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It was an experience like none other I have had in 27 years of writing.
I quickly accepted an invitation to watch the ESPN Selection Show for the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament with the Wildcats at Coach Matthew Mitchell's house Monday night.
I hesitated – there were some things that needed to be tended to in Anderson County – but eventually accepted.
And I have to admit it was an experience.
Along with perhaps 20 other media types, we all packed into Mitchell's family room with all 15 players, four coaches and others from UK media relations. The mood was cordial until 7 p.m., when the show started on ESPN, it was like a switch had been flipped.
What had been a jovial celebration of a great season suddenly grew quiet. Not deathly quiet, but a nervous tension that accompanies uncertainty.
Personally, I thought all along that Kentucky was worthy of a No. 2 seed, but that a late season swoon might bump UK down to a No. 3.
Not that it really matters. Really, there is very little difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3, but in the court of public opinion, it matters. It just looks better.
Monday, UK knew it was in the tourney. The Wildcats had won the SEC regular season championship, so there was little to sweat in that regard. They also knew they would get a relatively high seed, anything from a No. 4 on up. Probably higher.
But after the show started, the tension grew until just after 7:15, “Kentucky” popped up on the TV. Players, coaches and UK personnel erupted. The Wildcats are seeded second and will play McNeese State, a 15-seed, on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a really historic night for us, and we’re so excited,” Mitchell told the group of reporters. “It’s the first time in our school’s history that the women’s program has been to three straight tournaments. It’s the first time we’ve ever gotten a seed this high (since 1982). It’s a great night for us and we couldn’t be more excited about advancing to the tournament and getting a two seed and having a chance to compete for a national championship. It’s a real, real exciting night for our program.”
Two years ago, Kentucky went to the regional final, but never has a UK women’s team been seeded higher going into the tournament.
“We were expecting the two. I think the lowest we would have been was a three,” SEC Player of the Year A’dia Mathies said. “Just to get a two seed was the highest that we’ve gotten. We’re ready to play and we’re ready to go out there and show everybody what we’re about.”
This UK team has been so much fun to watch. But the road to a Final Four is going to be tough. If the Wildcats beat McNeese State, then they will most likely be taking on Iowa State on the Cyclones’ home floor in Ames.
That is one thing tougher about the women’s tourney than the men’s.
“That’s just the rub here in the tournament. It’s one of the difficult parts but I think it makes it exciting and makes it challenging,” Mitchell said. “Our team has worked hard to earn this seed, we’ve had some great success this year and we’ve been able to beat a lot of good teams. This time of year you better play well and you better be ready to beat anybody. That is one of the difficult parts about the tournament though.”
Then if UK survives long enough and the seedings hold, they will run into Connecticut.
Yes, that Connecticut. The 7-time national champ UConn. You know, Geno Auriemma’s team.
From this corner, I have always respected UConn and its big rival, Tennessee. Those two are the perennial standards of women’s hoops, much like UK, Duke, North Carolina and a few others have been on the men’s side for years.
But I have become a fan because of the work Mitchell has done at UK.
It says here that the Wildcats’ best hope is to get to the final, but in a tournament, you never really know.
“I think it’s going to be tough. I don’t think anybody (has it easy),” Mathies said. “Whether it be Baylor or McNeese State, whoever we’re playing, it’s going to be tough every game.”
Do yourself a favor and check out the UK women’s basketball team. They run and press, maybe more than the men’s team. If you can’t watch the game live, set your DVR or VCR.
You will be glad you did.