LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky came up a game short of repeating as Southeastern Conference regular-season champions.
But the seventh-ranked Wildcats are confident they can win the conference tournament.
Tennessee ended Kentucky's one-year reign as regular season champs, but the Wildcats believe they served notice that they are the tournament favorite with Sunday's victory over the Lady Volunteers. The win clinched second place and a first-round bye in the tournament that began Wednesday in Duluth, Ga. Kentucky (25-4, 13-3) faces the Missouri-Vanderbilt winner on Friday.
Kentucky's victory against Tennessee also marked a return to form as they used their depth, and mixed tough defense with balanced offense, to wear down the Lady Volunteers. Believing that game was more indicative of their ability, players are confident of winning the program's first tournament title since 1982.
"I think it was a game needed as a team because that helped our confidence," first team all-conference forward DeNesha Stallworth said. "Just knowing that if we play like that every game and as a team, it should be a great outcome on the scoreboard."
Kentucky's lone SEC title came in 1982 under coach Terry Hall, who guided the Wildcats to four tournament wins on their home floor including the final against Tennessee. They didn't reach the championship again until 2010, the first of back-to-back appearances ending with losses to the Lady Vols.
Last year's berth with the school's first-ever No. 1 seeding ended with a semifinal loss to LSU — which also derailed Kentucky's regular season title hopes with a victory on Feb. 24 in Baton Rouge. The Wildcats didn't play badly in that game but struggled to come from behind against a Tigers squad that shot 53 percent from the field.
Kentucky has recovered with a rout of Mississippi and a beating of Tennessee that boosted their morale on many levels. Besides forcing 31 turnovers for 33 points, the Wildcats dominated the inside and shot 9 of 26 (35 percent) from beyond the arc.
"Everybody had to feel good about what was going on Sunday," said Mitchell, who became Kentucky's winningest coach with the victory. "We've played some very good basketball this year. We were so disappointed with that loss in Baton Rouge and even the win against Ole Miss. We did some good things but I still didn't think we were back to our normal selves.
"Sunday, we were able to get back to playing Kentucky basketball and I think everybody should feel good about that."
Most impressive were contributions from Kentucky's reserves, which outscored Tennessee's bench 22-11 and actually increased the lead in the first half after Mitchell swapped out his starters. Former starting guard Bria Goss has thrived in seven games as a reserve, scoring five times in double figures.
Junior Kastine Evans meanwhile has come in to complement SEC co-player of the year A'dia Mathies and Jennifer O'Neill in the backcourt with a combination of scoring, defense and energy. She had a season-high five assists against the Lady Volunteers and is averaging 7.0 points in seven games since replacing Goss, giving Kentucky three guards capable of handling the ball and shooting it.
Add in a bench dedicated to maintaining momentum, and the Wildcats think they have the pieces to make a deep run in the SEC tournament and the NCAA, where a high seed could be looming.
"We will see how it goes," Mitchell said of his bench. "I think that could be a great thing for us in the tournament setting. We just need to make sure that we get production out of that group. The second unit went in against Tennessee and increased the lead so that was huge. If they can do that, that would be a great pattern to get into."
One pitfall the Wildcats want to avoid is underestimating teams they've already beaten soundly such as Missouri (69-43) and Vanderbilt (75-53). Mindful that anything can happen with a compacted schedule at a neutral site, players want to make sure they're fully focused this weekend.
That shouldn't be an issue considering the possibility of facing the three SEC teams that beat them — LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, each by five points or fewer — deeper in the bracket. No matter who's next, the Wildcats' objective remains closing the deal on a conference title after coming close before, perhaps more so since the regular season title slipped away from them.
"It means a little extra," Evans said. "We have certain goals and we didn't reach the goal of the regular season SEC championship. This is another goal."