Jennifer O'Neill had 16 points, six rebounds and five steals in UK's NCAA Tournament loss to Dayton on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
It wasn't supposed to end this way, not for the winningest senior class in school history.
Kentucky was supposed to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and send Bria Goss, Jennifer O'Neill, Jelleah Sidney and Azia Bishop off in style.
It wouldn't happen that way.
"A disappointing end to a season that I will always remember," Matthew Mitchell said.
Instead of moving on to Albany, N.Y., and a possible Sweet 16 matchup with rival Louisville, the Wildcats (24-10) saw their season end on their home floor with a 99-94 loss to Dayton. The seventh-seeded Flyers built an early nine-point lead, but UK battled back to go up five with less than nine minutes remaining behind Makayla Epps, who scored 29 points.
From there it was a seesaw battle, with Dayton burying a pair of 3-pointers in the final 1:08. The shots by Kelley Austria and Amber Deane both broke ties, with Deane's serving as the go-ahead basket. It came with the shot clock running down and O'Neill guarding her with 24 seconds remaining.
"Personally it's tough for me just because I'm the one that really lost the game," O'Neill said. "I let her hit that 3-point shot. That's deflating to my team. We were on a little run and as a senior I can't make mistakes like that."
Of course, O'Neill - who scored 16 points - was far from the only player who played a role in the defeat. Dayton shot 56.6 percent from the field and 11 of 18 from 3-point range, numbers that ballooned to 64 percent and 5 of 8 after halftime.
The defense that's locked down over the last three weeks returned to the form that appeared too often prior to a meeting the four seniors called with Mitchell on Feb. 24.
"It's just plagued us all year: inconsistency at inopportune moments," Mitchell said. "I could really kind of tell it from the beginning. There's just certain things that you can notice from players and we just did not have the focus and the energy and the effort that we needed."
The lack of energy ultimately spelled the end for those seniors. Goss and O'Neill appeared alongside Mitchell at the postgame press conference visibly emotional and Goss had trouble composing herself when asked about playing her final game.
"It's just going to be tough," Goss said before taking a long pause and asking for the next question.
Bishop did not play in the game, serving a one-game suspension for a "failure to uphold team standards" on Friday night related to the team's 11 p.m. curfew.
"I hate that that was the way her career ended," Mitchell said. "I really wanted to get to next week because I know she feels terrible about the situation. I feel terrible about the situation. But if you're in my shoes, you must do the right thing or if you don't have integrity you don't really have a program."
With Bishop, UK's top post presence, sidelined, the Cats were outrebounded 42-34. Mitchell didn't know whether her presence would have changed the outcome, but that doesn't much matter to him.
"I can tell you," Mitchell said, "if she'd played and whether we'd lost or won the game, I think we'd have lost a bunch in the future if I don't uphold the standard."
What makes that so difficult is Bishop and her fellow seniors were the ones who helped reestablish that standard in calling that meeting and lifting UK to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They won't get to be there as the Cats look to build on that foundation next season, but the role they played won't be forgotten.
"A disappointing end to a season that I will always remember," Mitchell said. "And I'm real grateful to our seniors. They had a great career here and what they did for us down the stretch to help us know what we need to know what we need to do going forward I'll always remember."
UK was tabbed a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament's Albany Regional on Monday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell looks at the bracket and understands what all the buzz is about.
He sees a potential Sweet 16 rivalry matchup with Louisville. He couldn't miss a possible Elite Eight showdown with Connecticut.
"As the storylines go, and just in the interest of that, there's some very intriguing matchups in the regional," Mitchell said.
The thing is, it doesn't mean much of anything right now.
"From a very important, practical matter, you just cannot, from a basketball team's perspective, concern yourself with that," Mitchell said.
UK (23-9) was tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Albany Regional with the Huskies and Cardinals as the No. 1 and 3 seeds, respectively. As tantalizing as the games may be, there are far more immediate tasks at hand as the Cats make their school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Namely a matchup with Tennessee State (18-12) at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
It will be a rematch of a Dec. 28 game, which the Wildcats won by a margin of 87-75. The game took place in Memorial Coliseum, the same venue that will host Friday's first-round game.
"This is a really tough match because Tennessee State was in the game with us, there is no question about it," Mitchell said. "But we're excited to tip off 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon."
For the second year in a row, UK will open the tournament at home. Last year, the Cats won the right to host as a result of a bid process. This time, it was based solely on their regular-season merits.
"This year, you had to earn it," Mitchell said. "To me, that's the thing that I'm most proud of, is that the players, through all of the early mornings and hard runs and weight-lifting sessions and tough practices and day after day after day, to be standing here at this point is something that I'm proud of them for."
2014-15 has been a year of adversity for the Cats, but ultimately achievement. UK had an impressive nonconference run, scoring wins over the likes of Louisville and Baylor, but injuries to Bria Goss and Janee Thompson helped precipitate a lull in Southeastern Conference play.
Less than a month ago, the Cats had lost three games in a row after a disheartening performance at Ole Miss on Feb. 23. But a few weeks and one meeting at Mitchell's house called by UK's seniors later, the Cats have won four of five, including an upset of NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed South Carolina on Senior Day.
