NASHVILLE — In the last two seasons, Matthew Mitchell, Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies & Co. have built a very good women's basketball team at Kentucky.
Mitchell seems well on his way to building a very strong program at UK.
Yet the distance between Kentucky and women's basketball greatness remains every bit as long as the stretch of I-75 between Lexington and Knoxville.
Tennessee showed the Wildcats what great looks like Sunday in the finals of the Southeastern Conference women's basketball tournament. Combining blistering outside shooting and a long-limbed defense that stifled the smaller Wildcats, UT hammered the Cats 90-65 before an overwhelmingly orange-clad crowd of 11,150 in the Bridgestone Arena.
It was the 15th SEC tourney crown for the iconic Pat Summitt and the second year in a row in which UT (31-2) beat UK (24-8) for the championship.
"I just can't imagine, when they shoot it like they did tonight, (that) they're not the best team in the country," Kentucky's Mitchell said of Tennessee.
When the Wildcats fought the No. 4 Lady Vols before succumbing 73-67 in Memorial Coliseum last month, UT hit but three three-pointers on only seven tries. With the championship trophy at stake Sunday, UT rifled in a school-record 16 treys on 21 attempts.
Yet as decisive as UT's white-hot shooting was Sunday, what separates Tennessee from Kentucky at this point is height and its impact on defense.
Tennessee's starters here went 6-foot-3, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1, 5-9. UK's stood 6-2, 6-1, 5-9, 5-7, 5-7.
The Lady Vols came off the bench with 6-6 Kelley Cain. At 5-11, UT's back-up point guard, Kamiko Williams, was 2 inches taller than Kentucky's first front-line sub, Maegan Conwright.
UK hit only 27.3 percent of its shots Sunday. Shots that were normally comfortable attempts for the Cats were contested and altered against a Tennessee roster that is every bit as athletic as it is long.
"You kind of have hesitations about when you are going to score, what you are looking at," UK's Dunlap said. "They kind of have that advantage over us."
Kentucky's scrambling, full-court-pressing style has proven it can bother even the regal Lady Vols. For Mitchell to close the ground on Tennessee, he has to attract players quick enough to press like Kentucky but tall enough to score against UT.
Every school in the country is going to covet the kind of players that fit that bill. So taking the step from very good team to a great one will be a major recruiting challenge.
That's a problem for the long-term. In the short term, Kentucky has to try to regroup from the strafing it took in Music City and get charged back up for the NCAA Tournament.
"We've had some tough times this year," Mitchell said. "We've had some very deflating losses. And each time this group has been able to bounce back. ... So I don't think we'll have a problem with (recovering emotionally)."
Before Sunday's SEC finals, the bracketology on ESPN.com had the UK women as a No. 4 seed in a bracket with Connecticut as the No. 1.
The biggest concern for the Cats and their NCAA hopes is likely the recurrent back problems that plagued standout guard Mathies this weekend. A combination of foul trouble and spasms limited the sophomore from Louisville to 15 minutes (and nine points) against UT.
"I'm concerned about A'dia," Mitchell said. "The MRIs didn't show anything. The X-rays didn't show anything. Hopefully we can get her back spasms calmed down with some treatment."
The good news for Kentucky is that, unless both reach the Final Four, it is not apt to see Tennessee again until next season.
In the last two seasons, UK is 52-12 against every women's college team it has played except one.
It is 0-4 against the Lady Vols.
For Kentucky, that remains the distance between very good and great.