UK Happy at Home, Not Relying on Home-Court Advantage

Makayla Epps put the hard sell on Thursday morning.

Asked about the kind of crowd she expects for Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game against Washington in Rupp Arena, Epps didn’t sit on the fence.

“It's a Friday night, 7 p.m.” Epps said. “What else could people in Lexington possibly be doing? So I'm encouraging everybody to come out.”

It’s a rare and earned privilege for a team to play in front of its home fans at this stage of the NCAA Tournament. Janee Thompson appreciates that.

“I think it will be electric,” Thompson said. “It's always fun when we come here. We've been here a few times this year and the fans really come out and support us. We've got the best fans in the country. It will be exciting when we finally get out there and we make some plays and get the crowd going.”

Matthew Mitchell can picture it, UK (25-7) in the midst of a big run and fans going wild. It’s an exciting scenario and one Kentucky has worked hard for – both this season as a team and two years ago as an athletics department in the regional bidding process – but it still guarantees nothing.

“Well, if we play well, it will be a lot more fun for everybody, but the home court didn't do much for us last year versus Dayton, so (home) court doesn't really do it for you,” Mitchell said. “Didn't do much for Arizona State. Didn't do much for Maryland. I mean, you have to play.”

UK’s opponent is proof that.

The Huskies (24-10) are the team that took down second-seeded Maryland on its home floor last weekend and boast an 8-4 road record on the season.

“I think when we get on the road we eliminate a whole lot of distractions that you have at home,” UW head coach Mike Neighbors said. “You see your surroundings; you've got a lot of friends there. When you get on the road, it's a really small travel group. I think this group is a really tight-knit. We've had a cool vibe about our team all year long, and it's turned out that's what it is.”

Interestingly, Mitchell is trying to manufacture that effect for his own team.

Both last week for the first and second rounds and this week for regionals, the Wildcats moved off campus and are staying at a hotel. 

“The environment and the atmosphere, it's like a road game, so there are no distractions,” Thompson said. “It's almost like we're away until we get out on the court.”

But when the Cats do take the floor, most fans in Rupp will be wearing blue. They certainly were last weekend in Memorial Coliseum.

“They were phenomenal crowds,” Mitchell said. “It was a great, great energy in the building, and I would expect that it's going to be a great energy in the building. We've worked hard the last couple weeks to try to make people aware that the game is here.”

Mitchell is referencing the fact that lower-level tickets are still available (they can be purchased at NCAA.com/WBBtickets) and clearly wants as big a crowd as possible. After all, the Cats have a chance to advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday and then play for the first Final Four berth in school history. 

“I would love to go to a Final Four,” Mitchell said. “That's been a goal of our program and a dream of all of ours, and we believe we're going to do it one day and we hope it's this year. But it won't be because the Rupp Arena floor jumps up and makes any baskets or has -- the building won't get it done for us. The players will, and that's how we're trying to approach this.”

Those players are right there with him.

“It doesn't matter where we're playing,” Thompson said. “We've got to go out there and make plays and do what we're supposed to do and outwork Washington to win the game.”