UK Women's Basketball

Mark Story: UK's effort against Lady Vols produced classic game

Kentucky's Kastine Evans battled Tennessee's Glory Johnson for the ball in Monday night's game in Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky's Kastine Evans battled Tennessee's Glory Johnson for the ball in Monday night's game in Memorial Coliseum.

A'dia Mathies walked to the foul line and drained one free throw, then another.

Tennessee was in Memorial Coliseum, there was 6:10 left in the game and Kentucky — having fought back from 48-38 down — now led 59-58. For just a moment, the old barn rocked with a vigor that Adolph Rupp himself would've recognized.

Before a loud crowd of 7,126 and a national ESPN2 audience, Kentucky was standing toe-to-toe with the mighty Orange and had the giant wobbling.

Which is when UK learned what generations of Southeastern Conference women's college basketball teams have found.

Getting the Lady Vols in trouble is one thing; knocking them out is a whole other deal.

No. 5 Tennessee (22-2, 10-0 SEC) outscored the Cats 15-8 down the stretch of an intense, physical matchup and escaped a determined Kentucky effort by winning 73-67.

"I'm just real disappointed we lost that game," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said.

The victory was UT's 13th in a row and snapped a seven-game Kentucky (18-5, 7-3) winning streak.

If this was the women's college basketball game of the year in Lexington — and it was — it lived up to every bit of the hype.

The atmosphere was electric. A televised game with a late start (9 p.m.) that came on a night with a snowstorm outside kept the Coliseum from selling out. The crowd that was there was loud and proud.

"What a great environment for women's basketball," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "I did see some orange, but I had to look way up high for it. That's a tribute to what Matthew and his staff have going here."

The pre-game story lines played out exactly as they should have.

Former Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss got a standing ovation from the Memorial Coliseum crowd when the Lady Vols assistant entered the court with the Tennessee coaching staff. It was a nice moment.

Once the game started, DeMoss got booed and good when she bounded on the floor to protest a first-half foul call during a TV timeout. That, too, was how it should be.

The game itself was a classic contrast in defensive styles. UK controlled the first half. Smallish Kentucky — with no player who played in the game taller than 6-foot-2 — used its relentless full-court press to harry Tennessee into a stunning 17 turnovers before intermission.

Said Summitt: "I was really grateful for a halftime."

In half two, it was the much bigger Lady Vols who were able to assert their will. Tennessee, which started a frontline that went 6-3, 6-6, 6-3 plus a 6-1 guard, won the rebounding battle 45-23 and scored 38 of their points in the paint.

After throwing the ball all around Lexington in half one, Tennessee had only seven turnovers in half two.

"We forced Tennessee into 17 turnovers in the first half, and we needed something close to that again in the second," Mitchell said. "You're not going to get that against a team as good as Tennessee very often, but that was what we needed."

The game also had star players stepping up in the brightest of spotlights.

Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap — should we consider the Nashville product to be Pat Summitt's Chris Lofton? — battled with the bigger Lady Vols and produced a 20-point, nine-rebound effort. UK's other star, sophomore Mathies, had 18 points and four assists.

Dunlap had 16 of her points in the first half, including Kentucky's first seven.

Meanwhile, Tennessee standout Shekinna Stricklen did her damage in half two, scoring 18 of her 20 after halftime.

The most impressive thing about the Kentucky effort was that the Cats played against UT — the SEC gold standard — as if they believed they belonged. They came achingly close to doing something special.

"That's why I'm so disappointed," Mitchell said. "Because I believe so much in the women we've got in our locker room."

Said Dunlap: "We had an opportunity to beat them and didn't."

Still, anyone who watched Kentucky stand eyeball to eyeball with Tennessee and never flinch has to be bullish on the direction of UK Hoops.

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