A'dia Mathies scored a game-high 19 points in UK's 75-67 loss to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament championship game. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
You could tell at the postgame press conference just how much this one stung.
Matthew Mitchell and his Kentucky women's basketball team set out from the beginning of the 2013 Southeastern Conference Tournament to win it - and even before that in reality. He and his team were excited about the opportunity, their third try over the last four seasons, in the championship game. But like the others, they fell just short.
In the 75-67 defeat at the hands of the Texas A&M Aggies, UK did not deliver the type of effort that Mitchell and his staff expected.
"We're just disappointed," said Mitchell. "We've been here three out of the last four years, haven't been able to get a victory. It's very, very disappointing."
Kentucky's head coach was quick to give the Aggies praise, and it was well-deserved. After losing four of out of their last five in the regular season, Texas A&M mounted an impressive run in the SEC Tournament. The Aggird took down three consecutive ranked teams on the way to the tournament title, first defeating No. 17 South Carolina in the quarterfinals, No. 9 Tennessee in the semis and then No. 7 Kentucky to cap off the university's first-ever SEC championship and avenge their two regular-season losses to the Wildcats in the process.
While Texas A&M's performance was impressive, Mitchell and his athletes felt that they left their opportunity to win the championship in the locker room rather than on the floor.
After Kentucky had struggled in the first half against Georgia and scored just 19 points, the Cats mounted a monumental effort in the second half to win comfortably to advance to the title game, outscoring the Lady Bulldogs 41-14. It would be essential for the Wildcats to deliver a complete performance to win only the program's second tournament title in its history and its first since 1982.
They got off to a strong start, hanging tough with the suddenly hot Aggies. Kentucky forced center Kelsey Bone into foul trouble and got her out of the game early. From there, the Cats battled late and managed to grab a 36-34 advantage at the half led by Jennifer O'Neill and DeNesha Stallworth who managed nine and eight points respectively to lead the way.
Kentucky had managed to play a strong first half and withstand the first blow from the surging Aggies.
The first half was frenetic and chaotic. Up and down each team went and the Wildcats looked to continue to use their depth to stay fresh and wear the Aggies down. Texas A&M never slowed up, even with Bone out early, as Karla Gilbert stepped in and performed admirably in her absence.
But it was Bone in the second half that brought about the end to Kentucky's title hopes.
"You really have to have a good team effort to guard her. We did that very effectively at in College Station," said Mitchell. "But if you let her get that close to the rim, she's going to have a big day on you. She certainly did."
Kentucky's defense did fine on her in the first half, limiting her to just four points in eight minutes. The second half, as it was for UK Saturday night against Georgia, was a different story.
Bone dominated the interior, scoring 18 points with 15 rebounds and four assists on her way to SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. There was seemingly nothing the Wildcats could do to stop her, though fellow all-tournament team selection and senior Kentucky guard A'dia Mathies felt otherwise.
"I think our posts did an OK job of trying to push her off the block," said Mathies. "It was up to us guards and other posts to swarm her today. She got a lot of deep positions and easy buckets."
Mathies performed as well as could be expected of an SEC Player of the Year playing in her final SEC Tournament game. She finished the night with a game-high 19 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two assists against the Aggies and was named to her third SEC All-Tournament Team (2010, 2012, 2013).
Despite the loss and the disappointment, Kentucky still has plenty to play for going forward. The Cats are currently projected as a two seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament - Selection Monday is set for March 18 on ESPN - and they have a chance to avenge themselves to play for something even greater.
For now, however, it's back to the drawing board.
"When you want something really bad, you come up short, the pain is there," said sophomore guard Bria Goss who finished with nine points in the loss. "But I'm just going to use this pain as motivation to get better for the tournament because we got a lot more basketball to play. We're just going to use this game as a learning tool and try to move forward with it."
Mathies' disappointment was due to the fact that her team did not live up to its own expectations. The team motto of "40 Minutes" has appeared all over UK Hoops posters, t-shirts, and throughout various social media platforms. She didn't think Kentucky brought that full 40 minutes of effort to The Arena at the Gwinnett Center floor Sunday night.
