It's no SEC women's title fight, but Cats-Vols still has luster

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 2, 2013 

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Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell directed his team in the second half Thursday, when the Wildcats came back and beat Texas A&M, 65-62. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

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  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday

    Records: UT 23-5 (14-1 SEC); UK 24-4 (12-3)

    Series: UT leads 49-8

    Last meeting: Tennessee won 91-54 on Feb. 13, 2012, at Knoxville

    TV/radio: ESPN, WLAP-AM 630

Just a couple of weeks ago, Sunday's game looked like a title fight in the making for Tennessee and Kentucky.

It looked to be a heavyweight bout for the Southeastern Conference championship between two top-10 teams. But an unlikely UK loss and six straight wins for the Lady Vols changed that storyline.

Instead, No. 8 Tennessee wrapped up its regular-season conference title on its home court Thursday night.

But don't tell Coach Matthew Mitchell or his team there's nothing on the line for No. 10 Kentucky.

A title bout it's not, but the already sold-out game at Memorial Coliseum still has big implications.

"It's a very important game," Mitchell said of Sunday's ESPNU game. "No conference championship is on the line, but you win this game, I would have to think we would be the top-rated team in the conference with the RPI and the polls. Those things play some type of role in the NCAA Tournament selection and where you are seeded. So a lot is riding on the game still."

There's even more than that on the line for Kentucky (24-4, 12-3 SEC).

It's Senior Day in Lexington for A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson, the winningest class in school history. They are 105-28 in four seasons at UK, including 63-3 at home.

"It's going to be a really remarkable run that those two kids have had during their four years at Kentucky," Mitchell said. "We tried to place a big emphasis on protecting the home court during their career."

Mathies, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, will go down as one of the top players to wear the Kentucky jersey, ranking in the top 10 of 13 career lists, including No. 2 in scoring (1,883), third in steals (299) and fifth in three-pointers (161).

She is the first player in school history, men or women, to compile more than 1,800 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 250 steals.

This game may not be for a title, but what would it mean to Mathies to end her Memorial Coliseum career with a victory?

"It would mean everything," the guard from Louisville said. "We have put a lot of work into what we do. We've run plenty of suicides and around the stadium, so I think to go out with a win against an elite team like Tennessee on our last game, it would mean everything. I think that's what we are going to be playing for."

They also will be playing for Mitchell, who will become Kentucky's all-time winningest coach with a victory over the Lady Vols, who have not lost since being upset at Missouri on Feb. 3.

Tennessee (23-5, 14-1) knows it's in for a fight, and the Volunteers may be fighting with one hand tied behind their back. In the title-clinching victory on Thursday, starting point guard Ariel Massengale (8.2 points, 4.8 assists) and forward Isabelle Harrison (9.5 points, 7.8 rebounds) both went down with right knee injuries.

They had MRI scans on Friday, but there's no word from Tennessee on whether they'll play. Harrison and Massengale were walking on crutches Friday before getting on the bus to Lexington.

That doesn't mean the Lady Vols won't be dangerous. They lead the league and are fourth in the nation in scoring (78.8), just ahead of Kentucky's 77.3 points a game, which is sixth nationally.

"They're just really dynamic offensively," Mitchell said. "It's impressive. ... They can really score a bunch of points. They're really, really explosive offensively and just trying to find a way to see if we can slow them down on the offensive end of the court is, to me, the biggest challenge we have going into the game."

Tennessee is expecting to take Kentucky's best shot on Sunday, even though the Cats lost their shot at repeating as SEC champions before the opening tip.

"Kentucky is just well-coached and they play hard and they make you have to play the full length of the floor and you can't make a lot of mistakes against them," Coach Holly Warlick said Friday. "They're just a tough-minded team and we're going to have to play a great game."


Sunday

Tennessee at Kentucky

When: 3:30 p.m.Records: UT 23-5 (14-1 SEC); UK 24-4 (12-3)

Series: UT leads 49-8

Last meeting: Tennessee won 91-54 on Feb. 13, 2012, at Knoxville

TV/radio: ESPN, WLAP-AM 630

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com

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