KINGSTON, R.I. — Kentucky's players' eyes were red and swollen from tears, but they were already fixed on next season and the potential it holds.
"We're going to be as good if not better next year," freshman Bria Goss said. "We're going to take this loss, remember this feeling and get better from it."
Kentucky loses senior guards Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley, but it has lots of talent returning, including Southeastern Conference Player of the Year A'dia Mathies and Goss, the Freshman of the Year.
UK probably will be a top- five team in the pre-season with all but one starter returning and the addition of three McDonald's All-Americans into the rotation in California transfer DeNesha Stallworth; guard Jennifer O'Neill, who sat out this season after a foot injury; and incoming freshman point guard Janee Thompson.
All of those players coupled with the returning players will try to defend the program's first SEC regular-season title in 30 years.
"It's been a special season," Mathies said. "We've done things that haven't been done in the past."
But not fulfilling their ultimate goal of getting to a Final Four will motivate the team during the off-season, Mathies predicted.
"It's been a great year, and we've accomplished great things and we're going to use this to fuel our fire for next year," Mathies said.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said he would always be grateful to senior guards Snowden, Smith and Riley for what they contributed to the program.
"The program looks a lot different with them walking out of the door than it did with them walking in the door," Mitchell said.
During their time at UK, the Cats went from a bottom dweller in the SEC to a team that went to the NCAA Tournament three straight times, including two Elite Eight runs.
The three helped guide UK to the school's first SEC regular-season title in 30 years.
"Those kids have come in and really poured their heart and soul into the program," he said. "Those kids have poured out gallons of sweat, poured out blood and tears. It's a different looking program than when they got here, and you're just grateful for their contributions and hope you can honor that by continuing progress."
Snowden said she was counting on it.
As the senior leaves Kentucky, she's hoping the remaining players will continue to help the program grow.
"Over the past three years we've come so far as a team and a program, and I know these girls in this locker room are going to continue that tradition," she said.