"It's just disappointing because we know we had the capabilities to win this game," said Mathies. "We didn't come out there and play for 40 minutes like we should have. We are going to use this game to move forward because we're not going to let this game define our season."
What Kentucky does plan to do is regroup and take what they learned and how they feel after this loss and put it towards a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. Though the Cats haven't had much time to digest the loss, they are already looking forward to learning from this missed opportunity.
"Just come out when you're on the floor, don't take any second for granted, play like it's your last game, like it's the last opportunity you have," said Goss. "We just gave away an opportunity."
"We need to be sharper and focused throughout the whole game," Mathies said. "We can't have mental lapses. We need to make every four-minute segment like our last. We didn't do that tonight, but we're definitely going to do that moving forward."
With now a full week of practice ahead of them until they even find out who, where and when it will play in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky will look to recapture the energy, focus and desire it lacked Sunday night. No matter what it takes, Mitchell, who assumed much of the blame for Kentucky's poor shot selection and inability to control the lane, will make sure he does all in his power to make sure the Cats are prepared when they tipoff in the first round of the Big Dance so that they don't have to feel experience the sting of a loss again any time soon.
"A large majority of the season we've been really tough," Mitchell said. "I think what I'll try to do is figure out the best way to get our team in position to be ready to play in the NCAA Tournament. If I can affect the toughness, bring that out of them, great. If it's what we have, I have to figure out on a day like today, I need to do a better job of being able to help them get some baskets."
DeNesha Stallworth's 12 second half points led UK to the SEC Tournament Championship set for Sunday evening at 6 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Apparently Kentucky women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell delivered one spirited halftime message to his team Saturday night, as the Wildcats trailed Georgia in the SEC Tournament semifinal, 24-19. Whatever was said, it got Kentucky's full and undivided attention.
"I don't think I can say what Coach said in the locker room," said senior guard A'dia Mathies as she and the media laughed.
The first half was ugly. There's no denying that.
Kentucky came out flat and Georgia took it right to the Cats. They had greater energy, determination and focus. Bulldog players crashed the glass, grabbing offensive rebound after offensive rebound, while UK took punch after punch. Despite a lackluster first 20 minutes, the Wildcats only face a five-point halftime deficit.
Kentucky was lucky it wasn't worse. Georgia was abysmal from the 3-point line, making only one shot from beyond the arc all evening. Meanwhile, forward Jasmine Hassell was wearing out Kentucky post defenders, scoring 15 first-half points, mostly off of offensive stick backs.
The offensive rebounds were killing Kentucky, and Mitchell knew it.
"I just wrote the number 12 on the board and the number three on the board," said Mitchell about his halftime message. "Georgia had 12 offensive rebounds and we had three; I thought Georgia played with so much more intensity and desire in the first half. I was just livid about that."
Kentucky's guard play also suffered through the first stanza. Point guard Jennifer O'Neill did not appear to be the same player from a night prior where she scored eight points with a pair of assists. She struggled to get Kentucky into its offense, turned the ball over and lacked the energy she had brought against Vanderbilt, managing just a point while turning it over four times in 15 minutes.
She wasn't alone, however. Mitchell wasn't pleased with anyone. They only had 19 points at the break and with their mission to win an SEC Tournament Championship on the line, he wasn't about to let that first-half trend continue.
So he let his players hear about it.
"We came down here believing we had a chance to win this tournament," said Mitchell. "(It's) just really unacceptable not to compete at a high level. "We just talked really about... sort of had a rollcall at halftime and talked to some individual people that were acting like it was no big deal."
The second half Wildcats did resemble the team that steamrolled Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals. In fact, UK dominated Georgia in the second half. The Bulldogs really never stood a chance.
Kentucky's depth was a critical component to its victory on Friday night over the Commodores, but it was also Friday night's depth that gave UK's starters plenty of rest to allow them to keep energy in reserve for the Cats' second half dismantling of a suddenly bewildered Georgia squad.
