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Jamie Vaught: With UK dancing at Rupp, NCAA Women’s tournament has definite SEC look

Kentucky women’s 79-58 NCAA Tournament victory over a very respectable Oklahoma squad earlier this week was really awesome.

So sweet that the No. 3 seed Wildcats will still be staying home to participate in NCAA Sweet Sixteen in the Lexington Regional, joining Washington, Stanford and favored Notre Dame. In addition, UK’s Friday night showdown (ESPN2, 7 p.m.) with Washington will mark the first time the UK women’s program has ever played an NCAA Tournament game at Rupp Arena.

Last Monday’s matchup played before a loud crowd of over 3,000 at Memorial Coliseum also partially erased a big disappointment UK had suffered last season when it was knocked out on its home floor following a second-round upset by Dayton.

And the 12th-ranked Wildcats’ emotional win over the Sooners was one of the more exciting basketball games that I’ve seen in person this season, including the men’s. Even though I have covered nearly all of UK men’s home games as well as the SEC Tournament in Nashville, I have had lots of fun covering women’s action in Lexington, including games with Colorado, Duke, South Carolina and Tennessee as well as the NCAA tournament.

UK Hoops' Maci Moore and Janee Thompson met with the media along with coach Matthew Mitchell as the team prepared to play Washington in the NCAA tournament in Rupp Arena (Jamie Vaught Photo)

UK Hoops’ Maci Morris and Janee Thompson met with the media along with coach Matthew Mitchell as the team prepared to play Washington in the NCAA tournament in Rupp Arena (Jamie Vaught Photo)

Following UK’s likable players like Makayla Epps, Janee Thompson, Maci Morris (who is from my current hometown in Bell County), to name a few, has been entertaining and it has certainly made my writing and photography job more fun. It’s so much easier to compose my thoughts on paper when you are having fun, right?

I can talk about All-SEC junior Evelyn Akhator from Nigeria. What about 6-2 sophomore backup Alexis Jennings, who grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and blocked six shots against Oklahoma? I can go on and on.

Despite the departures of several players last fall, Kentucky’s 25-7 squad – which only has nine players on its active roster — is filled with pleasant personalities. They have played well together and coach Matthew Mitchell, who is 15-6 in the Big Dance, is having a ball with these student-athletes.

“I think our team’s getting better,” said Mitchell. “We are improving and these kids are still excited to play. It’s a real, real blessing to be involved with a group of young people like this. They are fun to coach and we’re having some fun right now.”

And after making long downtown jumpers, Morris, a pure shooting freshman product from Bell County High School, is having fun with her imaginary bow-and-arrow celebration, becoming UK’s female version of rookie sensation Jamal Murray.

“I think it’s okay for us to carry it over,” smiled Morris, the 2015 Kentucky’s Miss Basketball who hit 4 of 5 three-pointers against Oklahoma.

Added Mitchell, “I thought Maci gave us a lift early when she made her first four 3s. She was lighting it up in warmups. I told her I didn’t know that she missed a shot in warmups. You never know how it’s going to go in a game but man, she really did a good job there.”

Morris, by the way, established the school NCAA Tournament record for consecutive 3-pointers after going 3-of-3 against UNC Asheville last Saturday and 4-of-4 on her first four attempts against Oklahoma.

The thrilling game was actually much closer than the final score indicated. After Epps hurt her shoulder in the middle of third quarter, the Sooners — whose highly-regarded veteran coach, Sherri Coale, has taken the school to three Final Fours — bounced back and got within two points of tying the score three times.

With Epps – a first-team All-American who remarkably managed to come up with 13 points and seven rebounds – struggling along with her painful injury, the Cats still finally broke it open when Thompson, an All-SEC point guard, took charge and played outstanding defense. She finished with a game-high 16 points, including 7 of 8 free throws.

“When Makayla went out, she was just terrific,” said Mitchell of Thompson.

Thompson, a senior from Chicago, commented, “It really set in for me that I needed to step up when Makayla got hurt because she looked like she was hurting pretty bad and I wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to come back. She’s one of the best scorers in the country and we were struggling to score so I tried to just attack and make sure we locked in on defense because if we couldn’t score, I knew that we could stop them and make sure that they couldn’t score.

“If we play defense like that (in fourth quarter) and continue to get better, we’re hard to beat.”

Sadly, Thompson has played her last game at historic Memorial Coliseum. She is very thankful for the fan support in her Wildcat career, which included a gruesome broken leg injury during her junior year.

“They were a big help today and it’s hard for opponents to play against a crowd like that,” said Thompson, who on February 25 poured in a career-high 24 points on Senior Night against Missouri. “It was a lot of fun and it means a lot for me to be able to come out here and get a win.”

Looking ahead to Friday night’s game, Kentucky and Washington (24-10) have three common opponents this season – Oklahoma, Arizona State and Colorado.

The Huskies dropped to the Sooners 71-68 in December. While the Cats defeated Arizona State 68-64 on the road in overtime, Washington lost to the Sun Devils twice (68-61 and 77-57). With Kentucky beating Colorado, the Huskies met the Buffaloes three times, winning each time.

UK is not the only team from the SEC in NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Three other conference schools in this Easter weekend’s action are Mississippi State (which faces top-ranked UConn), Tennessee (vs. Ohio State) and South Carolina (vs. Syracuse).

Unlike the SEC men which only had three teams (UK, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M) in the NCAA tournament, the conference women had nine teams sent to the Big Dance. This is the most ever by the SEC teams to receive bids to the NCAA tourney in league history. It is also only the second time in NCAA history that one conference has sent nine schools to the tourney. (Big East in 2011 was the other league.)

By playing in arguably the nation’s toughest conference, Kentucky has had a lot of healthy competition to prepare for post-season action. UK’s 10-6 conference record during the regular season isn’t very shabby. Only Dawn Staley’s South Carolina squad had a perfect league record at 16-0, while the other top SEC teams were bunched together with records like 11-5, 10-6 and 9-7.

So Kentucky is obviously ready and shooting for its first-ever Final Four trip in school history. It won’t be easy but the Cats have a decent chance if they play aggressive defense. In addition, the Lexington Regional has teams with numerous Final Fours on their resume. Look at Notre Dame and Stanford.

If the Cats advance to Indianapolis, they could possibly match up with one of the SEC teams – South Carolina or Tennessee (if it keeps winning) — in the national semifinals. Would that be interesting?

For UK, playing at Rupp Arena can’t hurt. Remember legendary coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols who have won a handful of national titles? They had some help by playing at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville during the NCAA tourney, too. Rupp Arena, by the way, again will be the site of the NCAA’s Lexington Regional in 2017 and 2018.

Regardless of this weekend’s outcome, we do know this Kentucky club is very special. And Mitchell knows it.

“Let me tell you something, this team loves one another,” said the Wildcat boss. “It is a beautiful thing to be coaching this team right now, because these are great kids that really, really have come together and they are a true team. And we talk about that all the time from the standpoint of ‘go make a play for your team,’ because not only is it good for you, your team cares so much about you. We really get excited when someone else does something great. I mean we really get excited and I love that.

“It’s a balanced team. Like I said a little bit earlier, we are a true team. We play for each other. They’re not overly concerned about who gets the credit. They just want each other to be successful. And it’s a really fun, beautiful thing to be a part of right now.”


Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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