on the perimeter.
Wright State took down fifth-seeded North Carolina State earlier this season and was equally impressive in clinching its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in an 88-69 win over Green Bay in the finals of the Horizon League Tournament.
"I look at their guard play on tape and they are just outstanding and one of the scrappiest, most together performances I've ever seen in their championship game on Green Bay's home court," Mitchell said. "They played with a lot of fire and a lot of intensity. They will make it difficult."
Behind junior guard Kim Demmings -- who is averaging 22.7 points per game -- the Raiders are fourth nationally in scoring at 84.0 points per game and first in turnover margin (plus-9.9).
Where UK figures to have an edge is inside. The Raiders often play four guards and feature only one player taller than 6-foot-1.
"They are very scrappy guards and they look to dig on post players," DeNesha Stallworth said. "A key for us will be keeping the ball high and protecting the ball. Rebounding is going to be huge in this game. I think that our size is definitely going to be an advantage but we have to take that advantage and use it."
UK's other advantage will be playing on its home floor. The Cats are hosting NCAA Tournament first and second rounds for the first time ever and figure to have a vocal crowd cheering them on. But just like with their size, home court only becomes an advantage if the Cats make it that way.
"If you think about it overall, probably the No. 1 overall thing -- and I told the team this -- you need to play well so you gain the advantage of playing at home," Mitchell said. "You need to play with a lot of fire, a lot of intensity and a lot of passion, because that gives the fans energy and then they give it back to you."
UK received a No. 3 seed and will face Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky Wildcats have long known they would be hosting first- and second-round games in the NCAA Tournament.
On Monday, it became real when the Cats found out for certain they would be making a school-record fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
"We obviously overcame some adversity throughout the season that has us prepared for the tournament," Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm really proud of our players, and really, really excited about the opportunity to play in another NCAA Tournament."
UK (24-8) was tabbed a No. 3 seed in the Notre Dame regional and will face No. 14 Wright State (26-8) in the first round at 11 a.m. in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. The winner will advance to face either No. 6 Syracuse or No. 11 Chattanooga on Monday at 6:30 p.m.
"We don't know anything about Wright State, but it's a 40-minute big game," DeNesha Stallworth said. "Obviously anybody can win the game, but we just have to play hard and play together. That's been our key to success so we're just going to keep that going."
The Cats learned their fate at a watch party on the same floor where they will begin their tournament run and were joined by hundreds of their biggest fans. Afterward, Mitchell took the microphone to say thank you and make a humble request.
"What would really be huge for us Saturday morning at 11 o'clock: Get up early and get you a good breakfast and bring about 10 or 12 folks in here and let's pack Memorial Coliseum," Mitchell said.
While fans are recruiting friends to join them for UK's first-round game, Mitchell and his coaching staff will be hard at work trying to make sure the Cats have a second game in Memorial on Monday.
"You just start trying to figure out how you're going to prepare and looking at the game times," Mitchell said. "That's where my mind always goes, is you start trying to get a game plan together for your first opponent."
The players may have admitted they know little about the Raiders, but Mitchell has a relationship with Wright State's head coach, Mike Bradbury.
"I sent him a text yesterday," Mitchell said. "It was such a big win for him yesterday and to beat Green Bay and to get into the tournament. He and I share a bond of being former Morehead State coaches, so I've known him a long time and was happy for him."
Wright State -- making its first-ever NCAA appearance -- is averaging an impressive 84.0 points -- fourth nationally -- and is led by junior guard Kim Dennings, who is scoring 22.7 points per game. The Raiders are also first nationally in turnover margin, forcing 22.1 opponent miscues per game.
If UK advances past Wright State, plenty of intrigue awaits the Cats.
Syracuse was ranked for five straight weeks early in the season, while Chattanooga is receiving the most votes of any unranked team in the AP poll having won 25 in a row. In the Sweet 16, a potential rematch with second-seeded Baylor looms.
"I hope we're playing at the time we should be playing and that's in the Sweet 16 and that's all I'm really worried about," Mitchell said. "We need to try to really prepare well for Wright State because they'll be hungry and want to win. It'll be interesting in some ways if that matchup occurred."
His players of course share the same sentiment, but they'd like to see the game decided a little more quickly than it was in UK's thrilling four-overtime win in December.
"One of the fans came up to me after and said hopefully it's not four overtimes this time. Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."
There's a long way to go before the Cats will start thinking about that, but they has reason to be confident heading into the tournament.
UK boasts wins over No. 1 seeds Tennessee and South Carolina -- two of the eight Southeastern Conference teams to make the field -- as well as No. 3 Louisville. The Cats are playing their best basketball of the season to boot, coming within a possession of the SEC Tournament title.
"We're going into this tournament with a lot of confidence and poise," Stallworth said. "Just playing together is really our focus right now. I think that we're going to really come in here and play with a lot of heart, and play with a purpose."
The Cats have now had eight days to recover from that heartbreaking 71-70 defeat. After taking some time off, UK has returned to practice. Mitchell has liked what he's seen to this point.
"What I've seen was a really hungry group came back and really excited to practice every day," Mitchell said. "... We've had a lot of fun together and make practice fun and just doing everything we can to try and bring this team together at the right time. It's the most important time of the year right now and it's here. We need to perform well."
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."