DULUTH, Ga. — A'dia Mathies said Kentucky came to the women's Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament to cut down a champion's nets.
On Sunday, the Wildcats instead left the SEC championship game with that same old runner-up feeling. Far more concerning, they also left with some familiar questions about their ability to take the next step and break through into the elite strata of women's college basketball.
Avenging two regular-season losses, SEC newcomer Texas A&M (24-9) whipped the cold-shooting Wildcats 75-67 before an announced crowd of 5,076 in The Arena at Gwinnett Center to claim the first SEC Tournament championship in the school's history.
For No. 7 Kentucky (27-5), it was the third time in four years that Matthew Mitchell's Wildcats have now been SEC tourney runners-up.
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In a somber UK locker room, sophomore guard Bria Goss said, "We wanted this real bad. That's why emotions are running so high, we really wanted this."
After decades of mostly mediocrity and irrelevance, Mitchell has elevated UK Hoops into a program that now consistently makes SEC tourney finals and NCAA Tournament rounds of eight (twice in the past three years). In any context, that is a huge advancement.
However, breaking through to win an SEC Tournament title — and, far more importantly, advance to a Final Four — remain unattained goals.
In the most important games against the top-level programs, Kentucky has often struggled to get the ball in the basket, especially in the half court.
Kentucky's 27-for-76 shooting against Texas A&M was similar to the figures UK put up in its three most recent NCAA Tournament losses: 23-for-70 against Oklahoma (2010 elite eight); 28-for-81 vs. North Carolina (2011 round of 32); and 19-for-61 against Connecticut (2012 round of eight).
Simply put, to win the type of games it takes to make the proverbial next step, Kentucky has to play better in the half court.
Against A&M on Sunday, Kentucky won points off turnovers 19-5, but that was not nearly enough to compensate for how tough it was for the Cats offensively.
UK rushed too many jump shots, especially as A&M was seizing control with an 11-2 run to start the second half. Kentucky did not always have the right people taking the right number of shots. Point guard Jennifer O'Neill fired up a whopping 23 and made only seven. Senior star A'dia Mathies got only 13 shots, though she made eight.
"It was poor," Mitchell said of his team's half-court execution, "and that is coaching, there's no other way around it. We could not get a bucket. Our post players are not at the point where they can get on the post and score. ... I should have done a better job at this point in time in the season of being able to manufacture some offense."
What was unusual Sunday was that, as UK's offensive woes mounted, it seemed to negatively impact Kentucky's defensive energy and focus.
With A&M up only 53-46 with 8:16 left, the Aggies' Peyton Little was fouled and went to the line for two shots. She missed both. Texas A&M center Kelsey Bone (18 points, 15 rebounds) grabbed the second miss and got fouled.
She missed the front end of the bonus.
But A&M's Courtney Walker rebounded that miss and finally scored.
Over the last four seasons of program ascendancy, you have not seen Kentucky outworked in that way very often.
Said Mathies: "They were at the free-throw line, and they got their rebound over and over and over. ... It's unacceptable."
Added Goss: "I think, maybe, we let all the shots we were missing affect us on defense. We can't do that going forward."
The good news is that Kentucky is going forward. The Cats will enter the tournament that matters off a downer, but they are still the team that won 27 games and beat six ranked teams, including four of the last five they've played.
"Coach said there is a lot of basketball still to be played," Kentucky's O'Neill said, "we just need to get our minds right and get ready."
For UK to reach its Final Four dreams, getting the half-court offense right would be really good, too.