KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kentucky players gathered in their locker room in the Sprint Center.
Some focused straight ahead on nothing in particular. Others looked straight down, wiping away tears periodically. It had been more than 20 minutes since they lost the game that could have taken them to a place the program has never been: the NCAA Tournament's Final Four.
It had been more than 20 minutes since an 88-68 loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, but the players were still in their uniforms.
It was their own personal protest to the end of a special season.
"It definitely hurts that we lost, but we're definitely going to cherish this moment, this season, this team," junior Victoria Dunlap said.
The Cats, picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference, finished among the final eight teams in the nation.
In one season, they went from a third straight trip to the Women's National Invitation Tournament and a 16-16 record to a team that was getting regular face and crawl time on ESPN.
It was their underdog story that was being told, not the story of some other team from some other state.
They were the hard-working, blue collar team in Kentucky blue.
"We've laid a foundation now that Kentucky's something to mess with," senior Amani Franklin said as she sat in her locker surrounded by her UK teammates, most of whom are returning next year and will be complemented by one of the top recruiting classes in program history.
Only Franklin and fellow senior Lydia Watkins will depart.
The returning players, highlighted by the program's first SEC Player of the Year in Dunlap and its first SEC Freshman of the Year in A'dia Mathies, will have the tough task of trying to top the success of this season.
And there was a lot of success this season.
Kentucky went unbeaten in Memorial Coliseum, winning more games there (17) than it won the entire season before. It won more games (28) than any team before it.
It advanced to the Elite Eight, further than any previous UK team in the NCAA Tournament since 1982. No UK team has advanced to the Elite Eight since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
UK finished second in the SEC and won 11 games in the tough conference, which had four teams advance to the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
In addition to the player honors, the Cats had SEC Coach of the Year Matthew Mitchell.
"People thought they were going to be a bad team; they didn't listen," Mitchell said. "People thought we wouldn't get to the SEC Tournament championship game. No one probably thought we'd get to the Sweet 16. Certainly no one thought we were going to get to the Elite Eight."
But getting there once and returning a solid nucleus offers no guarantees for next season, the coach cautioned.
"So now they've got to approach it with just white-hot intensity as we ramp up to get ready for the next one," Mitchell said. "So I will never, ever go into next season taking what happened this season and just thinking it's going to happen.
"This team has accomplished a lot, and so, for next season — whatever good we can take, whatever momentum builds, whatever standard has been set — I think that's how you use this season to get ready for the next."
Watkins, one of the departing seniors, said she's not worried about the program taking a step back.
"Next year, I think they're going to be even better," she said. "This team works hard. They want to work hard for each other. That's not going to change."
Kentucky returns six of its top eight scorers, including its top three in Dunlap, Mathies and point guard Amber Smith.
It brings in a big-time recruiting class highlighted by McDonald's All-American Jennifer O'Neill.
One glaring issue for next season is the loss of 6-foot-1 Watkins and 5-foot-10 Franklin, the closest thing to experienced inside players outside of Dunlap.
UK's recruiting class as it stands now is made up of a lot of top-notch guards and swing players.
But the UK players argued that they were undersized this year, too, and still set a new high-water mark for the program.
"This team is confident," Franklin said. "We've seen what can happen if you work hard and believe."
Another award for Dunlap
Dunlap was named Wednesday to the 10-player U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-America Team.
Dunlap is the first player from UK to earn the honor since the association began naming a team in 1997.
Joining Dunlap on the squad were Stanford's Jayne Appel and Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Connecticut's Tina Charles and Maya Moore, Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark, Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin, Ohio State's Jantel Lavender, Duke's Jasmine Thomas and Virginia's Monica Wright.
Charles was named player of the year, Baylor's Brittney Griner was freshman of the year, and Nebraska's Connie Yori was coach of the year.