Kentucky begins play in the SEC Tournament at 6 p.m. ET on Friday against either Vanderbilt or Missouri. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky women's basketball team arrived in Duluth, Ga., Thursday evening to settle in for what the Wildcats hope is a run at a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship. The Wildcats started that journey Thursday afternoon at the Suwanee Sports Academy where they held their first practice in the Peach State. Kentucky won't know whether it will face Vanderbilt or Missouri in the quarterfinals until later in the evening, but the Cats practiced the things that they do well to stay sharp.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell and senior guard A'dia Mathies spoke with the media after practice about the 2013 SEC Tournament. Here are a few quick hitters from today's media opportunity:
Cats not just happy to be here
Mitchell knows that his team is excited about being in Duluth for the SEC Tournament, but they aren't just happy to be competing. They have come down to Georgia not looking for a soul to steal, but rather an SEC Tournament championship, a run that will begin at 6 p.m. ET on Friday.
After experiencing disappointment over not repeating as SEC regular-season champions this season, UK is looking to take revenge on anyone who stands in its way as the Cats look to win the tournament crown, a title that eluded them in 2012. While last year UK hoped to win the title, this year, it's an expectation.
"I think we're on a mission more so than we have been in years past," Mathies said. "We feel like we're the best team in the tournament and I think we're going to go out there and show it."
Mitchell would tend to agree. While he may not call UK the odds-on favorite to win the tournament, he knows he's got the team to do it.
"It really excites me to have the chance to (win the tournament)," Mitchell said. "We'll have to win (Friday) and we'll put everything we can into it. I'm really, really excited about having a team that has a legitimate chance to cut down the nets."
Kentucky has been playing championship-caliber basketball all season long, but hasn't had much to show for it once Tennessee locked up the regular-season title.
After defeating the Volunteers in convincing fashion last Sunday on Mathies' and fellow senior Brittany Henderson's Senior Day, the Wildcats know for sure that the tournament title, what would be the first for Mathies and a crowning jewel to cap off her career at Kentucky, is well within reach.
"Tennessee's a great team, always has been," said Mathies. "Just getting a win over a talented team and a top-10 opponent, we really needed that."
Mathies looking to go out on top
Mathies will be playing in her final SEC games this weekend here in Duluth, and nothing would be greater than walking off the floor Sunday with a brand new t-shirt, a ball cap and a strand of net in her hand. The senior has done it all of Kentucky. She's been a scorer, a defender, a facilitator, but even more so now, she's grown into a leader.
In her fourth season, Mitchell recounts just how much Mathies has grown during her time as a Wildcat and how important that is for their title implications this weekend.
"She's really progressed all four years, so she is more vocal than she was before," said Mitchell. "She knows what needs to happen for us to win. She's done a great job. She's in a great frame of mind right now for the tournament."
Mathies is starting to feel the finality of her time as a Wildcat as well. Urgency has set in. She knows it's now or never for her if she hopes to earn some SEC Tournament hardware. With that in mind, she's made a conscious effort to make sure that's she constantly communicating with her teammates to put them and herself in the best position to succeed.
"I think I'm more vocal," said Mathies. "This is my last go-round. Our players know my capabilities and what I can contribute on the court, so when we're in the huddle, I'm telling them things we need to work on. I've taken more (of a vocal role)."
Not only would it mean a lot for Mathies to go out as an SEC Champion, but it would mean just as much for Mitchell to see his superstar, the one who has helped take his program to national prominence, put one more ring on her finger.
"I think she's really confident right now," said Mitchell. "She's had a terrific SEC season. She's clearly one of the top players in the country and I know that an SEC Tournament championship would mean a lot to her and Brittany Henderson as well. We're going to work hard to try and get it." Depth, post play should give UK edge
Kentucky's "40 minutes" mantra has been a successful brand of basketball all season long for the Wildcats. On the surface, that type of constant energy and effort doesn't seem to translate well in a tournament setting when UK will have to play three straight days in order to win their coveted SEC Tournament championship. UK's not-so-secret weapon, however, has been their depth.
All opponents UK faces from here on out will have had previous games in the tournament under their belts, and therefore, will not be as fresh. Though UK, after Friday's game, will also have a game under its belt and a concerted effort to milk Kentucky's depth will be the focus for Mitchell this weekend. This will give Kentucky the chance to play at maximum effort, like the Cats have all season long, and give them plenty of rest when necessary.
"I think that we certainly have more depth than anyone else in the tournament," said Mitchell. "In the post, that's big if we can get our post players running the floor with a great effort and a lot of energy. I think that could be a big, big advantage for Kentucky in this tournament."
Kentucky bigs will play an important role, and with multiple, capable post players at Mitchell's command, the Wildcats should have no trouble continuing to play their up-tempo brand throughout the tournament. Mathies, a maestro of the fast-paced ball her team likes to play, knows her personnel as well as anyone. That's why she is confident her team is more than capable of making a championship run.