The Wildcats second-half response was so impressive that their 41 points in the second half would have been enough to defeat Georgia alone as UK's defense managed to hold the Bulldogs to 14 points over the final 20 minutes. Saturday evening's semifinal final score of 60-38 could not have better illustrated a Jekkyl and Hyde performance, and that goes for both teams.
While Georgia may have outplayed the Cats in the first half, it's quite possible the Lady Bulldogs left everything they had on the floor in the initial 20 minutes. When the second half rolled around, the Dogs were panting while the Cats had plenty left in the tank.
"We use our depth as an advantage every game," said Mathies. "We weren't hustling in the first half. We were only down by like four or five points. In the second half, it really changed. It shows what we do when we're out there hustling, focused, having fun."
Not only was the message loud and clear for Kentucky going into the second frame, but the Cats executed the plan quite flawlessly. They made defensive adjustments and players took their halftime criticisms in stride.
O'Neill responded just as Mitchell hoped she would. In UK's previous three losses in the SEC, Mitchell pinned a lot of the blame on his point guard. O'Neill didn't back down from the challenge, and it was evident from the first whistle after halftime that she was dialed in.
Less than a minute into the first half, O'Neill rose up and buried a 3-pointer in front of the UK bench to cut the deficit to four. It was then her layup at the 17:18 mark that tied things up at 26, and Kentucky never trailed from there.
She would finish with nine points (eight in the second half) with four assists, three rebounds and a steal in 30 minutes of action as she set the tone and guided Kentucky to a 41-point outburst in the second half
"The second half Jennifer is the one I think is the best point guard in this league," said Mitchell. "I think we are a very dangerous team when we can have her playing the way she did in the second half. She's a terrific player right now, at least she was in the second half today."
Defensively, Kentucky made terrific strides with its post defense Saturday night. While Hassell dominated the first half, UK defenders made her disappear in the second. Mitchell ran defender after defender on her, from DeNesha Stallworth to Samarie Walker to Azia Bishop, and their physicality just beat her down.
Throughout the second half, Hassell caught the ball farther and farther away from the basket and UK post defenders pushed her off the block. She was tired of battling in the paint as Kentucky defenders completely took her out of the game.
"Just playing more physical," said Stallworth. "Just not staying behind her and letting her always go right, have it her way. (We) Definitely played her tougher, more ball pressure helped. We did it as a team."
While Hassell went dormant, Stallworth ignited her game in the second half. With a game-high 18 points, two-thirds of the junior's scoring came in the second 20 minutes as UK poured it on.
It only took the first six minutes, as UK built its lead to eight, to have a pretty strong feeling that Georgia was merely a speed bump on UK's road to the SEC championship game against Texas A&M on Sunday at p.m. ET.
After all, that's what Kentucky came to Duluth, Ga., in the first place. If Kentucky gives two halves equal to its second-half effort against Georgia, UK could walk away with their coveted SEC championship.
"The thing that's sweet about it is having a chance and opportunity tomorrow," said Mitchell. "You can't imagine how much respect I have for the Georgia program and Coach (Andy) Landers, who is one of the best absolute coaches of all time, has been a great, great source of wisdom for me over the years. We have tremendous respect for Georgia's team.
"It's only sweet not because of the opponent, but because our kids got it together at halftime and are now giving themselves an opportunity to win a championship we want very badly."
A'dia Mathies finished with a game-high 16 points as UK advanced to the semifinals of the 2013 SEC Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It didn't take long to realize what Kentucky's greatest advantage was over a Vanderbilt squad which had come off a hard-fought first-round victory over Missouri a day earlier. The UK women's basketball came out aggressive and energetic from the tip.
The Wildcats jumped out to an early 8-2 lead and already had Vanderbilt wondering what hit them. As they tried to regroup with a timeout at the 16:47 mark in the first half, Mitchell threw a wrench in any plans the Commodores tried to conjure up in the huddle.
Waiting at the table and entering the game was a completely new collection of five players waiting as the Commodores came back to the court. Sticking with essentially the same lineup that Vandy started the game with, UK had five sets of fresh legs looking to continue to apply the same pressure.