"That Monday night when we got on that bus to drive to Memphis to fly home - one of the worst bus rides of my life - do you think anybody on paper thought that next Sunday you had a chance against South Carolina?" Mitchell said. "My point is that you're in control of how you play the game and they change their mindset in a very short period of time and beat a tough team at Arkansas, beat a really, really talented South Carolina team and then played three really tough games against tough competition (at the SEC Tournament)."
The ups and downs have made reaching this point even sweeter.
"Seeing our name up there as a No. 2 seed, you think about all the adversity we've been through and it was almost like a sigh of relief," Bria Goss said. "We're so excited to be in the position that we're in and we're going to take every opportunity to get better from here on out and not take any days off."
UK's final days off came in the week the Cats had to rest following an SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee on March 7. The time - for a team nursing bumps and bruises, most notably to sophomore point guard Makayla Epps - was well used.
"I think for us it was great mentally, emotionally and physically," Mitchell said. "The time off was good, and then the ability to really get back to focusing on what we do well. Our style of play needs some energy and being able to give them a little bit of time off and then come back energetic and really focusing on our transition game both offensively and defensively, focusing on our press - all of those hustle aspects."
If it sounds like the Cats are going back to their roots, that's no accident.
"We're just getting back to being an up-tempo, high-energy-type of team that we are," Bria Goss said. "It's been great practices. He's done a great job creating the practice plan. He and the assistant coaches and we've really been executing. Just getting back to a high tempo. We're going to carry it out for the tournament."
Makayla Epps scored 31 points to lead UK to a comeback victory over Mississippi State on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
They say no one makes it to March 100-percent healthy, but Makayla Epps isn't anywhere close.
Epps is battling a strained Achilles tendon, plus the normal wear and tear of a long season. She limped visibly at points during a matchup with Mississippi State on Friday night.
But when it counted, she wasn't about to let it slow her down.
"You know what, I was cramping up, I was hurting and stuff like that you just gotta fight through because my team needed me," Epps said.
The sophomore guard and daughter of former national champion Anthony Epps fought through the pain to play 38 minutes. Not only that, she shook off any defenders the third-seeded Bulldogs threw at her to score 31 points in an effort nothing short of heroic. On the back of Epps, UK (23-8) advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 76-67 victory.
"She was real tough," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm real proud of her. Big night. We needed every bucket she made."
Epps started strong, scoring 16 points in the first half. UK, however, trailed by four points at the break after using a strong finish to trim a lead that was once as large as 10 points.
After the break, Mississippi State (26-6) seized control once again. The Bulldogs took a 54-39 lead with 15:18 left behind Victoria Vivians, who scored 10 of her 19 points in the opening minutes of the second half.
The Cats wouldn't go away.
"We just talked about trying to be tough in the second half, and we were tough," Mitchell said. "We were really tough and did it with a really untraditional lineup because of the foul trouble. So I couldn't be prouder of the players."
Epps, no doubt, is at the top of the list.
With the Cats in a hole, she pulled them out. At one point, she scored 11 straight points for Kentucky, the last of which on a 3-pointer that pulled UK into a 58-58 tie. On the following possession, she found high-school teammate Kyvin Goodin-Rogers for a go-ahead 3 in the midst of a back-breaking 30-6 run for UK.
"Her contribution was significant," Mitchell said. "I was most proud about the way she handled herself. If there was ever a time to get negative and down, it was with 15 minutes left in the game and we were down 15. We did not have anything going at all. We hung in there as a team. I think she was a part of that."
Epps has been brilliant for nearly every second of the two games she's played against Mississippi State this season. Less than a month ago, she poured in 42 points, including a buzzer-beating game winner, in a double-overtime thriller in Memorial Coliseum. Combining the two games, Epps has scored 73 points on 30-of-51 shooting.
"Like I just told their coach, they make me step up and play to my highest potential and I salute them for that," Epps said. "That's not doing anything but making me a better player and making my team better against tough competition like Mississippi State."
Epps is line to face more tough competition in the semifinals with a matchup against second-seeded Tennessee (26-4). The Lady Volunteers dismantled Georgia to advance to face Kentucky and twice defeated the Cats during the regular season.
"They're up on us two games to none and slipped one in on us in Lexington and then got us pretty good down in Knoxville," Epps said. "Our chances tomorrow, my dad always told me it's hard to beat a team three times."
Jennifer O'Neill scored 19 points in UK's win over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky, for a while, seemed poised to coast in its Southeastern Conference Tournament opener.
The Wildcats, after allowing Vanderbilt to score the game's first basket, reeled off 16 straight points to build a big lead.
Things wouldn't be so easy though.
"Sometimes when you get off to a hot start, it all kind of unravels on you, you don't get it back," Matthew Mitchell said.
It unraveled in the form of a 23-8 run by Vanderbilt to close the first half. The spurt gave the Commodores a 25-24 lead heading to the break. The Cats made just 3-of-14 shots to allow Vandy to charge back into the SEC Tournament second-round game.
