UK Women's Basketball

UK women are the hunted this year

Many years, Kentucky goes into the Southeastern Conference Tournament desperate to play itself into the women's basketball post-season.

Many years, UK is stalking the top teams, hoping to upset someone — anyone — to improve its record and its chances.

This year is different.

The No. 19 Cats are the SEC Tournament's second seed. They have beaten every team in the field except top-seeded Tennessee at least once. They have beaten every team on their half of the bracket at least once.

They sport the newly named SEC Player of the Year in Victoria Dunlap and Freshman of the Year in A'dia Mathies.

At 23-6 overall and 11-5 in the conference, they're a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

But don't expect any complacency come Friday when they tip off against Auburn in the league tournament at Duluth, Ga.

It took just one bad week of basketball — including two straight losses at Tennessee and Auburn — to remind Kentucky of how easy it is to come undone.

"We were really humbled the last two games of the year and it showed what can happen if we don't do what we're supposed to do," SEC Coach of the Year Matthew Mitchell said this week.

A 65-53 surprise loss at 10th-seeded Auburn reminded UK that it still has a lot of work to do. UK had beaten the Tigers 68-50 in their first meeting in Lexington.

Mathies called last week's loss to the Tigers "humbling."

"Just as easy as we beat Auburn the first time, we lost to them the second time," she said.

It was a reminder to UK that it's only as good as its last game and that there isn't much of a difference between them and the teams at the bottom of the conference.

During the SEC coaches' teleconference this week, a couple of coaches pointed to upsets this season, especially three in the final weekend, as proof that anyone can beat anyone this week.

"I've been connected with this league since 1978 and there have been more surprise scores than I've ever seen," Louisiana State Coach Van Chancellor said.

The coach said he'd get updated scores every Sunday night, from his staff and do a double take.

"Are you sure you don't have that backward?" Chancellor said he would ask them. "There have been more scores that have shocked me."

Most coaches said they expect to see that trend continue in the tournament.

"Everybody in this league has a chance to go in there and upset someone and throw some confusion into who's really the best teams in the SEC," Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said.

Auburn backed that up by cruising past No. 7 seed Florida 74-61 Thursday.

As Collen and many coaches indicated, Kentucky will be the hunted.

It's a new position for the Cats.

"We're in a bit of uncharted waters, and I'm not afraid to say that," Mitchell said. "It will be up to the players to decide what they want to do in this tournament.

"I'll tell them they have a great opportunity because of what they have done, but this is going to be a wild SEC tournament. It's not a situation where we think we're going to cruise into the finals. So, maybe that will help them be on high alert."

The two losses already have taught them that, Kentucky's players said.

"We have to come to play," Dunlap said. "We can't just walk in there and think we're going to win the game because we've already beaten them."

The junior forward and UK's leading scorer and rebounder said this season has been plenty special, but there are still things that can happen to make it really special.

"We have to come in with the mentality that we have to play hard no matter what," she said. "Just because we're already set for the NCAA Tournament doesn't mean we can settle for finishing second in the SEC. We have to keep getting better and better."