"I just feel like we have more talent and more people have bought into their roles," said Mathies. "I feel like we're doing a good job of using our depth this year and we really focus on that. I think it's going to help us."
UK's bench produced 24 points in 58 minutes of a 78-65 victory over Tennessee on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell's teams have developed a reputation for pressure defense, an up-tempo style of play and a deep bench in recent years. This season, the Wildcats have applied plenty of pressure and ran whenever they've been able to, but the depth hasn't always been there.
On multiple occasions, Mitchell has gone with a shortened rotation. With unprecedented talent on the first team and relative inexperience among the backups, he's often simply been more comfortable that way. That was most recently the case in a loss at LSU during which only eight Wildcats saw the floor and six played 23 minutes or more.
But after that defeat, Mitchell realized things needed to change. As the Cats prepared for their final two games of the regular season and tournament play, Mitchell called for a meeting with the reserves.
"We didn't have the starters in the meeting that day where we just tried to define some roles and get them a little bit more focused in on what we are looking for from them," Mitchell said. "I just thought that that group had really been practicing poorly, lacking focus, each person on that group not giving and playing to their strengths."
Mitchell finished the meeting by laying down a challenge.
"I just told them before the Ole Miss game you are going in, you are playing the second four minutes, that's the plan," Mitchell said. "I don't care what happens."
True to his word, Mitchell sent his second unit to the scorer's table after the first media timeout. Without a single starter on the floor, UK extended its lead from 8-4 to 14-6 en route to a 90-65 victory. In that game, no Wildcat played more than 27 minutes and all 11 (usual starter DeNesha Stallworth did not make the trip due to flu-like symptoms) played double-digit minutes.
"I think that energized them a little bit, got them a little more focused," Mitchell said. "I don't think that's how it ought to be. I think you ought to earn your time, but it's a long season and I just thought some of the kids had gotten discouraged so hopefully that sharpened them up a little bit."
Heading into a Senior Day showdown with Southeastern Conference champion Tennessee, Mitchell made it clear he would do the same. The challenge was a stiffer one against the then-No. 8 Lady Volunteers, but the bench once again got the job done. During the reserves' 3:04 of early playing time, UK outscored Tennessee 6-4 to set the tone for the remainder of a 78-65 win, one of UK's most impressive performances of the season.
The timing of the bench's reemergence couldn't be better.
On Friday at 6 p.m. ET in Duluth, Ga., the Cats open postseason play with an SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against either seventh-seeded Vanderbilt or 10th-seeded Missouri. If Kentucky continues to win, it could be the first of three games in 48 hours. The value of depth in a quick-turnaround situation cannot be overstated.
"I think that could be a great thing for us in the tournament setting," Mitchell said. "We just need to make sure that we get production out of that group. The second unit went in against Tennessee and increased the lead so that was huge."
Junior guard Kastine Evans is quite familiar with what it takes to come off the bench and be successful; for the first 22 games of the season, she was UK's sixth woman. But over the last month, she has swapped roles with Bria Goss and moved into the starting lineup. Evans also knows well what a capable bench can mean to a team.
"That gives us a lot of confidence in our team especially knowing that we've got people who can back us up and people who are very talented and can come in and play minutes that we will need them to play this late in the season with our bodies and just how the season goes at the end," Evans said.
"Confidence" is the word that comes up most often when talking to Mitchell and his players this week, and not only with regard to the bench.
"I think (Tennessee was) definitely a game needed for us as a team because that definitely helped our confidence and just knowing that, if we play like that every game and as a team, that it should be a pretty great outcome on the scoreboard," Stallworth said.
That win over Tennessee was a reminder of just how good the Cats can be when they are clicking. Mitchell praised the way his players "poured themselves" into preparation for the Lady Vols. Now, in a week during which the opponent will remain unknown until Thursday, he's asking them for the same kind of focus in improving themselves.
"I think this week's more about pouring themselves into this team and what we can do to get better," Mitchell said. "There are some things that we can do offensively I think to get even better than what we're doing right now."
Any improvements will boost the Cats for the NCAA Tournament and Mitchell certainly has that in the back of his mind. However, the SEC Tournament is at hand and the Cats want desperately to win it after narrowly missing out on a second SEC regular-season title in as many seasons.
"It's in my mind one of the great sporting events in the country, the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament," Mitchell said. "A lot of great fans show up for it from all the schools and it's just a great atmosphere. The champion always has to play really good basketball over the course of several days. It would really be an honor for us to win it."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, March 3:
Softball: Lauren Cumbess
Junior pitcher/infielder Lauren Cumbess had an outstanding week in the circle, going 2-0 with a 0.58 ERA. Cumbess pitched against USF, which is receiving votes and went to the 2012 Women's College World Series, and Central Michigan. The native of Normal, Ill., came on in the fifth inning against USF and threw five hitless innings, striking out four and retiring 15 of the 16 batters she faced. She was also impressive against CMU, allowing an earned run in the first inning on two hits, but only one hit the remainder of the game. After giving up the run against CMU, Cumbess retired 18 of the next 20 batters she faced, including six by strikeout. For the season, Cumbess is 4-1 with a 2.39 ERA, throwing 38 innings with 36 strikeouts and only 13 earned runs allowed. The two-way player has also hit well this season, leading the team with a .373 average on top of 22 hits, four doubles, two homers and a team-high 18 RBI.
