Janee Thompson looked bashful as her head coach grabbed the microphone and encouraged the Memorial Coliseum crowd to give one last sendoff to Kentucky’s lone senior.
Just as the guard from Chicago had done there on her senior night, she gave the Cats a big lift in her true final home game, scoring a team-best 16 points to lead Kentucky over Oklahoma 79-58.
It was a big night for Thompson, who joined the 1,000-point club with the victory as well. Her big plays helped propel Kentucky to their home away from home at Rupp Arena, where they will meet No. 7 seed Washington in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday night.
When leading scorer Makayla Epps went out briefly with a shoulder injury, Thompson took over the game, Mitchell said.
“She was just terrific,” he said. “I thought the start of the fourth quarter was amazing because we had just got done talking about being tough, and we turned a two-point lead into a 10-point lead; and then she comes out and goes to the line just on toughness plays, three straight times, and made them all.
“That was a really steadying factor in the game for us. It gave us a lift and a lot of confidence.”
Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale called Thompson’s clutch plays in the second half the difference in the game.
“She really looked like a senior running her team,” he said. “Third quarter we cut it to two. We’re doing everything right and she makes a couple of big shots and is just calm — her presence. It was just obvious that she was running the show there.”
Leaving Memorial Coliseum in that way, with a final bow and a loud roar from the crowd, seemed fitting for the senior, who sat out most of last season after breaking her leg at the start of Southeastern Conference play.
Thompson said she thought the 3,056 fans — not her — were a difference-maker.
“I will continue to say that we have the best fans in the country,” the senior said. “They were a big help today and it’s hard for opponents to play against a crowd like that. It was a lot of fun and it means a lot for me to be able to come out here and get a win.”
A new Blue Arrow?
Even though the men’s run is done, Maci Morris decided that the pretend arrow shooting after a made three-pointer a la Jamal Murray is not.
After her four made three-pointers, Morris pulled out her own version of the Blue Arrow, noting afterward that Murray started the move “but I think it’s OK for us to carry it over.”
Morris was a sure shot in warmups, Mitchell said.
Today I felt really calm and felt confident in everyone on the team because we knew what we had to do for each other.
UK’s Maci Morris
“I told her I didn’t know that she missed a shot in warmups,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to go in a game but man, she really did a good job there.”
Normally nervous before a regular-season game, Morris said she was unusually at ease before this one.
“Today I felt really calm and felt confident in everyone on the team because we knew what we had to do for each other,” the freshman said.
The fifth three-pointer she tried, which clanked off the rim, was a heat check, she admitted. “They were falling, so I was like, ‘Eh, why not?’”
The chance to play the next two games for a potential Final Four berth was overwhelming for the 2015 Kentucky Miss Basketball from Bell County.
“It’s one of the greatest opportunities ever,” she smiled. “Being from Kentucky, Rupp Arena and the history and the fans and the crowd. There’s no better atmosphere to play in.”
A peek ahead
It will be a reunion of sorts for Kentucky when it plays in the Sweet Sixteen against No. 7 seed Washington, which upset second-seeded Maryland 74-65 on Monday.
“Their coach (Mike Neighbors) is a good friend of mine; we sort of came up in the profession together,” Mitchell said. “They have one of the best players in the country in Kelsey Plum. And that’s about the extent to what I know about them.”