UK women's notes: Cats send seniors out 'the right way' with win in Memorial

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 24, 2014 

DeNesha Stallworth knows her Kentucky career isn't over.

But as the team sang the fight song together with the band for the last time at Memorial Coliseum, the UK senior couldn't help but get a little weepy.

"I actually thought I was going to cry," Stallworth said. "I was trying to hold that in."

All week Kentucky's underclassmen talked about sending the UK seniors off with a win. Coach Matthew Mitchell tried to downplay that aspect, saying the team had gone through senior night already.

"It's sort of the NCAA's building right now," he said before the Cats faced Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament second round on Monday night.

But it still felt like home to Kentucky with the 4,000 plus at Memorial Coliseum, where the Cats topped the Orange 64-59 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time.

"It was so important to us, just knowing how much they've given to this program and invested in this program," junior guard Jennifer O'Neill said.

Bria Goss said she pondered how she'll want to go out next season. And she wanted that for seniors Stallworth, Samarie Walker, Bernisha Pinkett and Kastine Evans.

"We got that chance, that opportunity twice, Senior Night and tonight to send them out the right way and we did a really good job," said Goss, who led UK with 17 points. "That was our main focus: just doing it for the seniors."

The seniors didn't want their season to end in the building where they've spent so many mornings and evenings sprinting up and down the steps, yelling out the names of the fallen soldiers who line the hallways of the storied old building that's been their home.

"We really love this place," Evans said. "It's a place that really special to us and we tried to show it on the court today."

The seniors couldn't help but look around the building as they sang that fight song one last time on the floor where they've been so successful.

They tried to show their love, too, blowing kisses to the crowd as they ran off the floor for the last time on Monday night.

"To end our last game here with a victory, was just the biggest," Stallworth said.

'Wishing her all the best'

Mitchell had recruited Syracuse star Brittney Sykes out of high school.

He'd wanted the sophomore guard to come to Kentucky, but he appreciated how she handled the process and he felt sick when he saw the Orange's leading scorer go down with a knee injury in the first round.

Sykes was on the floor in warmups in uniform and even her sweatband, but she also had crutches and a giant knee brace. Before the game started, Mitchell put his arm around the sophomore.

"I really was sad for Brittney so I just told her before the game that I was sad for her, but I knew her and I knew her character and I knew she'd come back from it," he said. "I was wishing her all the best. ... She'll have a great career."

The Syracuse players said Sykes was their rock in the locker room before the game, telling them that she was there for them even if she couldn't be on the court with them.

"She really wanted us to keep our heads up and play hard," guard Alexis Peterson said. "She was cheering for us the whole time."

Seeing old friends

The moment between Syracuse's Sykes and Kentucky's coach wasn't the only poignant one shared between teams before the second-round game.

Orange Coach Quentin Hillsman got a hug from two UK players and New York natives that he's known from the AAU circuit since they were teenagers.

Hillsman said both Jennifer O'Neill and Jelleah Sidney gave him a hug before the game, which meant the world to him.

"It was kind of a moment where you don't want to compete against those players," said Hillsman, who said it's been a bittersweet tournament for him, including playing against UK assistant coach Jeff House, who helped him with offensive game planning while he was an assistant coach in the WNBA.

O'Neill said she was excited to see Hillsman, who was good friends with her former high school coach and mentor.

"It was good to see a familiar face so far away from home," the UK guard said. "It was good seeing him. He just said how proud he was of me and (Sidney) and that we'd come a long way and it was good to hear that."

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

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