DULUTH, Ga. — The Kentucky women's basketball program has developed something of a "Moses complex" — able to see the promised land, not able to enter.
A program that has become a regular in the SEC Tournament championship game and NCAA Tournament's elite eight in recent years without ever getting to cut down the nets has had enough of that.
On a Sunday afternoon in an arena filled with Tennessee orange, Kentucky clawed and scratched and fought — almost literally — in a game that featured four technical fouls.
Against the Lady Vols, the historical gold standard of Southeastern Conference women's hoops, Matthew Mitchell's team got a stellar first half from true freshman Linnae Harper (11 of her 12 points before halftime) and a big game from senior standout DeNesha Stallworth (21 points, 9-for-14 from the field). The Cats took the lead not even three minutes into the game and held it until deep in the second half.
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On this fourth trip to the SEC title game in the past five years, the Cats seemed on the verge of finally breaking through.
"This is something we wanted so, so, so bad," Kentucky senior Kastine Evans said.
Instead, on a day when an elusive "big stage" victory was seemingly in reach, Kentucky again ended up down at the end of lonely street.
The Heartbreak Hotel.
Holding Kentucky to two field goals in the game's final 5:27, Tennessee rallied from a 59-54 deficit to a 71-70 victory before a partisan UT crowd of 6,544 in The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
It is the 17th SEC tourney title for the Lady Vols and the first since the retirement of the legendary Pat Summitt two seasons ago.
Over the past five seasons, Mitchell has led a remarkable revitalization of women's basketball at Kentucky. Four trips to the SEC championship game in five seasons and three visits to the NCAA tourney round of eight in the prior four seasons are testament to that.
Still, to take the next step as a program, Kentucky needs to start winning in those spots. Yet, if Sunday's outcome was more of the same for UK Hoops, the effort Kentucky showed was beyond reproach.
"I don't know that anything was missing today other than they came up one point better than us," Mitchell said.
In as intense a basketball game as I've ever covered, UK flat left it all on the court. Kentucky is past the point of moral victories, and this was not that, but there is honor in giving it all you've got, even if that comes up agonizingly short.
"Just extremely proud of our team," a subdued Mitchell said. "I wouldn't trade locker rooms (with Tennessee), I can tell you that."
Emotions were raw in the Kentucky locker room.
Stallworth's eyes were ringed with tears. Freshman point guard Makayla Epps had a towel over her head. UK junior standout Jennifer O'Neill sat in a corner, her head down.
"Right now, everyone is just hurt," UK senior forward Samarie Walker said. "Coach Mitchell is very hurt. I don't think anyone is thinking about tomorrow right now."
When the season began, the ultimate goal for the Wildcats was to be the team that crashed the elite eight ceiling and made UK's first visit to the Final Four.
After a season filled with epic highs and massive lows, the Kentucky team that came to the SEC Tournament and avenged two regular-season losses to Florida, then stunned league regular-season champion South Carolina and played Tennessee to the absolute brink is a team that — with the right draw — can make a Final Four.
"Right now, this is very discouraging," UK guard Bria Goss said. "But we can use all this pain as fuel."
Said Mitchell: "I'll tell you this, I'm glad I'm coaching Kentucky going to the NCAA Tournament. I don't know if anybody will be jumping for joy if they get the Wildcats in the first round."
As for going 0-for-4 in SEC Tournament finals, Mitchell on Saturday addressed the frustration that comes from being so close to the promised land yet not breaking through.
"We will win an SEC Tournament at some point in time and when it's our time to win it and the players prepare and I prepare well enough, we'll win it," he said. "It's a hard tournament to win and we keep showing up and at some point, we're going to do it. ... We'll just keep showing up."