Softball: Kara Dill
Senior Kara Dill ended the tournament on a three-game hitting streak after her impressive 3-for-3 performance in UK's win over Western Michigan. Dill had two singles and a triple against the Broncos, while scoring three runs and stealing base. The native of LaGrange, Ohio, played solid defense on the weekend as well, making several nice plays in the field. Dill has hit leadoff in every game but one this season, leading UK in hits and runs scored with a strong on-base percentage of .403. Dill is hitting .358 for the season with four stolen bases and six multi-hit games.
Baseball: Greg Fettes
Freshman catcher Greg Fettes made a pair of starts during the week behind the plate, batting 4-for-6 with a double and three RBI ... In his first career home start in the 2013 home opener, Fettes collected a single and a sacrifice fly ... Earned his third career start vs. Akron on Saturday, catching a dynamic pitching outing from Jerad Grundy, with the senior southpaw tossing eight shutout, two-hit innings with Fettes behind the dish ... Went a career-high 3-for-4 with two RBI and a double in the win over Akron ... On the year, Fettes - a 43rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers out of high school - has hit .750 (6-for-8) with two doubles and three RBI.
Baseball: Jerad Grundy
Senior southpaw Jerad Grundy had the best start of his career in a win over Akron on Saturday ... Worked eight shutout, two-hit innings, not allowing a walk and striking out a career-best 12 ... Became the first UK pitcher to strike out 12 hitters since Alex Meyer fanned 13 in a start vs. Niagara in 2011 ... He allowed only a pair of singles with no base runners advancing past first base ... He retired the first eight hitters he faced before an infield single, including seven by strikeout ... Rated as the seventh-best senior in college baseball by Baseball America in the preseason, he retired 13 consecutive after allowing a third-inning single ... Tossed only 86 pitches, including a staggering 68 for strikes ... Through his first three starts of 2013, has a 3-0 record and a 0.43 ERA, allowing only one earned run in 21 innings, striking out 24 and holding opponents to a .125 average ... In his two-year UK career, has a 9-3 record and a 3.12 ERA in 19 starts, tossing 106.2 innings and striking out 87.
Women's basketball: A'dia Mathies
Senior guard A'dia Mathies led 10th-ranked Kentucky to wins over Ole Miss (90-65) and No. 8/8 Tennessee (78-65) last week.
Averaged a team-high 18.0 points per contest, along with 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 2.0 assists per game.
Scored 20 points at Ole Miss, marking her seventh 20-point game of the season, including second straight.
Scored 13 of her team-high 16 points in the decisive second half against Tennessee, including back-to-back 3-pointers to extend the Cats' lead to 17 with 12:06 remaining in the game.
Hit 5-of-9 from behind the arc in the two games for .556 percent. The five 3-pointers moved her up to No. 7 on UK's single season 3-point field goals list with 60.
Displayed her defensive abilities against the Lady Vols, tying season highs with four steals and two blocks in the contest.
Has now reached double figures in 27-of-29 games this season, including 20 in a row and every SEC game.
Ranks in the top 10 on 13 UK career lists, including No. 2 in scoring (1,899), No. 3 in steals (303), and fourth in field goals made (706) and 3-pointers made (164).
With four steals vs. Tennessee, she became just the third player in school history to have 300 or more in her career.
First player in UK history (men or women) to accumulate over 1,800 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 300 steals in her career.
The SEC's active career scoring and steals leader.
Leads the team in scoring (16.0 ppg), 3-pointers made (60) and is second in assists (2.4) and steals (2.4) per game this season.
Averaging a team-high 18.2 points per game in SEC play and is tied for the team-high with 1.8 steals per contest.
Softball: Kelsey Nunley
Kelsey Nunley did not have the best week statistically in the circle, but provided clutch innings for Kentucky and got key outs that should propel UK into SEC play. The freshman went 3-0 overall with a 1.94 ERA in 21.2 innings with 18 strikeouts. Nunley started the first game of the tournament against Illinois, allowing two earned runs, while striking out five and only walking one over eight innings of play. After giving up three runs on three hits and three walks in the first inning vs. LMU, Nunley settled down to throw six scoreless innings the rest of the way, retiring 14 straight to end the game. The native of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., came on in relief against Western Michigan, getting the final two outs of the first inning with the bases loaded, keeping the game tied before going the final 6.2 innings against WMU, allowing four hits and one earned run while striking out eight - just one off her career high, Overall this season, Nunley is 10-0 - believed to be the only player in school history to start a season 10-0 in the circle - with a team-low 2.16 ERA, throwing 68.0 innings, allowing 21 earned runs with a team-best 55 strikeouts.
