Mark Story: UK women hit a class ceiling in effort to make Final Four

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 1, 2013 

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Matthew Mitchell paced in front of the Kentucky bench, his chin resting atop his left hand, frustration all but lifting off his body.

A'dia Mathies sat, stoically, on the bench, staring up at the Webster Bank Arena scoreboard.

This was not the ending the coach/player partnership that has carried University of Kentucky women's basketball to its greatest heights expected.

Connecticut (33-4) earned its sixth straight trip to the women's NCAA Tournament Final Four with an 83-53 obliteration of Kentucky in the finals of the Bridgeport Region on Monday night.

For the third time in the past four years, Kentucky (30-6) fell one victory short of its first-ever trip to the women's NCAA Tournament Final Four. Most distressing, Mitchell's most talented and most complete Kentucky team was completely outclassed against one of the iconic programs in women's college hoops.

"Clearly, we didn't play very well," Mitchell said. "It was a tough, tough night for us."

In its three trips to the NCAA round of eight in the past four seasons, Kentucky has now lost by 20 to Oklahoma (2010), 15 to UConn (last season) and now 30 (the Huskies again).

Before a crowd of 8,594 that was heavy on UConn partisans Monday night, Kentucky played fairly well for exactly 9:53. A DeNesha Stallworth layup with 10:07 left in the first half put the Cats ahead 23-22.

It seemed UK was primed to go eyeball to eyeball with mighty UConn. Instead, the Huskies were poised to give the Cats black eyes. Behind Breanna Stewart (21 points) and Kelenna Mosqueda-Lewis (17), UConn unleashed a withering 26-3 run to end the first half with a 48-26 lead.

The bigger Huskies got really physical with UK cutters on offense and pounded the Cats underneath the basket when UConn had the ball. "When that run really got started, I thought we sort of lost our poise," Mitchell said.

Said Mathies: "They just kept making great play after great play."

What seemed like the longest second half in the history of college basketball became a 20-minute formality.

So, now the questions start.

Any talk that Mitchell "can't win the big one" is wildly premature. In its now three Elite Eight losses on his watch, Kentucky has faced opponents that were seeded higher and had more talent than the Cats.

However, it is hard not to wonder if the style of play that has turned UK into a consistent NCAA round of eight team might need to be tweaked a bit for Kentucky to take the proverbial next step. Can a team as reliant on full-court defensive pressure and points off turnovers as Kentucky break through against teams as skilled as UConn?

Mitchell has recognized the need for UK to "get bigger" and tweaked his system this year, playing with two true post players at most times. To break through the elite-eight ceiling, Mitchell is going to have to find a way to enhance his team's ability to function in the half-court offense.

Against UConn, UK shot 30.6 percent. In the 2012 round of eight, the Cats shot 31.1. In 2010, it was 32.9.

There's a case to be made this was the best women's basketball season in University of Kentucky history. The Cats set a season record for wins (30), a season record for beating ranked teams (eight), tied the school record for SEC wins (13) and went as far (the round of eight) as any UK team ever has in the NCAAs.

Kentucky beat Louisville and Tennessee, too.

Still, losing by 30 in an NCAA regional final takes some luster off things.

"I don't think we're going to get discouraged," Mitchell said. "Maybe people outside the program to see a result like tonight (will be). ... I know our fans wanted us to perform better. I know our players did, too.

"But I think if anybody starts to think this is not going to happen, they will not be inside our program. Because it is going to happen."

Maybe next season will bring the breakthrough.

UK adds two McDonald's All-Americans, Kentucky Miss Basketball Makayla Epps of Marion County and Chicago product Linnae Harper, to a roster that will have 11 of UK's top 12 scorers from this season.

The one exception being Mathies.

In her final UK game, the Louisville product scored a team-high 14 points to finish her Kentucky career with 2,014.

Said Mitchell: "I just hate we performed the way we did and sent her out that way."

For the partnership that changed UK women's basketball, it was not a very satisfying finish.

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

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