SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As the final seconds ticked off on the 2013-14 Kentucky women's basketball season, Matthew Mitchell stood in front of the UK bench with his arms crossed tightly across his chest.
He looked as if he might have seen a ghost. In a sense, he had.
No. 2 seed Baylor blitzed Kentucky 90-72 Saturday in the round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament's South Bend Region. In Notre Dame's Purcell Pavilion, Kim Mulkey's Bears (32-4) took control early with an 18-4 run that opened a 22-9 lead.
UK made a couple of charges but was undone by horrid shooting (25 percent in the first half, 34.8 percent for the game) and a less than energetic defensive effort. "A very difficult day," Mitchell said. "It looked like we were ill-prepared, and that's squarely on my shoulders."
Stunningly for a team that had been expressing Final Four aspirations since the pre-season, Kentucky started the game being outworked by Baylor. At the first TV timeout, the rebounding count stood 11-1 in favor of BU.
For the entire first half, my notes showed Kentucky missing eight layups. Coupled with an overall 0-for-12 shooting day from UK leading scorer Jennifer O'Neill, that pretty well doomed the Wildcats' season.
If you feel like this is a song you've heard before, it is. Kentucky bowed out of the 2012 NCAA round of eight losing to Connecticut by 15 points while shooting 31.1 percent. UK was bounced by UConn from last year's region finals by 30 points while shooting 30.6.
For all the improvements in UK women's hoops that Mitchell has presided over, the Cats have not been able to take the final step to establish themselves among the upper crust of women's basketball.
Those with an emotional investment in UK women's basketball are justified in asking some why questions. Start with why has Kentucky not been able to make the breakthrough that, oh, Texas A&M made in 2011 or Louisville made in 2013, when both upset much better Baylor teams (with Brittney Griner) than the one that beat UK on Saturday?
"One thing, I think we've played really good teams," Mitchell said when asked a version of that question. "And we've dared to develop the program to the point we get into games like this. (Still) that is a question I will continue to ask."
In the past, I've wondered if Kentucky was too dependent on its signature full-court pressing style to succeed against the most skilled teams. This season, with UK's press negatively impacted by the new "freedom of movement" rules emphasis, Mitchell took the full-court defense off. So that did not explain Saturday's blowout defeat to Baylor, a team UK beat 133-130 in four overtimes in the regular season.
"I don't know that I did a very good job with this particular team," Mitchell said, alluding specifically to a stretch where UK went 5-5 at the start of SEC play. "I feel like I should have, somehow, done more to prevent it from getting to that point in the first place."
Amid the frustration of another NCAA tourney blowout for UK Hoops against an elite foe, it is wise to step back and look at some larger trends.
This season, Kentucky beat two teams that entered the NCAA tourney as No. 1 seeds (South Carolina and Tennessee), one that was a No. 2 (Baylor) and two (Texas A&M and Louisville) that were No. 3 seeds.
All-time, Kentucky has won 16 NCAA Tournament games — and Mitchell has won 12 of them in the past five years. Over the same five-year time frame, UK and Mitchell have 26 wins over ranked opponents. From 1984-85 through 2008-09, Kentucky had 27 such victories.
UK is close enough to easily see the promised land of women's college hoops. Which makes it even more vexing that Kentucky so far has not found the way to enter. "Sooner or later, Kentucky has to get over that hump to be considered that elite team in women's basketball," said UK senior guard Kastine Evans.
To do that, Kentucky needs to continue to upgrade its recruiting. Figuring out a way to stop getting blown out by teams like Connecticut and Baylor deep in the NCAAs would help, too.
"I'm confident it is going to happen," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "I couldn't be more proud of a guy leading our program. For what (Mitchell) does for women's basketball, for what he does in our community, he's a great ambassador for the University of Kentucky."
All that is true. Now, for another year, Mitchell is also a coach with every reason to be haunted by the NCAA tourney ghosts.