Mark Story: UK's blowout of Auburn a nice warmup for Monday's Tennessee game

Mitchell's club will soon find out how good it really is

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 4, 2011 

Matthew Mitchell pondered the question for just a millisecond.

On a scale of zero and Armageddon, where does No. 16 Kentucky's Monday evening showdown with No. 5 Tennessee rank?

Pounding the table for mock emphasis, Mitchell said with a smile "gotta go with Armageddon. This is big. Game of the Century."

OK, maybe not.

But it is going to be big.

Turning in its best all-around game of the season, Kentucky obliterated Auburn 69-38 Thursday night before 6,003 fans in Memorial Coliseum. It was the largest margin of victory ever for the Wildcats in an SEC contest.

Now, at long last, the game every Wildcats women's basketball follower has had circled since the UK Hoops schedule was announced is at hand.

Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols — more old money than the Astors and the absolute gold standard of SEC women's basketball — are coming to town.

We'll get a measuring stick on whether the rejuvenated Kentucky women's hoops program is a legitimate threat to Tennessee's lengthy reign as the queens of Southeastern Conference hoops.

Said Auburn Coach Nell Fortner: "I think it is going to be a great game. A great game."

If you're going into The Game of your regular-season schedule, you want to do it as Kentucky is. The Cats put on an absolute clinic against an Auburn team that had won 12 of its prior 16 games and came to Lexington tied (with UK and Georgia) for second in the SEC.

On offense, Kentucky's ball movement was more crisp than a freshly opened can of Pringles. Of 24 made field goals, the Cats had assists on 16. This was especially noteworthy because neither of UK's stars — Victoria Dunlap (3-for-11) and A'dia Mathies (3-for-10) — shot well.

Even more impressive was the swarming Kentucky defense. Pressing from the opening tip, UK (18-4, 7-2) rattled Auburn and forced the Tigers into a whopping 28 turnovers.

Auburn senior guard Alli Smalley said not even the Tigers' male practice players could match Kentucky's in-your-face defensive style.

"They pressed us one end to the other. They simulated it pretty well," Smalley said of the Auburn practice unit. "But it still wasn't anything like we saw out there tonight."

Now Kentucky gets a shot at the Lady Vols.

A year ago, in UK's magic carpet ride of a season that began with the Cats picked to finish 11th in the SEC and ended one win short of the Final Four, Kentucky faced Tennessee twice.

In a game that essentially decided the SEC regular-season crown, UT buried UK 81-65 at Knoxville. In a rematch in the finals of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky had chances but fell 70-62.

This season, Tennessee (21-2, 9-0) will come to Lexington with a two-game conference lead in the loss column. To have any realistic chance of catching the Orange in the league race, Kentucky has to win.

Can the scrambling UK defense rattle a Lady Vols unit that leads the SEC in scoring (80.2 ppg) yet is averaging only 15.7 turnovers a game?

"Tennessee is very good," Fortner said. "They're a top-five team and I think that's exactly right. They've got depth also."

Kentucky will get its chance to go toe-to-toe with the SEC women's basketball uber-program on the national stage that is an ESPN2 broadcast.

Said Mathies: "We're looking forward to the challenge."

We're also going to learn something about UK fans Monday night. In the past when Tennessee visits, there's been an awful lot of orange in the stands and a lot of Lady Vols reverence.

This time, Kentucky has a team that deserves a Memorial Coliseum filled with blue and rocking as it did when Ray Mears used to visit Adolph Rupp.

"I think it will be all blue," Dunlap said. "I believe in our fans. I expect them to be here and a lot of them to be here."

It may not be Armageddon.

"But it is a big game, no question about it," Mitchell said.

This is going to be fun.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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