Baseball: A.J. Reed
Sophomore two-way star A.J. Reed had a historic week for the Wildcats, leading UK to five wins to extend its winning streak to seven games ... Drove in 15 RBI during the week, belting three homers and adding a double ... Hit .526 (10-for-19) during the week, with a 1.053 slugging and a .609 on-base percentage ... In UK's home opening win over Murray State, belted a three-run, first-inning homer to give UK an early lead, finishing with four RBI and a pair of hit by pitches ... On Wednesday, scored a run and collected a hit, before exploding in the series opener vs. Akron ... Went 4-for-5 in the opener vs. the Zips, with five RBI and his second homer of the week ... Also started the opener vs. Akron on the mound, tossing six innings and allowing only two runs on six hits and two walks, striking out four ... In the series-clincher on Saturday, belted a homer - his second consecutive game with a bomb - going 3-for-4 with three RBI and a walk ... In the sweep clincher on Sunday, Reed ripped a double off the centerfield wall to clear the bases, giving him three more RBI in a 1-for-3 game ... On the year, Reed leads UK with 22 RBI on four homers, a double and a triple, batting .409 (18-for-44) with 11 runs scored ... On the mound, as UK's Friday-night starter, Reed has a 2-1 record ... A preseason All-America honoree, Reed has hit .320 (78-for-244) in his two-year UK career with eight homers and 65 RBI, posting a 7-4 record with a 3.00 ERA on the mound.
Men's basketball - Kentucky went 1-1 on the week with a win over Mississippi State before falling at Arkansas on Saturday. - Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein continued his dynamic play by averaging 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game this week. - With the win over the Bulldogs, UK secured its 57th 20-win season in program history - Kentucky was led in scoring by Arkansas native Archie Goodwin with 14 points in the loss to the Razorbacks. Women's basketball - After earning its school-record tying 13th SEC win with a commanding 78-65 victory over No. 8 Tennessee on Senior Day, Kentucky earned the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. - The Wildcats have had another remarkable season under the direction of head coach Matthew Mitchell. Mitchell, who became UK's all-time winningest coach with the win over Tennessee, has led the Cats to a school-record fourth straight 25-win season with a 25-4 overall record, including a 13-3 mark in SEC play. - A'dia Mathies had led the team in scoring (16.0), 3-point field goals made (60) and 3-point field goal percentage (.403), and has reached double figures in 27-of-29 games, including 20 in a row
Gymnastics - The Kentucky gymnastics team shattered the school record with a 196.5 team score in a win at Ball State on Sunday. - Kentucky has now posted team scores of more than 196 two weeks in a row for the first time in school history. - Audrey Harrison won her fifth consecutive individual all-around title with a huge career-high score of 39.425. - The Knoxville, Tenn., native now has a Southeastern Conference-leading seven AA titles this season. Softball - For the second consecutive weekend, the No. 17 Kentucky softball team went undefeated in a weekend tournament, posting a 5-0 record in the 2013 Under Armour Invitational with wins against Illinois, USF, Loyola Marymount, Central Michigan and Western Michigan. - This is the first time in school history UK has gone undefeated in consecutive tournaments. - Senior Kara Dill led UK offensively over the weekend with a .353 (6-for-17) average, including six runs scored and her first triple of the season. - In the circle, Lauren Cumbess paced UK with a 2-0 record and 0.58 ERA in 12 innings pitched, including 11 strikeouts. True freshman Kelsey Nunley went 3-0 on the weekend with a 1.94 ERA, throwing 21.2 innings, allowing six earned runs with 18 strikeouts.
Baseball - The eighth-ranked Kentucky baseball team completed its first home week with five wins, including a series sweep over Akron during the weekend. UK picked up midweek wins over Murray State and Eastern Kentucky. - UK has been led individually by junior infielder J.T. Riddle, who has hit .447 (21-for-47) with three doubles, one triple, one homer and 11 RBI, stealing three bases and reaching base at a .527 clip. - On the mound, UK had a 2.57 ERA in 98 innings, walking only 27 and striking out 87, with opponents hitting .255, stealing only 3-of-7 bases and UKL picking off four runners. - During the five-game week, UK got a jaw-dropping hitting performance from Reed, who drove in 15 RBI with three homers and a double during the week, batting .526 (10-for-19).
Men's tennis - Kentucky opened the 2013 SEC season by collecting two wins over No. 49 Arkansas (5-2) on Friday and No. 39 LSU (4-0) on Sunday afternoon to move to 14-2 (2-0 SEC) on the season. - Senior No. 21 Anthony Rossi upped his record to 14-1 on the season, picking up wins number 95 and 96 in his career. Rossi has now won nine consecutive straight-set matches and has also won 18 of the last 19 sets he has played. - UK won the doubles point in both matches this weekend, as the Wildcats are now 11 for 13 this season in doubles competition.
