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Women's hoops climb back into top five following third straight win over Louisville

Kentucky women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has taken the Wildcats to new heights in his seven years at UK, including 27 straight weeks in the top 10 of the Associated Press top 25. (Photo by Jon Hale)

Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has taken the Wildcats to new heights in his seven years at UK, including 27 straight weeks in the top 10 of the Associated Press top 25. (Photo by Jon Hale)


Matthew Mitchell has turned Kentucky’s women’s basketball program from an SEC afterthought to a weekly fixture in the top 10 of national polls. Even then, the Wildcats’ win over Louisville on Sunday launched them into the upper echelon of the country’s best. When the new Associated Press top 25 poll was released Monday, the Wildcats came in at No. 5.
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Louisville was No. 4 and previously undefeated heading into Sunday’s matchup, and the Cardinals led 36-27 at halftime. Louisville led by as many as 14 at one point, but Kentucky asserted itself in the paint—DeNesha Stallworth scored 15 of her 16 points in the second half—and at the foul line. The Wildcats were 13-of-18 from the free-throw line in the final 20 minutes, compared to Louisville’s 4-of-4 from the foul line.


Kentucky has now won three games in a row in the rivalry, including an equally as improbable 48-47 comeback win last season when the Cardinals were hosting in front of 15,453 fans at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. In the previous two years, the Wildcats’ season eventually ended in the Elite Eight. Not that one game is an automatic signal of things to come for Kentucky’s season; it is to say, simply, Kentucky has become competitive on the highest level in the sport, that is consistently wins games against competition considered to be among the best in women’s hoops.


“It’s always so early in the season you don’t know exactly if you can get it done,” Mitchell said after Sunday’s win, about preparing for the annual Kentucky-Louisville game. “Personally, it’s a difficult game to prepare for. The styles are very different. You will hear often people say it’s hard to prepare for Kentucky because we can’t simulate the pressure. You can’t simulate what Louisville does because their players are so well-coached, so different from what we do, so it’s a very difficult game.”


Kentucky’s climb into the top five doesn’t seem out of place in Mitchell’s tenure at UK—this is his seventh season as the Wildcats’ coach—but in the context of the program’s history, it’s evident that what Mitchell has done is remarkable. Before Mitchell was hired away from Morehead State before the 2007-08 season, the Wildcats had spent a total of 26 weeks in the Associated Press top 25 in the program’s 33-season history.* Even then, all 26 of those weeks were spread across three seasons from 1980 to 1983: the Valerie Still era.


*The Associated Press poll ranked 20 teams until 1990, when it was changed to its current top-25 format.


In the last four years, when Mitchell’s program has really taken off, Kentucky has spent 44 weeks in the top 10, including 27 straight. Its lowest ranking in the 2012-13 season was No. 10, and it spent the first four weeks of this season at No. 7 before jumping two spots to No. 5 following the Louisville win.


From halfway through the 1984-85 season to Mitchell’s hiring before the 2007-08 season, Kentucky appeared in a total of 10 Associated Press polls. In two of those, both in the 2006-07 season, Kentucky was ranked 15th. The other eight poll appearances were between Nos. 20 and 25 in the poll. There was even a 12-season stretch in which Kentucky didn’t receive a single vote in a poll.


Of course, poll performance only indicates perception, and it doesn’t gauge actual performance (at least not directly). That Kentucky won its only SEC regular-season championship in school history in 2012, and that three of the school’s four Elite Eight appearances (it has never qualified for a Final Four) have come in the last four seasons, and that before that the school had only qualified for consecutive NCAA tournaments once—all of those are the direct indicators the polls may not be.


That Kentucky’s win over Louisville, the defending national runner-up, is a footnote win rather than a signature win is as good an indicator of any of how far women’s basketball has come at Kentucky under Mitchell.


“It is an electric atmosphere here; it’s an electric atmosphere over there (at Louisville),” Mitchell said after Sunday’s win. “And it is tremendous for women’s college basketball that in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, two of the best teams in the country are 60 miles apart, and we truly respect them. I feel like they compete really hard against us, which is a sign of respect. It’s a good time for women’s basketball in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

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