A Season Of Firsts Bests Describes Kentucky's 1999 season.
A season of firsts bests describes Kentucky's 1999 season. Not first place... not yet. But a season of remarkable firsts, nonetheless.
After finishing with less than 30 total wins over the four previous seasons, the Kentucky women's basketball team clawed itself into one of the premier programs in the country, charting 21 victories in a single season highlighted by wins over three nationally ranked opponents.
Among the achievements, the Cats advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament for the first time in seven years before scratching their way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a feat not accomplished by a UK women's basketball team in 17 seasons.
The 1998-99 Wildcats burst onto the scene in Honolulu at the Rainbow Wahine Classic over Thanksgiving.
"In Hawaii, I caught the first glimpse of how focused our team was on winning basketball games," Coach Mattox said. "We weren't just going to Hawaii to see the sights and compete with the other schools. We were in Hawaii to win the tournament."
And the Cats nearly did. In the first round, UK cruised by instate rival Louisville (73-62) before upsetting host Hawaii (66-57) the following day. In the finals, UK met No. 12 UCLA, owners of an unblemished record. Led by forward Laura Meadows and center Shantia Owens, the Cats trailed by only four points with 1:44 remaining in the game. UCLA would prove to be too tough, however, as the Bruins went on to win 64-54. Senior forward Jaye Barnes was named to the All-Tournament team after tallying 36 points and 17 rebounds in the three games.
The Cats also looked impressive in their second regular-season tournament, the Pizza Hut Shocker Shootout at Wichita State. After cruising by Eastern Illinois in the opening round, UK defeated the Shockers, 58-51, for the title. Barnes was awarded Most Valuable Player of the two-game tournament while teammate Tiffany Wait was selected to the All-Tournament team.
Off to a 5-1 start, the Cats began the rugged SEC race at Auburn. Facing the 19th-ranked Tigers, UK shot 40.4 percent from the floor and used an aggressive style to outrebound the Tigers, 45-42, en route to a six-point upset victory.
Kentucky's confidence continued to grow as UK completed its nonconference slate with a 10-2 record, its best start in 10 years. Even more impressive, the Cats were 7-0 on the road.
With the arrival of January came a bump in the road of UK's winning path. UK dropped a 14-point decision at No. 20 Florida. The Wildcats bounced back to defeat Vanderbilt, snapping a nine-game losing streak to their SEC rival. A few weeks later, the Cats gained revenge at home against Florida, winning 80-70, its first win over the Lady Gators in nine years.
The season of firsts continued for the Cats throughout the season. Despite dropping three consecutive SEC games in January, Coach Mattox had begun to change the team's mindset.
"The biggest thing we learned with those losses was to finish the fight," she said. "We started to survive the battles instead of letting them come back and defeat us. But we were a young team and we needed that experience to grow stronger."
Grow stronger they did. The test came in late January when another ranked team came to Lexington -- No. 18 Alabama. The Cats had not defeated the Crimson Tide since 1993 but were looking to gain some momentum heading into the grueling final month of league play.
UK used a 51-36 domination on the boards to cruise to a 76-72 win. Four Wildcats scored in double digits as guard Erica Jackson played a near-perfect game, nailing 6-of-7 shots from the floor, including 3-of-4 from three-point land, and 5-of-6 from the charity stripe. Jackson also pulled down six defensive rebounds and dished out seven assists.
Following the win over the Crimson Tide, UK played host to Coach Mattox's alma mater, eighth-ranked Georgia. Again, her Cats found themselves in similar territory, looking for their first win over the Lady Bulldogs since '93. Coach Mattox also was hoping to record her first win over a top-10 opponent and her first win over her former coach and boss Andy Landers.
Playing suffocating defense, the Cats led 45-39 at the half and went on to nail 12-of-18 free throws in the second half en route to an 80-76 upset. A nail-biting, buzzer-beating win at South Carolina followed before the Cats returned home for Senior Night and a rematch with the Lady Gamecocks. This time UK cruised, 93-65, paced by Jackson's career-high 30 points and seven steals.
With the two wins over South Carolina, UK recorded seven SEC wins, the most in school history. The Cats ended the regular season with 18 victories, the most in the Coach Mattox era and UK was on the verge of its first 20-win season in nine years.
In Chattanooga, seventh-seeded Kentucky opened SEC Tournament play against No. 10-seed Ole Miss, a team that had escaped with a three-point win over the Cats in early January. But six weeks later, when Wait and Meadows combined their offensive firepower, UK advanced with a 75-69 victory. Wait totaled 20 points and Meadows recorded her fifth career double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. It was UK's first SEC Tournament win since 1995.
In the quarterfinals against No. 2-seed and nationally ranked LSU, again Kentucky was trying to avenge a regular-season road loss. Owens and Meadows each scored a team-high 20 points while Wait chipped in 14. The Cats forced 21 Lady Tiger turnovers while converting 30-of-40 from the foul line. The 81-71 upset set up UK with a rematch against third-seeded Georgia with a chance for a trip to the league finals on the line.
At first Kentucky appeared tired after back-to-back games just to qualify for its first semifinal appearance since 1992. The Cats grabbed the early lead before Georgia began capitalizing on the leg-weary Cats. The Dawgs' Coco Miller dominated, scoring 27 points to lead UGA to its first SEC Tournament Championship game in six years. Wait countered with 19 points, but was the only Wildcat to register double figures.
Despite the loss, UK returned to Lexington dreaming of postseason play. Not since 1990 had UK appeared in the NCAA Tournament.
When the draw was made, UK was the No. 6 seed in the West Region and were Hollywood-bound. Awaiting the Cats in California was a Nebraska team Coach Mattox knew all too well. UK had lost to the Cornhuskers, 68-59, in the finals of the Nebraska Cablevision Classic a year ago.
Early in the game, the Cats were ice cold as the 11th-seeded Cornhuskers took a comfortable 42-34 halftime lead. However, the inexperienced Cats wasted no time in changing the momentum. After being held scoreless in the first half, Jackson poured it on, leading five Wildcats in double figures with a game-high 18 points. The Cats shucked the Huskers, 98-92, chalking up a record 64-second half points, the most points in a half scored in the first or second rounds of the West Regional. Kentucky also tied the regional record with 31 made free throws and the 40 free throw attempts tied for the third-highest total ever recorded.
Awaiting in the second round of the NCAA Tournament was UCLA, again. Playing on the Bruins' home floor at Pauley Pavilion, the Cats struggled, falling behind by 10 at halftime. UCLA's All-American center, Maylana Martin, had her way with the Cats, totaling 21 points and 12 rebounds, including a perfect 15-of-15 from the foul line. UK returned home after suffering an 87-63 loss.
But for the first time in nearly two decades, the Wildcats future had been stoked with high hopes and a rekindled spirit.
First place could be next.