Women's tennis - The Kentucky women's tennis team went 1-1 in the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play. - After falling 4-3 at Arkansas on Friday, Kentucky traveled to Baton Rouge, La., and defeated the No. 63 Tigers 4-3. - Freshman Kirsten Lewis had a comeback win to clinch Kentucky's win over LSU, taking the No. 5 singles point 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. - Senior Jessica Stiles, sophomore Stephanie Fox and freshman Nadia Ravita all recorded singles wins in straight sets vs. LSU.
Track and field - Five Kentucky track and field athletes, four women and a man, are in position to qualify for this weekend's NCAA Indoor Championships as they own top-16 times. - The Women's Distance Medley Relay Team of Cally Macumber, Morganne Phillips, Allison Peare and Chelsea Oswald broke the school record with a time of 11:00.33 on Friday. - That time ranks No. 6 in the nation. - Keith Hayes broke the school 60-meter hurdles record with a time of 7.73 on Saturday. - That time ranks No. 9 n the nation.
Swimming and diving - The Kentucky swimming team sent several swimmers to the Bulldog Last Chance Meet this past weekend in Athens, Ga., attempting to earn qualifying times for the 2013 NCAA Championships. - Sophomore Christina Bechtel improved her time in the 100-butterfly with a 52.62, second best in program history in that event. The time likely will earn her a ticket to the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis, Ind., March 21-23. - Junior Lucas Gerotto also improved his time in the 100-backstroke while breaking his own program record in the event, finishing with a 47.19 to increase the likelihood that he is asked back for his second consecutive NCAA appearance.
Monday, March 4 Men's golf at USF Invitational (Tampa, Fla.)
Tuesday, March 5 Baseball hosts Cincinnati - 4:00 p.m. Men's golf at USF Invitational (Tampa, Fla.)
A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson were honored before UK's 78-65 Senior Day win over Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell just wasn't going to have it any other way. He was going to do everything in his power to ensure Kentucky sent A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson off with a victory in their final home game.
"I just made it very, very plain that nothing was acceptable today but victory for those kids," Mitchell said. "... Nobody wanted to be around me today if we lost."
Mitchell just believed that Mathies and Henderson had done too much for the Kentucky program not to finish up their careers on Senior Day with a victory on Sunday against Tennessee. He spent the days following his team's win at Ole Miss drilling that into the Wildcats' heads. In both their preparation and execution, players demonstrated just how clearly the message had been delivered.
"We went out there wanted to win for a purpose and they wanted to send me and B-Hen off the right way," Mathies said. "I think we definitely did that today. We came out with great energy and effort and it was just exciting to get a win in Memorial Coliseum for the last time."
Not only did the Cats get the win they all wanted, they did in a way that perfectly honored exactly how much Mathies and Henderson have meant.
First and foremost, the Cats couldn't have picked their opponent better.
The No. 10 Lady Volunteers have been atop the heap in the Southeastern Conference for as long as any current player can remember and were just days removed from clinching the conference title. Before Mathies and Henderson - who comprise the winningest class in UK history - arrived, UK had won just twice in the past 30 matchups with Tennessee. With Kentucky's 78-65 win, the Cats have now won two of the last three games in the series.
Sunday's environment was also the ideal backdrop for the sendoff. The game was announced as a sellout more than two weeks prior to Sunday and 7,965 fans - the sixth-largest crowd in building history - showed once again why Memorial Coliseum is among the toughest places in the nation for road teams to win.
Mathies and Henderson can remember the campaign they were a part of during their freshman year when a goal of 5,000 season tickets sold was the goal. Back then, a crowd like Sunday's would have been nearly unthinkable. But as the two seniors end their career with a 64-3 mark in home games, it's become the norm.
"To see fans outside with signs saying, 'I need tickets,' " Henderson said, "I would have never thought in a million years people would be outside to get tickets."
Along with Mathies and Henderson, UK's home-court advantage has played a key role many victories over the past four years, victories that have now made Mitchell the all-time winningest coach in program history. In just six seasons, Mitchell now tops the head-coaching wins list at 139.
After the game, Mathies - who had 16 points, four assists, four rebounds, four steals and two blocks -presented her coach with a special framed poster to commemorate the record. In accepting it, Mitchell said he wanted the day to be about his seniors and not himself. But in reality, it could not have been more appropriate that he should set the record on the day two players who have participated in more than 75 percent of his victories had their Senior Day.
"He's very passionate and he really loves his job and being here at Kentucky," Mathies said. "So to get a win on Senior Night, me and B-Hen's last night, against a rivalry team, I think it was meant to be and it happened."
