For Kentucky women’s basketball, the end came in a hauntingly familiar way.
A year ago, a veteran-laden No. 7 seed, Dayton, came to Lexington and ended the Wildcats’ season in the NCAA Tournament second round in Memorial Coliseum with ruthlessly efficient offensive execution.
Friday night, a veteran-laden No. 7 seed, Washington, came to Lexington and ended the Wildcats’ season in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 in Rupp Arena with ruthlessly efficient offensive execution.
Behind brilliant performances from senior Talia Walton (30 points), junior Chantel Osahor (19 points, 17 rebounds, five assists) and junior Kelsey Plum (23 points, six rebounds, seven assists), Washington ended UK’s season 85-72 before a spirited crowd of (mostly) disappointed Cats fan in Rupp Arena.
The Huskies (24-10) will make their first appearance in a regional final since 2001 in Sunday’s elite eight in Rupp.
No. 3 seed Kentucky (25-8) saw its season ended two wins short of the Final Four in spite of 30 points from Makayla Epps.
“We got in a game tonight where their kids locked in and made some plays,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Our defense, it’s sad to say, it just wasn’t there.”
Up only five at halftime, Washington shot 19-for-32 (59.4 percent) in the second half.
A season ago, led by senior star Ally Malott, Dayton shot 64 percent in the second half (16-for-25) while upsetting Kentucky in Lexington.
One risk of getting to play NCAA Tournament games in your hometown is it brings a certain degree of pressure.
Kentucky opened the game tight Friday night, missing 16 of its first 19 shots. Washington took the lead with 42 seconds to go in the first quarter on a three-pointer by Walton, and UK never regained it.
The Huskies led by as many as 13 in the second quarter and as much as 15 in the third. Every time Kentucky made a run, it seemed Walton, a 6-foot-2 senior, would nail a turnaround jump shot or Osahor, a husky 6-2 post player, would rifle in a set-shot three pointer (she hit 4 of 8).
“Washington had moments where they out-toughed us,” Epps said. “I just hope we can look in the mirror and learn from it. We’ve got a lot of people coming back — a very young team.”
This was an odd season for Kentucky. The year began with four players leaving the program for various reasons after the school year had begun.
Mitchell found himself with only nine eligible scholarship players. Even before that, the UK coach had also come to an awareness that the full-court-pressing style he had used to build UK Hoops into a perennial top-15 program was not going to take the Wildcats to a Final Four.
So Mitchell began this season promising far more emphasis on offensive execution in the half court.
With its season on the line Friday night, Kentucky shot 40 percent. Of UK’s seven NCAA Tournament losses under Mitchell, that’s the second highest shooting percentage in one of those games.
But the Cats never really recovered from going 5-for-23 in the first quarter.
“We just kept getting the ball at the rim time after time after time,” Mitchell said. “ … the ball just would not go through the hoop for us so many times.”
Mitchell has 15 of Kentucky’s 19 NCAA Tournament wins. The past seven years have yielded five trips to the Sweet 16 and three Elite Eights.
Yet until Kentucky figures out a way to punch through and make a Final Four, there will be questions about whether Mitchell can get the Cats there.
That’s just sports.
Still, there are ample reasons to think next year could bring a viable shot for UK to advance to the final weekend.
Due to graduation losses, the separation between the elite and the rest of women’s college basketball should not be quite so great next year.
UK will lose only one player, but senior guard Janee Thompson is an important one. Fighting back from a gruesome leg injury that ended her junior season, Thompson was the emotional leader of the 2015-16 Wildcats.
Kentucky will have Epps back for one more go-around. The former Marion County standout should have a chance to be a First Team All-American next season.
UK returns all of its inside players. Expect for junior college National Player of the Year Evelyn Akhator to take a big step forward offensively in 2016-17.
With the University of Kentucky having signed a three-year deal with the NCAA to host regional tournaments in Rupp Arena, the Cats will also have another year in which they can try to make the Final Four without ever leaving Lexington.
For that to happen, UK needs to flip the script from its last two season-ending losses and become the team whose second-half execution will not be denied.
“You have to really credit (Washington) for shooting the ball well and putting the ball in the basket,” Mitchell said. “That’s what you have to do this time of year.”