LOUISVILLE — She was back in her hometown after all, back where A'dia Mathies starred for Iroquois High School and captured Miss Basketball honors.
So it shouldn't have been surprising Saturday when, during warm-ups, the Kentucky freshman kept hearing someone call her name.
"I didn't want to look," said Mathies.
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"It shows that I was focused if I didn't look out there," she said.
And, yet ...
"I guess I wasn't," said Mathies shyly, " 'cause I still glanced."
Turns out the vocal supporter was her best friend's mom, and the 5-foot-9 rookie sure looked focused enough, anyway, thank you very much, scoring a career-high 32 points to set a school NCAA Tournament record and lead Kentucky to an 83-77 win over Liberty in the first round at Freedom Hall.
Not bad for someone playing her first college game in front of her home folks.
"It means a lot," said Mathies, who entered the afternoon averaging 13.2 points. "Especially just to play another game for Kentucky in front of our fans and my family and all my friends that came out."
After all, winning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors is one thing. Helping your team to its first NCAA bid since 2006 is another. But having your first game back home be your first NCAA Tournament game is something else.
"I wouldn't begin to tell you I know exactly what A'dia was thinking or feeling," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said afterward. "But she doesn't get real keyed up. I think she handles it probably a little better than a lot of people do, and I think that's why she's so special as a player."
Mathies is special, all right, especially in her ability to get to the basket. Time and again she attacked the Liberty defense with moves to the hoop, drawing fouls.
"That was the difference in the game," said Liberty Coach Carey Green.
Not only was Mathies 9-for-15 from the field, she was 12-for-17 from the foul line. She scored 10 of her team's first 16 points after Liberty leaped to an early 13-4 lead. She scored 18 points in the second half, including a three-pointer with 12:56 left that gave Kentucky a 52-50 lead.
"I didn't know what to expect," Mathies said. "Fortunately, some of my shots were falling first half. That gave me a boost in confidence."
It boosted her team, as well. While a taller Liberty grabbed an early 21-8 advantage on the boards, UK's SEC Player of the Year, Victoria Dunlap, scored just eight points and grabbed just three rebounds the first half. Sharpshooter Keyla Snowden missed both of her shots, both three-point attempts, in the first 20 minutes.
But as the Flames found themselves keying more and more on Mathies, opportunities opened up for Dunlap, who wound up with 15 points and eight boards. It also freed Snowden to bury four three-pointers in the second half.
Not that this was a surprise. Mathies did score 27 points in UK's win over Arkansas back on Feb. 7. And this was the third time in UK's last five games that Mathies has topped the 20-point mark. She scored 25 in the team's SEC Tournament semifinal win over Mississippi State.
"She cares so much for her teammates," Mitchell said, "I think she understands at this point and time how valuable she is. Great players can sense when they need to raise their level."
She'll get another chance to shine in front of the home folks come Monday night when UK meets Michigan State in a second-round game in Freedom Hall.
"It's pretty remarkable to see a freshman with all the potential pitfalls she could have given into," Mitchell said. "Being back at home, being her first NCAA Tournament game, on and on, you could find all sorts of things that could have thrown her off, and it didn't happen. Pretty remarkable performance, if you ask me."