Mark Story

One state has rescued UK’s Matthew Mitchell. It is not Kentucky.

When seven players and five recruits parted ways with the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program during and after the 2015-16 season, there seemed one obvious path back for Matthew Mitchell.

There looked to be enough rising talent in the state of Kentucky to rescue Mitchell.

Eight in-state prospects since 2016 have both 1.) been ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz in the top 70 players in the country; 2.) held UK scholarship offers.

Alas, the Wildcats have signed only one of them — Harlan County’s Blair Green, ranked No. 70 in the class of 2018.

Nevertheless, Mitchell now looks to have the UK program headed back to where it was before “the troubles” — because another state has thrown the coach a major recruiting lifeline.

In his time of need, the state of Tennessee has come through for Mitchell.

The recruiting commitment on Monday of prized Chattanooga wing Treasure Hunt to UK’s class of 2020 was the continuation of a happy trend for the Wildcats.

Since the great player exodus of 2016, Mitchell and Kentucky have signed or currently hold verbal commitments from 13 high school players.

Five of them have come from Tennessee.

Memphis sent fiery point guard Jaida Roper to UK in the summer of 2016, a time when negative recruiters were having a field day at Kentucky’s expense.

Nashville center Dorie Harrison and Knoxville forward Keke McKinney each chose UK in the class of 2017, when Kentucky still faced fierce recruiting headwinds.

The following year Cleveland, Tenn., sent Rhyne Howard, a player of transcendent ability, to Kentucky.

Next up will be Hunt, a multi-skilled 6-foot-1 wing, who turned down Baylor and South Carolina, among others, to pick UK.

It is hard to overstate how important these Tennessee players have been to the revamping of Mitchell’s program.

A former Louisiana Tech signee, Roper, now a senior, has turned out to be a big-shot maker and inspirational floor presence at Kentucky.

McKinney, now a Wildcats junior, is already a multi-year starter and has become a “glue player” who does the unappreciated things that lead to winning.

Keke McKinney
Kentucky’s KeKe McKinney grabbed an offensive rebound Tuesday in the Wildcats’ 67-44 win over Mount St. Mary’s at Memorial Coliseum. Matt Goins

Howard swept every major national freshman of the year award after a banner first season in UK blue. In her remaining seasons at Kentucky, the sophomore has realistic aspirations of becoming the national player of the year.

Harrison was a contributing player for UK as a freshman in 2017-18. She sat out last season for unspecified personal health reasons and subsequently transferred to Lipscomb. Still, Harrison choosing Kentucky at the time she did gave UK Hoops a perception boost when it was needed.

Hunt, who played AAU basketball with Howard, is ranked the No. 10 prospect in the class of 2020 by All-Star Girls Report, No. 15 by Prospects Nation and No. 28 by ESPN.

The Kentucky coaching staff knows the state of Tennessee well, as every member has ties to the University of Tennessee.

Mitchell served as a graduate assistant on the staff of Lady Vols icon Pat Summitt during the 1999-2000 season.

Assistants Kyra Elzy (1996-2001) and Niya Butts (1996-2000) both played for Summitt and each earned NCAA championship rings in 1997 and 1998. Elzy served as a Lady Vols assistant under Holly Warlick from 2012-2016.

Assistant Amber Smith, a former UK point guard, was a UT graduate assistant in 2013-14.

Those connections south of the state border have come in handy at a time when it has seemed easier to get high-level talent to leave Tennessee than it once was.

It sounds funny to say of Kentucky’s currently No. 13-ranked team, but 2019-2020 shapes up as something of a “bridge year” for the Cats.

The graduation of star guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray off of last season’s 25-8 team makes it very much still to be determined what the ceiling is for the current Wildcats.

Next season, however, Mitchell’s program should be fully back to where it was before “the troubles”: A “top 10-ish” program still searching for a Final Four breakthrough.

Not only is Hunt coming north to join Howard in 2020-21, Kentucky will also be set for a full season from point guard Chasity Patterson. The Texas transfer, who was ranked No. 4 in the class of 2017 by ESPN, will not be eligible this season until Dec. 21.

UK will also add Dre’una Edwards, a 6-2 post presence, who is sitting out this season after earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors last season while averaging 11.6 ppg and 6.7 rpg for Utah.

As funny as it sounds to say, the biggest reason that the future again looks promising for Kentucky women’s basketball is that the state of Tennessee has ridden to its rescue in what was a time of need.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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