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LEXINGTON -- Things have sure changed since Loretta Lynn introduced the world to the Blue Kentucky Girl.
Some mornin' when you wake up all alone
Just come on home to your blue Kentucky girl.
Let's just say the Blue Kentucky women are a long way from being alone these days.
No country blues allowed. Just high-energy fun, all in line with the Wildcats' season motto, “Can you hear us now?”
Alone? Hardly. In the building that was once the hoops home of Hagan, Nash, Dampier and Issel, there are new stars, new expectations and new fans.
Lots of new fans are hearing the Wildcats now.
That is what going 28-8 and making the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament will do. “The best marketing plan is winning and playing exciting basketball,” University of Kentucky women's coach Matthew Mitchell said at his team's Media Day last month.
UK is doing just that with a push-it-the-court attack and a swarming defense that sometimes makes opponents swear there are 10 blue and white jerseys on the floor. In an exhibition win over Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, UK turned a close game into a rout when it turned up the defensive heat and went on a 32-0 run in the second half. UK won 99-55 and forced 40 turnovers.
There are some major questions about the UK team, namely how it will replace point guard Amber Smith, who is out indefinitely with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. LSU transfer Crystal Riley started at the point against Kentucky Wesleyan and freshman Jennifer O'Neill, from the Bronx, N.Y., is also expected to see action there.
Last season, UK made the gigantic leap from a .500 team to one that was one game from the school's first Final Four. By the end of the season, those Wildcats were playing to near packed houses at Memorial Coliseum. And people took notice that of Mitchell, SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap and perhaps the most highly sought after recruit in UK history, Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies of Louisville.
On the heels of last year's success, Mitchell brought in a freshman class that was in everybody's Top 10. When he signed O'Neill, it marked the first time a McDonald's All-American had cast her lot with the UK program.
Fan interest has multiplied.
“We have been fortunate that we have always had a good core of fans,” Mitchell said, noting that UK's attendance has routinely been among the nation's Top 25 women's programs.
But even with some decent teams, the UK women have been overshadowed by conference powers Tennessee, LSU and Georgia.
And, of course, there is another basketball team in Lexington that commands more than a little bit of media attention.
Last year, however, John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and company were regulars at Memorial Coliseumn and during last week's exhibition with Kentucky Wesleyan, Wildcat coach John Calipari and assistant coach Orlando Antigua watched from the balcony just above the Kentucky band.
Mitchell himself brought the program some recognition when he danced a “Dougie” during his introduction at Big Blue Madness on Oct. 15.
The media has also taken notice. Several media members noted a significant increase in numbers at this year's Media Day. Nothing like the overflow crowd that attends Calipari's season-opening press conference, but still an increase.
At Media Day, Mitchell entertained questions, including some about his “Dougie” for more than 45 minutes.
“There has been a slight increase, especially nationally,” says Susan Lax, UK's Associate Director of Media Relations in charge of women's basketball.
And don't look now, but in the Associated Press pre-season poll, voted on by the media, the UK women's No. 9 ranking is two notches higher than the men.
But even if the women were not ranked in the Top 10, it is still FUN.
So says Autumn Boblitt, of Lawrenceburg, who became a UK women's basketball fan last year.
“We started following them last year when (her daughter) Lauren showed a little interest in basketball,” Boblitt said. “I arranged for our softball team to have an outing at one of their games and we had a ball!”
It is not an unusual assessment.
“I like to go when I can,” says Anderson County High School player Sydney Brown. “I like how they play. They play hard and they play as a team.”
Brown, a junior center, says she went to about five or six games last year.
“We took our team over for two games last year,” says Anderson County girls' basketball coach Tony Kays. “Several girls went to some other games on their own. Interest in UK womens' basketball seems to be at an all-time high. I personally would love to see one of our kids play there some day.”
That dream might drive any young woman playing the sport. In the past, many of the state's top players ended up elsewhere, but with Mathies seen as being on the verge of stardom and with Mitchell landing big-time players Samantha Drake (Nelson County) and Sarah Beth Barnette (Lexington Christian), girls' high school players are looking to Lexington.
(Drake played against Anderson County several times in her high school career. Anderson was also scheduled to play Lexington Christian the last two years, but both games were canceled because of inclement weather.)
“I think it's great that Coach Mitchell has been able to land several of the state's top players,” says Anderson assistant coach Clay Birdwhistell. “As a fan of basketball, its been fun to watch a player like Mathies, who I saw in high school five or six times, become the SEC Freshman of the Year.”
UK opened the season over the weekend, playing Morehead State at home and Miami of Ohio on the road after press time for this issue. However, the home game with 12th-ranked Notre Dame, set for Sunday, Nov. 21 has been designated as “Pack the House” day.
It is expected to be quite a test for the Wildcats.
And with a win, everyone will hear them now.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.