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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) 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."

Video: UK Hoops reacts to tournament selection

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UK Hoops will learn its seed and path in the NCAA Tournament on Monday at 7 p.m. The Wildcats will watch the Selection Show -- which will air on ESPN -- in Memorial Coliseum at a party open to the public.

Afterward, Matthew Mitchell and select players will speak with the media about UK's draw. Watch live video of the press conferences below beginning at approximately 8:15:

Mitchell


Players


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK began building toward that moment exactly a month before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video: UK Hoops' pre-SEC final Cat Walk

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Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper combined for 22 points in UK's SEC semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper combined for 22 points in UK's SEC semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Before each game, Matthew Mitchell writes his three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline on Kentucky's locker-room white board.

At least for one day, Mitchell added a fourth.

"Dang near everything he wrote on the board had 'attack' by it and that's what we had to do," Makayla Epps said.

With Kentucky set for a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal showdown with top-seeded and fifth-ranked South Carolina on Saturday, Mitchell didn't want two previous defeats at the hands of the Gamecocks on the Wildcats' minds. He didn't want his team to be overwhelmed by the stage.

He only wanted them to go, go, go.

"That was the word that we wanted to rule the day for us," Mitchell said. "Don't worry about the outcome, the result, just get in attack mentality and stay there."

Based on Saturday's performance, Mitchell may want to make attack a white-board fixture.

UK blitzed South Carolina, using a 12-0 run to take an early 10-point lead. In spite of being throttled by the Gamecocks (27-5) at home barely two weeks ago, the Cats (24-7) led by no fewer than six from that point forward in a 68-58 win, their fourth over a top-10 opponent this season.

"I thought you saw a heavy dose of that early in the game," Mitchell said. "We were able to sustain it for 40 minutes. It was really impressive. I'm extremely proud of the players. This is a great effort."

A great effort headlined by two players who didn't need to be told twice to attack.

A month ago, Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps weren't sure from game to game what their roles would be. The two McDonald's All-Americans would play single-digit minutes one game, then score double-digit points the next.

Now, with UK using more zone defense and less full-court press to adjust for their strengths and weaknesses at this early point of their career, Harper and Epps are featured pieces in the UK backcourt in their first postseason.

"Some freshmen don't get the opportunity to play at all," Epps said. "Some freshmen have to wait 'til their sophomore year to even go out there and touch the court. But me and Linnae getting the opportunity to go out there and play is real encouraging to us."

They are taking full advantage.

Harper scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a career-high 27 minutes, adding five rebounds, two assists and a block. She was confident both shooting from mid-range and driving to the basket. She got to the line repeatedly, though she missed four of her six attempts.

"You know, I thought she was sort of a great example of the entire team," Mitchell said. "We played with a tremendous amount of poise and toughness. We got down to the last seconds of shot clocks a few times and made buckets."

Had UK not coupled that poise with the attacking mentality Mitchell was demanding, Saturday's win likely doesn't happen at all. Facing a South Carolina defense undisputedly among the best in the nation, the Cats didn't concede any possessions.

When chances early in the shot clock were there, UK took them. When they weren't, UK was content to run its offense in locking up a place in Sunday's SEC Tournament final at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN against third-seeded Tennessee (26-5).

"We were very patient and we used the clock to our advantage," Harper said. "So we just took our time, ran our sets, stayed focus and had poise."

Most often, it was Epps' setting the tone at point guard. She played the position throughout her 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and dishing out two assists. Epps has come a long way since the eight-game stretch in SEC play during which she didn't score a point as she bounced between the post and the perimeter.

"Whenever he had me at three, four -- especially the four -- I was really out of sync," Epps said. "But I was doing what the team needed me to do and now he's got trust in me to play the point guard like I did in high school."

In a happy -- though not celebratory, at least not yet -- postgame locker room, Epps was told UK had just five turnovers as a team. At first, she misunderstood and thought five was her individual total before pausing to clarify. Told the amount -- fewest of the Mitchell era -- was for the whole team, Epps was slightly astonished.

"Whoa, now that's something," Epps said.

When you consider UK played two freshmen a combined 52 minutes in the backcourt, it's something indeed. It also has a lot to do with the bond Epps and Harper have built in short order.

"The connection we have already is just crazy," Epps said. "I basically just met her in August and then at (the) McDonald's (All-American game), but the way we click now is crazy. I feel I've been playing with her for years."

"Our chemistry is just there," Harper said. "So it was fun. But at the same time, it was business too. We had to take care of business, do what we were supposed to do and we came out on top."

Not long ago, the thought of UK taking down the SEC champion and advancing to the league tournament final would have seemed as farfetched as the idea of Epps and Harper playing such important roles. Now, the Cats are making their share of March Madness noise and intent on making more.

"It shows a lot about our character on and off the court," Harper said. "We don't really dwell on the past. We just focus on now and we still have a month left of basketball to play, so we're just worried about us now and just still practicing every day to get better."

UK, Tennessee set to face off in final

Immediately after UK's upset of South Carolina, Tennessee closed its semifinal matchup with Texas A&M on an 11-2 run en route to an 86-77 win over the Aggies. Isabelle Harrison had 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead the way.

"It was a battle and it was a grind," Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said.

UK claimed the lone regular-season matchup between the two rivals on Feb. 16, 75-71, the Cats' first win in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985.

"That was our goal, to get to the finals," Warlick said. "And then get an opportunity to play Kentucky, who beat us on our home floor..

Kentucky and Tennessee last matchup in the postseason in 2011, when the Lady Volunteers claimed the SEC Tournament championship with a 90-65 win over Kentucky.

 

Recent Comments

  • Brian: Funny that Stoops said they got outplayed but forgot to mention that he and his staff were also out coached... read more
  • William Bagshaw: The Kentucky Madness was a failure for the fans that was not on court. This was useless to put on read more
  • justin: Poythress is a straight beast. read more
  • John Lee: On the article, it says "early in the fourth quarter," but it should be 'first' instead..because we only trailed early read more
  • Hugh Jones: We'll be in Memorial and Rupp for all your games. Love you gals! Go Cats! read more
  • Ryan: This is intense, I've never seen a live blog like this, keep up the good work! read more
  • Ryan: Watching this guy is really inspiring. Makes me have faith that guys like him are running the show on the read more
  • Tom Roosa: I just have 1 question, do you think that this team has the chance to have a great year? They read more
  • steve crum: Glad to see Coach Stoops get rewarded for all the time and hard work he puts in to our read more
  • Brian M.: Helluva game, guys! The D was shaky most of the night, but stepped up huge in the clutch. Towles, Kemp read more