UK Women's Basketball

Sweet 16 is great, but UK women want more

It had the sounds and sights of a championship.

The band played as cheerleaders jumped up and down and fans screamed.

Some Kentucky players got a little misty-eyed after the Cats busted through the second-round NCAA Tournament ceiling for the first time since 1983 with their 70-52 domination of Michigan State.

"I kind of wanted to cry; I kind of wanted to smile," guard Rebecca Gray said. "I got in there with the cheerleaders and just lived in the moment."

Gray grabbed a set of blue and white pompons off the Freedom Hall floor and waved them in the air.

"I did a little toe touch, too," Gray said afterward. "My mom was a cheerleader, so that probably just runs in the family."

The players hugged one another and their coaches.

They joined in for a touching rendition of My Old Kentucky Home.

The celebration lasted well into the locker room.

Coach Matthew Mitchell encouraged the excitement and joy but he said he hopes his team doesn't believe it has reached the pinnacle just because the win had the feel of a championship.

Just because the Cats went from 16-16 last season to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 this season doesn't mean it's time to party.

"The danger for us right now is to feel like the Sweet 16 is a place of arrival," Mitchell said afterward. "We need to resist that as much as we can. This team has a good chance to advance in the next round, and that's all they need to worry about."

Mitchell said the Kentucky coaches will be sure to mention that dozens of times this week as the Cats prepare to face top-seeded Nebraska on Sunday night.

"They have a wonderful shot — no matter who they hit Sunday — to advance," Mitchell said. "That's how they need to feel this week."

It took less than 20 minutes for UK's players to remove their party hats and put on their game faces again.

"We're not finished yet," freshman A'dia Mathies said. "We're not even close. We have a lot of basketball left to play."

Victoria Dunlap said it would be easy to listen to the voices around them celebrating UK's players for the amazing season they've had.

They've won more games (27) than any other team in program history. They've won more Southeastern Conference games (11) than any other.

The team picked up its first awards for SEC Player of the Year (Dunlap) and Freshman of the Year (Mathies).

The lists go on and on.

"People are going to tell you that we've had a great season even if we lose, but we can't go in thinking that way," Dunlap said. "We want to go in there and win.

"We definitely can't get satisfied now that we're in the Sweet 16."

Why can't UK's players think about a trip to the Elite Eight or even the Final Four?

"There's been a lot of points during the season when we could have stopped and smelled the roses but, to their credit, they have not done that," Mitchell said. "I don't expect them to now."

The Cats' coach is seizing the moment just as he's encouraging his team to do.

"I'm just so happy I get another week with this team," he said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader