UK Women's Basketball

UK women protected their house with perfection

It all starts at home.

We must protect this house, and all that. If you're striving to be a good basketball program — "A program that matters," said Matthew Mitchell, the Kentucky coach — in a game where the home-court advantage means so much, then you have to win at home. You just have to win at home.

Winning every single game at home? That's a different deal in the SEC. We're not talking Cupcake Conference. We're talking about the long-recognized, top-to-bottom, best conference in women's college basketball.

"We've played some very good teams here this year," Mitchell said.

Now they've beaten every one. That's 17 up, 17 down. Sunday afternoon finalized flawless. South Carolina came to town. The South Carolina that beat Kentucky 79-71 in Columbia on Jan. 14. This time, no shot for the Gamecocks. Revenge is a dead bird. Kentucky 71, South Carolina 50.

Dawn Staley's squad stood little chance. It was Senior Day, Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins' final game before the home folks. Showing obvious affection for both, Mitchell made a big deal of that. The home folks responded. A crowd of 7,742 packed Memorial Coliseum, the largest crowd of the season.

That says something right there. If you're going to be a program that matters, you have to have the ear of your fan base. You ask them to come out, they come out. Kentucky's women basketball fans responded. They came out.

Their team said right back at ya. They turned crowd pleasers. They drove. They spun. They kept the ball away from South Carolina's 6-foot-5 freshman Kelly Bone. They took off in transition. "They just got out," Staley said.

Kentucky led 9-1. Kentucky led 36-20 at the half. Kentucky led 55-37 midway through the second. There wasn't much doubt in this one.

Nor has there been much doubt that this has been quite the turnaround. Back up three years to Mickie DeMoss' stunning resignation. No longer feeling the desire to be a head coach, DeMoss left the program high and dry. It was worse than a shock. It was notable step back.

So UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart turned to Mitchell, DeMoss' former assistant before cutting his head coaching teeth for two seasons at Morehead State. Skeptics thought Mitchell too young, too unproven. His name was not marquee. Pass the skeptics a napkin. They're chewing their words.

Barnhart got this one right. (Not his only one, either.) Kentucky is now 23-4 overall, 11-3 in the SEC. Sunday's win, coupled with Mississippi State's loss, clinched second place for the Cats. They were picked to finish 11th.

Better still, there's that 17-0 home mark. Vanderbilt, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina all lost at Memorial. Visitors unwelcome. For UK, a clean home SEC slate has only happened once before — 1980-81.

"We're trying to create a very tough home-court advantage, and the more games you win, that helps you accomplish that," Mitchell said. "For 17 times, they were able to find a way to get motivated to win. To me, it's a tremendous sign of progress in our program."

As Watkins put it, "We've got a lot more ball to play." Thursday night in Knoxville, Mitchell's team can show what it can do on the road. Kentucky plays at conference-leader Tennessee. The fifth-ranked Vols are very good.

Mitchell's team, ranked 16th, is pretty good, too. You don't protect your house, in such a difficult conference, every single time out, without being good. Perfection is hard. At home, UK hoops was perfect. And that matters.

After all, it all starts at home.