UK Women's Basketball

No Alamo, but plenty of hope to spare

KANSAS CITY — For 5:25 of playing time, the Kentucky Wildcats had to almost be hearing the Mariachi bands on the River Walk.

A'dia Mathies sliced and diced; Amber Smith found her shooting touch; and Victoria Dunlap got started on what would go on to be a stellar individual performance.

With 14:35 left in the first half of the women's NCAA Tournament Kansas City Region finals Tuesday night, Kentucky led Oklahoma 15-2.

Unfortunately for UK, that's when the proverbial clock struck midnight.

An enchanted women's basketball season that began with Kentucky picked to finish 11th in the SEC ended in the Sprint Center with UK one victory short of making its first-ever trip to the women's Final Four.

In spite of 31 points and 13 rebounds from SEC Player of the Year Dunlap, UK suffered its worst loss of the season, 88-68, to Oklahoma.

"We just weren't as sharp tonight as we've been all year," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We've been sharp a bunch of times, but tonight for several reasons, we weren't. And one of those (reasons) is Oklahoma is awful good."

Because of injuries, Kentucky was down to an eight-person rotation by NCAA Tournament time. UK's chaotic, scramble-the-court style that was so lethal to teams such as Michigan State and Nebraska forced Oklahoma into 21 turnovers.

But Kentucky did not appear to have quite as much life in its legs as it had in earlier games. The Sooners were able to beat UK to many loose balls.

"There was definitely a change in how we had played in our previous game (Nebraska)," Dunlap said. "... We just weren't the same defensive team that we usually have been."

In Nyeshia Stevenson (31 points) and Danielle Robinson (16 points, six assists), OU had ballhandlers skilled enough to make Kentucky pay for its trapping style.

"Those two kids really controlled the game," Mitchell said.

When you are one victory away from the college hoops promised land, it's an opportunity you want to cash. There's no guarantee you get this close to the Final Four again.

For a UK women's team that was 16-16 just a season ago, there's zero disgrace in losing in the Elite Eight.

With her feistiness and grit, Smith, UK's junior point guard, became the dominant personality of this year's over-achieving team.

In her junior year, Dunlap emerged as a genuine SEC star.

Though prized recruit A'dia Mathies (4-of-14 from the floor, nine points) went out on a down note against Oklahoma, she, too, showed star potential this season.

Barring injuries, that Big Three will be back next season.

Senior forwards Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins will not be. Both made contributions that will not be easily replaced.

Next season will bring a different set of challenges.

Kentucky will be the hunted. The Cats will be a big game for everyone on its schedule.

Mitchell is bringing in a well-regarded recruiting class that includes guard Jennifer O'Neill, a McDonald's All-American from New York.

The backcourt-dominated recruiting class joins a roster that is already guard heavy. Will that affect the cohesive chemistry that made 2009-10 such a success for UK?

Adding at least one more front-court player would seem to be Mitchell's immediate recruiting need. Long-term, his challenge is to keep his roster stocked with the quickness of this year's team while luring some longer players.

"We are addressing that right now in recruiting," Mitchell said.

Can the Cats stay hungry or will they be sidetracked by the dread threat that is satisfaction?

All of these are the "problems" that come with success. Meaning, they are good problems to have.

As for the team that fell just short the 2010 Final Four, they leave quite a legacy.

From the smackdown of Louisville to breakthrough victories over Vanderbilt and at LSU; from going undefeated at home; reaching the SEC Tournament finals and, finally, the Elite Eight as the last SEC women's team playing.

"It definitely hurts to lose," Dunlap said. "But we're definitely going to cherish this moment, this season, this team because we started something new."

As the seconds ticked off the clock Tuesday in the Sprint Center, the Oklahoma fans were chanting "Final Four! Final Four!"

Building off this turnaround season, maybe that can be UK hoops backers sometime soon.