And that doesn't even take into account what actually happened on the floor.
The career of Mathies and Henderson has coincided with a four-year period during which Mitchell's "40 minutes of dread" style of play has revolutionized UK Hoops. The Cats have used fast pace, high pressure, supreme effort and depth to overwhelm opponents and achieve success never before seen at Kentucky. In perhaps no game have those things been more in display than on Sunday.
In a game that featured 82 possessions for both teams - a high number by any standard - the Cats came at their opponent in waves. Barely four minutes in, Mitchell called for a five-for-five substitution, setting the tone for the game. Eleven different players saw time for Kentucky to just eight for Tennessee.
"We had more people to rotate," said point guard Jennifer O'Neill, who had 16 points, six rebounds and three assists. "We had more bodies so why push the tempo? I think that was the smartest thing to do."
Even though the Lady Volunteers had lost just once in SEC play prior to Sunday, they were unable to cope. By halftime, UK had forced 19 turnovers. The Cats, however, had just a four-point lead at intermission. But when Kentucky scored off a turnover on the first possession of the second half, the tone was set. UK would lead by no fewer than six points the rest of the way as Tennessee committed a season-high 31 turnovers, which led directly to 33 Kentucky points.
"I think that us just rotating and speeding them up caused them to make a lot of unforced turnovers they didn't expect to have," Mathies said. "That's just the way we play night in and night out."
The only moment from the entire day that anyone involved would like to have back came in the final minute. Looking to remove Mathies so the crowd could give her one final standing ovation, Mitchell called timeout with less than 45 seconds left. Mathies checked out, but did so during the break and the crowd was unable to cheer her properly. As a result, Mitchell had to put Mathies back in and hope there would be one more stoppage. After first pleading with his team to foul, Mitchell was told by assistant coach Matt Insell he could simply ask for a chance to substitute after a Tennessee basket. Mathies had her curtain call.
"I can't sub nearly as well as she can play," Mitchell said.
As Mathies came to the sideline, Mitchell embraced her. He delivered a simple 'thank you.'
"I told her thank you for everything she's done for this program and how proud I was of her," Mitchell said. "That's the biggest thing I can say to A'dia Mathies is, 'Thank you for coming to Kentucky and thank you for being who you've been and thank you for growing as a young woman and being a spectacular basketball player that has really injected some life in this program.' "
That's just a little too much past tense for Mathies. In reflecting on her career and thinking about what life will be like when it's over, Mathies was sure to remind herself and everyone else that she's not done putting a Kentucky uniform on just yet.
"It's definitely going to be missed, but I'm not going to dwell on it," Mathies said. "I've spent four years like everybody's going to spend four years. My time is up, but we definitely got a long season to play and we're looking forward to the rest of the season."
UK will honor A'dia Mathies - the school's all-time leading scorer - and Brittany Henderson as part of Senior Day on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
A'dia Mathies has staged an all-out assault on the Kentucky women's basketball record book during her senior season.
With one regular-season game and the postseason still ahead, Mathies is the second-leading scorer in school history with 1,883 points. She is third on UK Hoops' all-time steals list and is the only Wildcat ever with more than 1,800 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 250 steals.
When the Louisville, Ky., native set foot on campus in the summer of 2009, those statistical milestones were the last things on her mind.
"I wasn't shooting for anything when I came here," Mathies said. "I just wanted to go out there and play. The more I played, the more accolades came to me."
By simply playing, Mathies has cemented herself as one of the best players in school history due in part to the fact that she ranks in the top 10 of a remarkable 13 career lists at UK.
"She has proven it in the record books, she has proven it in the win column, she's proven it with championship performance," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She is the best player that's played here in a generation or two. You have to go back to Valerie Still to find a player that had that kind of impact."
That's where the one record Mathies really cares about comes in. As UK prepares to honor her and Brittany Henderson on Senior Day vs. Tennessee on Sunday about 20 minutes prior to a 3:30 p.m. ET tip-off, Mathies' class is the most successful in the history of UK Hoops. Mathies and Henderson have been a part of four teams that have won a total of 105 games, reached three NCAA Tournaments, two Elite Eights and established Kentucky among the nation's best.
"I think it is very humbling to be a part of something like that," Mathies said. "Just to come back and realize that it was us that was a part of that, I think it's going to mean a lot. Probably more so when we are weak, old and ran down and thinking about what we used to do. It makes me happy to say that we were a part of something special."
When Mathies and Henderson arrived, few would have forecasted that kind of success. Over the two seasons prior - Mitchell's first as head coach - the Cats went a combined 33-32 with a pair of NIT berths. Coming into 2009-10 experts predicted similar results, but they didn't know about the radical change that was taking place.
"And so the flag is placed in the ground at the moment that A'dia stepped on campus," Mitchell said. "She's not the sole reason, but that's the moment. That is absolutely the moment that it changed into something very, very different than what it was."