"I think we lost our defensive intensity because we weren't scoring on the offensive end," Bria Goss said. "We had to refocus and regroup at halftime."
That's precisely what the sixth-seeded Cats (22-8) did en route to a 67-61 victory on Thursday night. UK would build a lead of as large as 12 points in the second half, coming alive offensively in the process.
At the center of it all was Jennifer O'Neill.
The senior guard - who has three times played on teams that lost in the SEC Tournament finals - had three points and three turnovers in shooting 1 of 8 from the field in the first half. After the break, she would score 16 of her game-high 19 points.
"I was more aggressive," O'Neill said. "I told my team, I apologized, I was settling for jump shots instead of attacking the basket or getting fouled or getting other people involved. That was really it, just changed my mindset."
That mindset spread to the defensive end as well, including on a vital charge she drew with less than four minutes remained. At that point, Vandy had climbed to within 58-51 and Jasmine Jenkins was driving to the basket intent on cutting the lead to five, but O'Neill made a play.
"I tell you the biggest thing for Jennifer right now is she is affecting the game defensively," Mitchell said. "When we're good, she really, really turns up the defense and does a great job. Bria is always there, always a rock defensively. Jennifer has become that, too, for us in this time of success for our team. That's what we'll need from her more than anything (Friday), just a real focus."
Third-seeded Mississippi State (26-5) will be the next test of that focus on Friday at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET. Kentucky took down the Bulldogs in double overtime three weeks ago in Lexington behind 42 points and a buzzer beater by Makayla Epps.
The game was actually somewhat reminiscent of Thursday's win over Vandy with the way it went back and forth.
"Well, we really were clicking in the first half, built a sizable lead," Mitchell said. "I remember we lost focus there at halftime. The first five minutes of the second half was really dominated by Mississippi State. Went back to an 11-point lead, then they came back again. We played some really good basketball against them in stretches, and they played some really good basketball against us in stretches."
With a short turnaround, the Cats will work to maximize their own stretches of good basketball.
"We'll just mentally prepare," Mitchell said. "We'll ask for tremendous focus and we'll ask for them to understand what they need to do. That's the responsibility part of what they really need to do tomorrow night to win, then go out and execute it."
Matthew Mitchell leads UK into the SEC Tournament this week in North Little Rock, Ark. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Defining success for this team has always been simple for Matthew Mitchell.
"We started the season of the goal of becoming a great team, and that being defined by this team becoming the best that this team can be," Mitchell said.
Wins and losses have never figured into the equation, at least not directly. Nor has Kentucky's performance in the postseason. That doesn't mean those things don't have a role as the Wildcats head to North Little Rock, Ark., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"I think it would be significant to get in the mix for a championship," Mitchell said. "I think it would be very significant to win the SEC Tournament. It would be a great sign that they have given it their best."
Significant, not to mention especially meaningful to this group.
UK - which enters as the No. 6 seed - has advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons but never won. Fifth-year senior Jennifer O'Neill has been a part of three of those trips, and classmates Jennifer O'Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney two each.
"I think they'll be hungry to go down there and win it," Mitchell said. "Especially the veterans. We have gotten very close. I think the veterans have been to two championship games. It's a big-time tournament. It's a big one to win. We would be very proud to win it and we're going to try to do that."
The Cats (21-8, 10-6 SEC) will open their title bid at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday against either No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Alabama. They will also do so in a much better place than if the tournament had started a week and a half prior.
On Feb. 23, UK had just lost its third straight game. Sensing their team was about to "go off the cliff," those four seniors - led by O'Neill - called a meeting with their head coach to ask him to be more involved in demanding focus and intensity from his team.
"We're not the most talented team around," Mitchell said. "We're talented enough that when we play extremely hard and we're ultra-competitive, we're talented enough to win. We're also talented enough that if we don't compete, if we're not ultra-competitive and we don't play extremely hard, we can lose to anybody. So there's really no in between with the team."
With no in between, Mitchell has changed up practice and even implemented game-speed drills during pregame warmups. He's also abandoned his customary spot in the locker room before games in favor of running the team through those drills. The Cats have responded by winning two straight, including Sunday's upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina.
"For me, it's been fun because I'm sort of bored back in the locker room, staring at the board," Mitchell said. "You've written the words and you know what you want to say and you're just back there by yourself and so it was great."
Mitchell will be on the court again Thursday night helping his team get ready. If anything, he'll be even more eager to be there.
"I think it's a really exciting tournament, the SEC Tournament," Mitchell said. "I think it's very difficult to win and we've had a chance several times to win it and we'd love to taste victory in that tournament. It would really be a big accomplishment if we could win it, so we have to take them one game at a time obviously and no matter who it is, Vanderbilt or Alabama, it'll be a tough test. We will do everything we can to get prepared."
Though UK will be preparing for a game with winning in mind, the ultimate goal remains the same as the one the Cats had to start the season.
"I just talk to them about doing the things that we need from them to be successful and that is to have an edge to us, a competitiveness to us, playing defense for each other, getting on the boards, things like that," Mitchell said. "We'll go down there with the intention of winning, but I'll talk with them more about the process than I will about whatever result we get."