Maybe the lasting image of Kentucky for fans is the Cats leaving the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament battered and bruised from running into what Coach Matthew Mitchell called a South Carolina “buzzsaw.”
That 30-point defeat for UK was its worst since 2013 when the Cats lost to eventual NCAA Tournament champion Connecticut.
But Kentucky isn’t wounded and limping into the NCAA Tournament starting on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum.
“That game didn’t define our season,” UK junior Makayla Epps said when asked about that loss of two weeks ago. “Our season didn’t end after that game. Before that we were on an eight-game winning streak, so we know what we’re capable of.”
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Just what Kentucky’s capable of is a question that looms large going into the tournament opener versus upstart UNC-Asheville, which went a combined 22-70 in its previous three seasons before going 26-6 this season and winning both the regular-season and Big South Conference Tournament championships.
It’s a clean slate for Kentucky,
and while there was much to learn from the loss to South Carolina, there was plenty to learn from all the Cats’ victories. Kentucky was outscoring Southeastern Conference opponents (many in the top 25 nationally) by 14.9 points and outrebounding them by 7.9 a game.
They are ready to play their best basketball of the season. It will be fun to watch, and I believe it will happen and hope it does happen because they’ve put a lot into this season.
“They are ready to play their best basketball of the season,” Mitchell said Friday. “It will be fun to watch, and I believe it will happen and hope it does happen because they’ve put a lot into this season.”
Even though it was by 19 points more than any other loss this season, it was easy for Kentucky (23-7) to erase the memories of the loss to the Gamecocks, which came after playing three games in three days in the SEC Tournament.
“Really, you just don’t think about it,” Mitchell said. “You don’t dwell on it when you have a team you feel is giving you everything they have. It’s a long season and basketball is a funny game.”
On Friday, as UK did pregame news conferences and practices, Mitchell took much of the blame for the Cats’ loss, saying his “poor game plan” allowed South Carolina to make 12 three-pointers, their most this season.
“I just told them if you look through 30 games and 23-7 and how we got there and how we did it, you just can’t let one afternoon, one two-hour period when we were not at our best, you can’t concern yourself or dwell on that,” he said.
So the players are taking that “new season” mentality into the NCAA Tournament, which if they keep advancing could mean four games on some variation of the Cats’ home court to earn the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four.
“The SEC Tournament was heartbreaking for a lot of us, but we didn’t feel like we played the way we should have in that game,” senior guard Janee Thompson said. “At this point, coaches told us that we have a new season so it’s been easy for us to mentally put that behind us and start fresh.”
After the SEC Tournament, Mitchell gave the players four days off to “catch their breath” and refocus on the task at hand. Since then, the players and coaches said the Cats have a renewed sense of self and confidence.
“We are ready to go,” Thompson said. “It feels like it’s been so long and a lot of us are itching to play again. … We are peaking at the right time. There’s no better time than in March.”
UNC-Asheville at Kentucky
What: NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional first-round game
Where: Memorial Coliseum
When: About 4 p.m.
Radio: WWTF-AM 1580
Location: Asheville, N.C.
School colors: Royal blue and white
Head coach: Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick (48-76 in fourth season at UNC Asheville); she was a five-year assistant coach at Florida before being hired by the Bulldogs in 2012.
Conference: Big South Conference (Bulldogs won the regular-season title and tournament championship)
All-time series: UK leads 2-0
Most recent meeting: Kentucky won 70-55 on Feb. 1, 1995, in Asheville.