John Clay: Mitchell, his Cats offer plenty of thanks for fans' big showing at Rupp

jclay@herald-leader.comDecember 22, 2013 

A win would have been better because a win is always better.

A win would have given Kentucky women's basketball a victory over the No. 2 team in the nation, the Duke Blue Devils. It would have kept the home team unbeaten and most likely catapulted it into the top three in the national rankings.

Better yet, it would have served as a thank-you card.

"Gosh," said Matthew Mitchell, the Kentucky coach, "I sure wanted to reward that great crowd with a victory."

On the floor of Rupp Arena, Duke was bigger Sunday. Duke was better. Duke won 69-61. In the stands at Rupp Arena, you could say Kentucky was the winner, or that women's college basketball was the better for it, thanks to an announced "Pack-the-House" crowd of 23,706.

It was the fifth-largest crowd in the history of women's college basketball and the largest crowd ever for a game that did not include Tennessee or Connecticut.

"It was a great crowd, super crowd for women's basketball," was the first thing Duke Coach Joanne P. McCallie said in her post-game news conference. "I think that's really important. We were thrilled to be here.

"Last time we came (in 2011) there wasn't that crowd. There was a big crowd — not that crowd."

Two years ago, 14,508 showed up to see UK play the Duke women at Rupp. Sunday's crowd beat that by nearly 10,000.

"I really tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn't help it right before tipoff," Mitchell said. "It was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to see where it had started and where it's culminated."

There are reasons Kentucky women's basketball is no longer a cult following. Mitchell goes out of his way to thank former UK president Lee T. Todd Jr., Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and his predecessor and former boss, Mickie DeMoss. "Visionaries," he calls them. And winning has much to do with it.

There's also something about the way this team plays, the way Mitchell's teams have played since he arrived from Morehead State in 2007. They might not be the most athletic or the most gifted — though they are closing the gap on both accounts — but no team leaves more perspiration on the floor.

That was the case in the epic four-overtime game against Baylor down in icy Arlington, Texas, this month that turned out to be a win. That was the case Sunday against the Blue Devils in a game that turned out to be a loss.

Down 12 at the half, Mitchell's club scored the first five points of the second half. Down 14 with 16:19 to go, Kentucky sliced the lead in half with 11:15 remaining, then to four points with 6:07 left.

"I don't want to beat ourselves up too much," Mitchell said. "We lost to a good team. They are a really excellent basketball team. But, gosh, I sure wanted to reward that great crowd with a victory."

You can grouse about how the Kentucky women can't handle the altitude. Three of the past four years, their NCAA Tournament runs have ended in the Elite Eight. Last year during the regular season, they were humbled on the road by a tremendous Baylor team. This year in the regular season, they lost at home to a highly regarded Duke team.

"You have to give credit to Duke for that," Mitchell said.

Especially without the injured DeNesha Stallworth, UK struggled with Duke's size. The Cats' transition defense left something to be desired. Free throw shooting is not a gender problem at Kentucky. The UK women took 19. They made eight.

"We will learn from this," Mitchell said.

As Duke survived and smiled, Kentucky pledged thanks.

"We're just blessed to have the fan support that we do," said junior guard Bria Goss. "We really appreciate people coming out and we hope we opened up some hearts today so they will come back to Memorial (Coliseum) and see us play there."

"I think they know what our program is about," said Mitchell of the fans. "I think you'll see more days like this in the future."

John Clay: 859-231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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