UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: When things heat up, UK's Mathies is one cool customer

A'dia Mathies (1) drove around Connecticut's Kelly Faris in the NCAA Elite Eight last season. Kentucky lost to UConn 80-65.
A'dia Mathies (1) drove around Connecticut's Kelly Faris in the NCAA Elite Eight last season. Kentucky lost to UConn 80-65. Lexington Herald-Leader

Major-college basketball games that come down to the final shot are flaming cauldrons of stress and emotion.

In such situations, A'dia Mathies is as cool as an icicle.

Over what has already been a stellar career at the University of Kentucky, the 5-foot-9 senior guard from Louisville has proven herself one of the best "money players" ever to wear UK blue and white.

"I honestly think you've just got to have a cool head," Mathies says. "I think, maybe, I'm good for it because I don't get too rowdy or I don't get too low. I'm mostly even-tempered most of the time."

When all around her are losing their heads, Mathies is lethal.

As a sophomore, she beat LSU in the final seconds with a nifty pass to an open Brittany Henderson for a game-winning layup. Twice in her Wildcats career, Mathies has hit game-winners herself.

On Senior Night 2011, with UK teetering on the verge of a painful defeat, she sliced through the Arkansas defense for a decisive layup with 4.4 seconds left.

The most memorable "Mathies moment" to date came last year against Tennessee. With UK down one, the guard drove into the lane and flipped up an acrobatic shot between two taller defenders.

When it went in with 4.4 seconds left, it gave Kentucky a historically rare (its eighth) women's hoops victory over the mighty Lady Vols.

"A'dia's the leader in the clubhouse for naming our (next) child after that shot against Tennessee went in," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell jokes.

This season, as No. 6 UK seeks to fulfill its lofty — and eminently reasonable — goal of making the school's first trip to a women's hoops Final Four, the Wildcats know they enter the year with one of the nation's most proven pressure players.

For "hoopologists," A'dia Mathies provides an interesting case study: Are clutch players born or developed?

A recruiting coup

Mitchell says it is no accident that the transformation of women's basketball at Kentucky from, mostly, an historically under-performing program into a burgeoning national power traces to Mathies arriving in 2009-10.

In the three seasons before Mathies arrived, UK went 53-46 and made three-straight appearances in the WNIT.

Since Mathies, the Cats have gone 81-24, claimed an SEC regular-season title and advanced to the Elite Eight twice.

Before Mathies, UK had won four NCAA tourney games all-time; the Cats have won seven in the past three seasons.

Mathies has been SEC Freshman of the Year (2010), SEC Player of the Year (2012) and, along with the now-departed Victoria Dunlap, the cornerstone of Mitchell's building process.

"The program has really transformed before our eyes," Mitchell says, "and you can almost stick a flag in the ground to the exact moment A'dia arrived that the program changed."

To get Mathies, Kentucky won an intense in-state recruiting battle with Western Kentucky and Louisville. Mitchell describes the tussle as "one of the most difficult recruiting processes" he's ever experienced. The reason being that an introverted Mathies would barely talk to the coach.

"Not that she was ugly or impolite or anything, she was just so quiet, so introverted, that she just had a hard time talking," Mitchell says. "So I talked a lot to her parents and her family and I knew them, probably, a lot better than I knew her."

After signing early with UK in the fall of 2008, Mathies led Iroquois High School to the 2009 Kentucky state championship and earned that season's Miss Basketball honors.

Yet by the time she arrived in Lexington to start college, Mathies was still so shy that the Kentucky coaching staff ordered her to introduce herself to one new person a day on campus.

"I didn't really talk too much to people I didn't know," Mathies recalls. "They had me introducing myself."

In theory, the point of college is personal growth. In her fourth year at UK, some of Mathies' teammates describe her as the funniest player on the team and an unusually skilled mimic. In media interviews, A'dia is now a polished presence.

Yet "I think I'm probably still the same around people I don't know," Mathies says of her former shyness. "I still don't have that much to say."

How 'clutch' develops?

In the case of Mathies, the ability to be "clutch" seems both a result of nature and nurture.

Al Northington, the former Iroquois coach, brought Mathies onto the school's varsity when she was a sixth-grader. He remembers seeing the guard play for the first time when she was competing on the boys' team at Louisville's Brandeis Elementary as a fourth-grader.

"This will sound funny, but she was the same player back then she is now," Northington says. "She had that stoic face and was just unflappable. All the time I coached her, I've never, never seen her rattled."

The first time a Lexington Herald-Leader contained the name "A'dia Mathies" was Jan. 19, 2005. Then, Mathies made the H-L high school hoops roundup by hitting a layup at the buzzer to give Iroquois a 70-68 upset of No. 17 Ballard.

She was an eighth-grader.

Michael Jordan has said the key to making shots under game-deciding pressure is having the internal fortitude to handle it if you miss.

In her sophomore year at UK, Mathies missed a potential game-winning shot for the Cats against Georgia.

"It was a last-second floater to win the game — and it didn't go in," Mathies recalls. "I really didn't think that much about it (afterward). That was the last shot, but there were a lot of things we could have done not to have ourselves in that situation. I didn't put it on myself 'Oh, I blew the game.'"

Maybe because she learned she could handle missing, Mathies has been UK's late-game closer ever since that Georgia misfire.

Mitchell's favorite "Mathies moment" was the shot that beat Tennessee — and gave A'dia a 34-point game — last season.

"Everybody in the gym had to know who the ball was going to, and they couldn't stop her," Mitchell said. "That was pretty amazing to me."

Johnny Mathies, the guard's father, is partial to the pass A'dia dished that let Henderson make the shot that beat LSU in 2011.

"Because it came down to the ability ... to have the ball in your hand and to make a decision under pressure," Johnny Mathies says. "I liked that she read the play and then had the unselfishness to make the right pass."

For her part, A'dia ranks her favorite game-winning moments at UK as 1.) shot that beat UT; 2.) last-second shot vs. Arkansas on Senior Night, 2011; 3). LSU pass.

"Just to be able to make plays like that down the stretch is really humbling," Mathies says, "because it could go the other way."

A'dia's clutch moments have not been limited to game-winners. In her first NCAA Tournament game as a freshman against Liberty, she scored 32 points. Last season in a much-hyped game with Duke in Rupp Arena, Mathies hit four three-pointers and scored 23.

In her senior season, Mathies believes UK will field the deepest, most talented team of her Kentucky career. From the moment the Wildcats lost to Connecticut in last season's NCAA regional finals, she says the Kentucky players set the Final Four in New Orleans as this year's goal.

If what it takes to crash the national semifinals are some late-game heroics, UK and Mitchell will have a player whose track record in such situations is not half-bad.

"When they say there is pressure late in the game, the pressure doesn't get to me," A'dia Mathies says.

Pausing and smiling, she adds "And, hopefully, I don't jinx myself for this year."

A final part of being "clutch" may be knowing not to risk angering the basketball gods.

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