Coinciding with Mathies' arrival was the evolution of Victoria Dunlap into a two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. With Dunlap, Mathies and UK Hoops' new "40 minutes of dread" style of play, the Cats won 28 games and advanced to within a game of the Final Four to set the tone for what Mathies' four years as a Wildcat would be like.
"When we were being recruited, UK was a .500-level team," Mathies said. "To come in here and automatically change around the first year, we had no expectations for us. It just changed the whole culture and nature for UK basketball. I just went out there head first and it came out good and I'm glad it did."
She may not have expected the success to come so quickly, but Mathies chose Kentucky due in large part to her belief that she could play a major role in making the program a national power.
Coming from Iroquois High School in Louisville, Mathies saw what Angel McCoughtry did for the Cardinal program and was frequently asked whether she would follow in McCoughtry's footsteps. She wanted to do just that, but not by following her to U of L.
"I kind of wanted to be that person for this side: that person to change the program and make it an elite program," Mathies said. "Even though I had no expectations, we ended up doing it and I am just glad I made that decision."
Brittany Henderson has 389 points and 460 rebounds over 129 games as a Wildcat. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Particularly this season and last - when she succeeded Dunlap as SEC Player of the Year - Mathies has been the face of the program. Henderson, on the other hand, has occupied a supporting role. After starting 22 games and averaging 19.9 minutes as a sophomore and making 15 more starts as a junior, Henderson has taken a step back during her senior year with the arrival of talented post players DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker.
Walker and Stallworth are two of the five players now on the UK roster that were McDonald's All-Americans in high school. Ironically, Mitchell says her development as a player and a person is a reason why the talent level has risen and Henderson has moved into a backup role.
"Brittany came here as a very low ranked player in recruiting rankings," Mitchell said. "... But she came here unheralded and early on started developing and started working and started showing that if you came to Kentucky the coaches were going to work with you and help you develop in all areas of your life."
The Pasadena, Calif., native is talented enough to play a bigger role at many other schools, but she wants no part of the what-if game.
"I'm just glad I chose Kentucky and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world," Henderson said.
Henderson and Mathies might not harbor any thoughts about changing the past, but they certainly have goals for the limited time they still have left as Wildcats. That starts on Sunday against No. 8 Tennessee.
The Lady Volunteers may have clinched the regular-season league championship and ended UK's bid at a second straight SEC title on Thursday, but UK-Tennessee has become more of a rivalry with each passing season. That alone is significant to Mathies.
"Our freshmen year it would have just been like any other game," Mathies said. "With the program being the way it has been the last few years and us being a team that's on top, like being in the top ten in the nation and stuff like that, it means a lot. It shows a transfer between Tennessee being dominant and now you see Kentucky up there."
Finishing her Kentucky career with a win over the Lady Vols would be fitting for Mathies, but she has an even more ambitious objective in mind.
"It's definitely our goal to get to the Final Four," Mathies said. "I think that is the next step. Me and (Henderson) have been to two Elite Eights since we have been here. We want to take the next step and make it to the Final Four and actually become the elite team that we know we can be is the ultimate goal."
In fact, she has more than one goal.
"We want to win an SEC (tournament) championship, but even further than that is the goal to win a national championship and go out on top," Mathies said.
A'dia Mathies scored 34 points including the game-winning basket with 4.2 seconds left to lead UK to a home win over Tennessee last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK Hoops was hoping to be playing for all the marbles on Sunday, but it didn't work out that way,
A UK loss to LSU last weekend and pair of wins by Tennessee meant the end of the Wildcats' bid for a second Southeastern Conference regular-season title in a row. It meant the end of the possibility that the Cats might be able to clinch it on Senior Day against the Lady Volunteers.
So with their title hopes dashed, is UK primed for a letdown? Not even close. The Cats have plenty to play for.
"There are a lot of things at stake here but none more important to me than just trying to get A'dia and Brittany out of here only losing three times during their career instead of four," Matthew Mitchell said.
Mathies and Henderson make up the winningest class in UK Hoops history. They have won 105 games over their career, more than half of which (53) have come in Memorial Coliseum. The No. 10 Cats (24-4, 12-3 SEC) were unbeaten at home during their freshman and junior years and are 15-1 this season. Their record will be impressive no matter what, but it seems only right to send them off with a win.
"That's to me the biggest thing and I don't know how we could find a better place to motivate ourselves than trying to get that done," Mitchell said.
The Memorial crowd will be doing everything in its power to make that happen. UK announced the game was a sellout two weeks ago and Mitchell sees sending them home happy as going hand-in-hand with giving Mathies and Henderson a proper farewell.
"Nothing more important to me than just giving our fans who have bought every ticket that could be bought out there for this game a great, great victory for them to enjoy and also to send A'dia and Brittany off with a win," Mitchell said. "That to me is the most important about Sunday afternoon."