Just over two minutes later and only one point allowed, the starters were back in. All five of them.
Though Kentucky mixed and matched here and there, the plan going in to the game was to make fatigue on the opposing end a serious factor by unleashing its unmatched depth.
"I thought the start was very good for us," said Mitchell. "We wanted to have a fast start. We wanted to use the energy of the second five coming in fresh, almost like they were starting the game. We talked about that before the game. That was the plan,"
Mitchell talked to the media after practice Thursday afternoon and spoke to the importance of their depth, specifically in the post. While DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker have been starting all season long and received the bulk of the minutes Friday night, Mitchell gave Azia Bishop and Samantha Drake extensive playing time on the evening. The longer they were on the court, the more they produced. The more they produced, the longer the starters could rest.
Bishop and Drake finished with nine points apiece with Drake tying her season-high output. For the duo, it may have been they're most impressive performance of the year.
"Gosh, I just thought they played beautifully," said Mitchell. "I thought it was probably their best game, too, as a tandem. Many times they came in and spelled Samarie and DeNesha. I thought we got tremendous production from them."
While Drake and Bishop were out the floor, Stallworth was taking a breather after posting 12 of her 14 points in the first half. Her explosive half combined with A'dia Mathies' 11 points and five steals helped UK get off to that ever-important fast start.
While UK continued to build the lead, which once reached to 22 points, the Cats stayed fresh and rotated as often as they could. Ten players accumulated at least 12 minutes of action Friday night in the quarterfinal matchup, while no one player recorded more than 26 minutes of playing time.
That formula could spell success for Kentucky looking forward to Saturday night's game against Georgia. However, in a tournament format, Mitchell knows anything can happen.
"In theory it should be great," Mitchell said. "I have been to a lot of these tournaments and I don't think you can make any guarantees. If our players will recognize that we're stronger when all of us come together and really give great effort, I think that it can be a great factor."
The greatest trait Kentucky's "40 minutes of dread" brings to the table is relentless defense. Not only was UK able to beat Vanderbilt up and down the floor with fresh legs, the Cats could trap, stay in front of their opponents, get deflections and had a bit more spring in their step to block shots.
Kentucky's greatest friend statistically was the turnover.
The Wildcats used 14 steals to help force 23 Vanderbilt turnovers and as a result scored 24 points off of takeaways. Kentucky also broke the single-season blocks record as the Cats swatted eight shots on the night to give them 154 for the year.
Meanwhile, UK played a relatively clean game, and despite 14 turnovers themselves, saw some of their best point-guard play of the season as UK finished with 15 assists.
"I thought our two point guards really did an outstanding job tonight, Jennifer (O'Neill) and Janee (Thompson), one of the best games we've had them as a tandem," said Mitchell. "I thought they were pretty relentless with pushing the basketball. That was something we wrote on the board before the game, we wanted to be relentless in this game."
And so they were. From beginning to end, the Wildcats were noticeably fresher, faster, and stronger throughout the evening and Vanderbilt could never get in reach. They had cut the deficit to 11 at 41-30, but Kentucky was just too much to handle on this night.
Mathies proved to be a handful, as she has so many times over her illustrious four years as a Wildcat. Though UK's depth may have been the difference Friday night, it was Mathies who got UK going early and hit big shots at key points all evening that kept the momentum rolling.
The Co-SEC Player of the Year finished the night with a game-high 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting. She was extremely efficient while also dedicating herself to the other aspect of the game. She finished with five steals - all in the first half - and had two blocks and two assists in her 26 minutes of play.
Looking to go out as an SEC champion on Sunday, she was pleased with her team's start that began with a 76-65 win over Vanderbilt to continue its mission to win the tournament crown.
"We just played 40 minutes with fresh legs," said Mathies. "I think that played a huge factor tonight. When we can have two people running down the court instead of one person, it's going to take a toll on 'em for the last minutes. I think we (were) getting great post ups, making good plays, especially defensively we (were) getting big stops. I'm proud of our effort."
