Mark Story: Matthew Mitchell's record-breaking day

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 3, 2013 

When Matthew Mitchell reaches that stage where he looks back at the achievements of his life, the day he became the winningest coach in Kentucky women's basketball history will form a memory close to perfection.

Except the day's one imperfection is apt to eat at Mitchell.

In the final game of the regular season, No. 10 Kentucky (25-4, 13-3) drubbed Southeastern Conference champion and No. 8-ranked Tennessee 78-65 before a sell-out crowd of 7,965 in Memorial Coliseum. The victory, Mitchell's 139th (139-60) in his six years as UK head man, pushed the Louisville, Miss., product one win ahead of the late Terry Hall for first place on the all-time Kentucky wins list.

"I am a person who is blessed by God to be here," Mitchell said. "And (I'm blessed) that we've had the time to build something."

So much about Sunday served as a fitting summation of the building job Mitchell has done in reinvigorating women's hoops at Kentucky.

Four years ago, Mitchell installed a harrying, in-your-face defensive system that helped turn UK women's hoops from also-ran into NCAA Tournament regular.

Against Tennessee, the gold standard of women's basketball in the South, the Kentucky defense imposed its will on the regal Lady Vols. UT (23-6, 14-2 SEC) committed a whopping 31 turnovers, 19 in the first half alone. In a game UK won by 13, the point differential off of turnovers was 33-9.

"I thought they made us play fast," Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said. "If you want to interpret it as panicky, they just made us play fast and we just quick-shot the basketball."

It seemed only right that Mitchell's record-setting win came on Senior Day for Kentucky star A'dia Mathies (as well as her classmate Brittany Henderson). When Mathies — having spurned her hometown school, Louisville, to cast her lot with Kentucky — arrived in Lexington, Mitchell's record at UK was a lukewarm 33-32.

With Mathies on his team, Mitchell is 106-28.

On Sunday, the stoic 5-foot-9 Mathies showed the home crowd one final time the wide range of skills that have made her an all-time Wildcats great. In spite of missing eight of her first nine shots, Mathies finished with 16 points, four rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks.

"To get (Mitchell's record-breaking) win on senior night, and it being our last night against a rivalry team, I think it was meant to be," Mathies said.

As for the day's imperfection, the one thing missing that could have made Sunday a perfect moment for Kentucky women's basketball was that the SEC regular-season championship was not on the line. For most of the season, it appeared UK and UT would settle that in Lexington.

Instead, a Kentucky loss at LSU two Sundays ago opened the door for Tennessee to claim the league crown with a home win over Texas A&M on Thursday.

In UK's bid to win the league title for a second straight year, the SEC schedule maker did not do Kentucky any favors. When Missouri and Texas A&M gave the SEC 14 teams for its 16-game women's hoops schedule, the league chose to have each team play all other foes once — but play three teams twice.

Kentucky drew South Carolina (its permanent foe), Texas A&M and LSU to play twice. Those three combined to go 32-16 in league games. UK went 4-2 in those six contests.

Tennessee drew Vanderbilt (its permanent foe), Missouri and Auburn to play twice. Those three combined to go 20-28 in league play. UT went 5-1 in those six contests.

Still, Kentucky could have earned a share of the SEC championship Sunday had it not lost a 14-point lead and a home game to Georgia.

"I was very disappointed by that," Mitchell said Sunday of Kentucky not winning the league championship. "I was very sad about that. We desperately wanted to win the title."

Not winning the league regular-season title won't matter nearly as much if Kentucky goes on and wins the SEC Tournament and/or makes it to the program's first NCAA Tournament Final Four. Both goals are realistic for a deep, talented, experienced UK team.

After the victory over UT, Kentucky presented Mitchell with a framed collage of pictures from his most memorable moments as Wildcats coach.

For the new winningest coach in Kentucky women's basketball history, it was a perfect ending to a day that needed one more thing to have been perfect itself.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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