And that doesn't even begin to address the game's postseason implications. UK can lock down the second seed in the SEC Tournament with a win, not to mention build its NCAA resume.
"It's a very important game," Mitchell said. "No conference championship is on the line but you win this game, I would have to think we would be the top-rated team in the conference with the RPI and the polls and those things I think play some type of role in the NCAA Tournament selection and where you are seeded so a lot is riding on the game still."
Oh yeah, and it's Tennessee.
The Lady Volunteers (23-5, 14-1 SEC) have been the SEC's standard bearer for the better part of two decades and come in ranked No. 8. Guard Meighan Simmons (17.8 points per game) leads a dynamic Tennessee offense that is averaging nearly 80 points and has scored 82 points or more in four of its last five games.
"They can really score a bunch of points," Mitchell said. "They're really, really explosive offensively and just trying to find a way to see if we can slow them down on the offensive end of the court is, to me, the biggest challenge we have facing going into the game."
The challenge, however, doesn't seem nearly as insurmountable as it did just four years ago when Mathies and Henderson arrived. UK and Tennessee split their season series in 2011-12 and Mathies has a hard time thinking of a more fitting way to end her final collegiate regular season than taking on the Lady Vols in a nationally televised game.
"Our freshmen year it would have just been like any other game," Mathies said. "With the program being the way it has been the last few years and us being a team that's on top, like being in the top ten in the nation and stuff like that, it means a lot. It shows a transfer between Tennessee being dominant and now you see Kentucky up there."
A'dia Mathies will play the final SEC road game of her UK career on Thursday at Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK Hoops has a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks.
In just a few days, the Wildcats will honor A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson - the two members of the winningest class in program history - on Senior Day. Minutes later, UK will take on perennial power Tennessee in a game that has become more of a rivalry with each passing season. Not long after, the Cats will head south for the Southeastern Conference Tournament with Selection Sunday soon to follow. And at some point along the way, Matthew Mitchell will likely move into the top spot on UK's all-time head-coaching wins list.
UK's next game, however, doesn't have the glitz and glamor of others on the horizon. The Cats aren't looking at a trip to take on Ole Miss that way though.
"It's very important," Mathies said. "We need every win we can get and this is the end of the year so every game is special."
Mathies knows her days as a Wildcat are numbered. In fact, she knows the exact math on how many games she has left. That's what makes them so precious.
"We have the possibility of playing four more games or we have the possibility of playing 11 more games and being in the national championship game," Mathies said on Wednesday. "We take every game as special and getting a win tomorrow would be what we need."
The priority for No. 10 Kentucky (23-4, 11-3 SEC) when it takes on Ole Miss (9-18, 2-12 SEC) at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday is getting back in the win column. The Cats lost a disappointing 77-72 decision against a motivated LSU team on Sunday. They've had a few days to reflect on what must be improved as they prepare for a team that they expect to be similarly motivated.
"We reviewed the video of that game and there were some areas where we can improve and do better and Ole Miss I know will be motivated," Mitchell said. "It's their last home game so that's always a night where people are really motivated to do well, last night in their gym."
Specifically, Mitchell has honed in on his team's first-half defensive effort. Capitalizing on an "uncharacteristic" UK performance, LSU put up 43 points and took a nine-point lead into halftime. Mitchell said the Tigers hit multiple shots with the shot clock approaching zero, including a few they don't normally convert. That's a lesson for the Cats that they can't afford to let such things deflate them.
"You can't always just play percentages," Mitchell said. "You can do that with a game plan, but once the game gets going you have to respond and make some adjustments. We just didn't play a good half of basketball and it cost us."
It was particularly costly because - with the loss - UK ceded control of its own destiny in the conference race. The Cats now sit in a three-way tie for second place, two games behind Tennessee. Instead of needing only two wins this week to guarantee at least a share of the SEC title, the Cats now need help. If Texas A&M should be Tennessee on Thursday, many scenarios come into play - up to and including a four-way tie for the SEC championship.
The Cats are leaving all that in the hands of others though. The only thing on their mind is what they know is in front of them.
"We've thought about that and it's really up the mercy of other people so we're not really focused on that," Mathies said. "We're just going to go out there and try to get a win on Thursday and on Sunday and try to head into the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament."
That's exactly the way Mitchell wants his team thinking.
"We just told 'em it's really important now to any faint hopes that we have still come back to us winning," Mitchell said. "It's not anything that we can really obsess over or put a whole lot of energy into. We need to put energy into trying to beat Ole Miss."
If UK beats Ole Miss and Tennessee to close out the regular season, it may result in a second SEC championship in a row and it may not. That's out of the Cats' hands. That doesn't mean it's not completely up to them to decide whether they reach the rest of their goals.
"I think we're just taking steps of moving forward and trying to win every game from here on out," Mathies said. "If we do that then we'd be national champions and SEC Tournament champions and whatever else. I think that's where our focus is right now."