Matthew Mitchell asked his Kentucky players three simple questions before their game against South Carolina in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night:
1. How hard are you willing to work?
2. How tough can you be tonight?
3. How much fun can we have?
"I don't know the answer to No. 3," the Kentucky coach told the media after UK's nail-biter of a 53-50 victory. "I don't think anything about that game was fun."
No, the fun would come later as the players and coach watched Arkansas upset Tennessee in Knoxville, thus guaranteeing Mitchell and his No. 13 Cats at least a share of their first regular-season Southeastern Conference championship since the league started crowning a champ in that way.
Even though the UK players had just won a nip-and- tuck battle with the Gamecocks that included a crazy final nine seconds and they had just discovered that they won part of an SEC crown with one game left to play, they seemed unfazed.
"It's just because we don't want to stop here," freshman guard Bria Goss said. "We still have other goals. Yes, (Tennessee) lost. But we have to focus on this and what we have to do on Sunday."
Goss combined with junior A'dia Mathies to score 12 of UK's final 14 points.
Points were hard to come by late in the game, with the Cats managing one field goal in the final five minutes.
Kentucky (23-5, 12-3 SEC) had its largest lead, nine points, with 5:05 to play, but USC made a game of it in the final two minutes.
South Carolina (20-8, 9-6) was able to get within three points after Kentucky called a timeout it didn't have. That gave the Gamecocks two free throws, which they made, and the ball.
But UK's Maegan Conwright stole the inbounds pass to seal the victory, helping the Cats complete an undefeated home season for the third time in program history and the second time in three years.
We "gave ourselves a shot to win and that's all you can ask for," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said.
"We gave them a run; we had them on the ropes. We gave them a run for their money and they did a good job of protecting their home court."
Mathies, who scored seven of UK's first nine points and finished with 21 points, six rebounds and two steals, looked down at the box score and shrugged.
"I'm impressed with the total points, that we got the win," Mathies said. "They outrebounded us, got (more) points in the paint, same on turnovers and (they beat us) on second-chance points. So they really played a great game. ... I'm just glad we won."
Mathies was a big part of that, getting a basket on a fast break, UK's only bucket in the final five minutes and a key tip of a rebound in the waning seconds.
"I just tried to score my points, to get somebody open, to tip a rebound, make hustle plays," Mathies said.
That was the difference in the game.
"We were eventually able to make enough hustle plays, toughness plays," Mitchell said.
UK's players were especially pleased that they were able to do that on Senior Night for guards Keyla Snowden, Amber Smith and Crystal Riley.
"I couldn't be happier for our seniors," said Goss, who had 15 points. "I played for our seniors and I wanted the best for our seniors."
Snowden said the seniors weren't too worried about how many minutes they played (or didn't play) or how many points they scored in the victory, which was a school-record 12th in SEC play. It also was the Cats' 10th straight SEC win in Memorial Coliseum.
"When we look back on this 20 years from now, we're not going to worry about minutes or points, we're going to say we went undefeated (at home)," Snowden said, "that's what's most important."
And that they had a little fun doing it.