Some of you may have written this season off, but Joe B. Hall knows a team can still come to life after most have left it for dead.
In 1985, Kentucky lost three of its last five regular-season games and then lost its first game in the SEC Tournament to put the Wildcats squarely on the bubble, long before that word came to be used.
But the NCAA Selection Committee picked UK for the field and Kentucky proceeded to upset Washington and ninth-ranked UNLV before falling to St. John's in Hall's final game.
John Calipari's message to his team last night was, "Beat Florida and this all goes away" and he's right. Now, the Wildcats just have to do it.
Mathies leading UK Hoops into postseason
After two runs to the Elite Eight, is this the best chance the UK women's basketball team has had to get to a Final Four?
"They have a lot more depth - usable, quality depth, that can play the style that Matthew (Mitchell) wants to play," Jen Smith said on "The Leach Report" radio show. She covers the team for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"And they have a chip on their shoulder about not winning the SEC championship. They have a swagger and a quiet confidence about them, and they really want to win an SEC Tournament championship," she added, "because that's something (the seniors) haven't been able to do."
A'dia Mathies is already one of the best ever in this program's history, but leading UK to its first Final Four would put her on even higher pedestal.
"I've covered her since she was in seventh grade and she still plays the same way, she has the same demeanor. It's been amazing to watch her grow into this star player," Smith observed. "I still feel like I know nothing about (her). She's quick-witted and she's interesting but she's extremely quiet. Her nickname is 'The Silent Assassin,' and that's what she is."
Cats need Harrow, Goodwin
When one looks back at the box score from Kentucky's loss at Florida last month, the guard numbers jump out. Ryan Harrow was scoreless in 19 minutes and he and Archie Goodwin combined for eight points and six of UK's 17 turnovers.
In Florida, Kentucky will face arguably the league's best defensive team. When it comes to forcing turnovers, the Gators make the opponent give up the ball on 22.9 percent of its possessions, which is second highest in the SEC. And Florida is a runaway leader in defensive efficiency, allowing only 0.845 points per possession (which also ranks second nationally).
One matchup that the Gators would seem to have difficulty with would be Alex Poythress - provided the freshman plays like he did against Missouri. At Florida, Kentucky tried going to Poythress, but he missed eight of his nine field goal attempts.
In the win over Missouri, Coach Cal credited the crowd with having a big impact on the outcome and Big Blue Nation will need to "bring it" tomorrow, too. Kentucky has lost only three times in its final home game of the season since 1964. One of those losses came at the hands of Florida in 2006.
Lunardi offers tweaks to NCAA selection process
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi is a numbers guy, constantly analyzing the data this time of year to project what the NCAA Selection Committee will do. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lunardi would like to see the committee take more numbers into consideration, and not put quite as much weight on a team's RPI.
"I would include more of them than the RPI. I think they all measure different things and the things measured are things of value if taken correctly," Lunardi in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show. "There are outliers. Sometimes logic plays into it. It's the same thing for the other side, with the more performance-based metrics (like kenpom.com). You have to spot the outliers."
If Lunardi had Coach Cal's proverbial "magic wand" to shape the selection and seeding process any way he wanted, Lunardi would put great emphasis on how a team does in its league.
"I would pass this rule without discussion: You would have to be tournament-eligible by being at least .500 in your league, as a way of making the conference season a little more important," he adding that league tournament performance would also be included.
"If you are 7-9 in your league and you count conference tournament games and you make the conference final and lose and you're 9-9 or 10-10, you are back to being tournament eligible. It would add a tremendous amount to those Thursday and Friday games between the teams that finished down on the standings and I think history shows it would open up one or two spots a year in the at-large pool for the Drexels, who win 29 games and get excluded," Lunardi continued. "History shows that time after time teams that have won a lot from high quality non-BCS leagues almost always perform better in the tournament than what I would call the middling majors from the bigger leagues. Winning 27 or 28 games in those leagues is pretty good and we forget that winning begets winning."