CHILDRESS: UK Women's Season in Review, part two

Life can be hard in the nation's toughest conference when it comes to women's basketball. Where else are you going to face nation's top two teams and also take on another 3 or 4 Top 25 opponents. What other league has 10 of its 12 teams compete in post-season play. None. This is life in the SEC.

Conference play. 

Life can be hard in the nation’s toughest conference when it comes to women’s basketball.  Where else are you going to face nation’s top two teams and also take on another 3 or 4 Top 25 opponents.   What other league has 10 of its 12 teams compete in post-season play.  None.  This is life in the SEC.  It’s a life that Mickie DeMoss is quite familiar with, though, she was accustomed to being on the top of the ladder and looking down for 18 years at Tennessee, not with being at the bottom rung looking up.  Its not a fun position to be in when trying to rebuild a program that had been stagnant for years.  DeMoss and her young ‘Cats were picked by the coaches and media to finish dead last in the conference. 

Conference play would not start out well for the ‘Cats.  On the Friday prior to going to Alabama, freshman center Eleia Roddy would injure her knee in practice.  It would be determined that Roddy’s injury was severe enough to require surgery and she would miss the rest of the season.  This would be a blow to UK as Roddy had been getting significant minutes in the post and she was showing her ability to eat glass.  It would also leave UK thin in the post.   

Against Alabama, UK would fall behind early and find themselves down 19-10.  However, UK would battle back, sparked by Nastassia Alcius and Danyelle Payne off the bench.  Those two would combine for 16 points and 6 rebounds in a 19-2 first half spurt that would give UK at 29-21 lead at the half.  UK would extend the lead to 11 during the second half.  Again, though, UK would relinquish its large lead and allow Alabama to tie at 41-41 with 5:35 remaining.  The teams would battle back and forth for the remainder of the half with UK taking a 54-52 lead on a pair of Samantha Mahoney free throws with 26 seconds left.  Mahoney had 21 points for the game.  UK would extend its lead to 4 with 11 seconds left on free throws by Jennifer Humphrey.  Alabama would cut the lead to 54-56 with 3 seconds remaining and immediately foul Payne.  Payne would go to the line and make the first one.  Payne missed the second and ‘Bama’s Marverly Nettles grabbed the rebound.  Nettles released a shot from halfcourt.  The shot would fall short, but on a controversial call, the officials called a foul on Sara Potts, saying that she had bumped Nettles on the shot.  Nettles went to the line and sank all 3, sending the game to overtime.  During OT, ‘Bama jumped out from the beginning and never looked back.  A deflated UK team would lose 63-69. 

In the SEC, you can’t afford to keep your head down for long.  Coach DeMoss met with her players the next day after the Alabama game and particularly Potts and told them to let it go and move on.  They would have to if they were going to survive.  UK next welcomed #18 Georgia to Rupp Arena.  It was the final game of 3 that UK played in Rupp during this season.   The teams battled back and forth and the game was tied 13-13 with 13:24 remaining in the first half when UK went on a run.  The trio of Potts, Keiko Tate, and Mahoney would go on a tear and UK would garner a 37-22 lead with 3:41 remaining in the first half.  UGa would cut into the ‘Cats lead, but UK would lead 43-41 at the half.  During the second half, UK would maintain its 12-point lead, only to see UGa cut it to 63-61 with 3:02 remaining.  Would UK suffer another collapse?  Not this time.   This time the ‘Cats would hold tough.   Freshman Sarah Elliott would prove to be key, scoring 6 of UKs final 8 points of the game and giving UK a 71-63 win. 

After the game, Coach DeMoss stated, “It was a great win for Kentucky women’s basketball. It’s a win that we’ve been waiting for a while now, especially coming off of a loss at Alabama like we did…..I don’t know if it’s a statement win, but it’s a great win. I think it certainly will help us confidence wise and we’ve been talking about getting that big win. I thought Wake Forest was a big win for us. Beating Georgia, I don’t know the last time Kentucky has beaten Georgia. It’s always a great win because of the tradition that Georgia has.”  

UK would next return to Memorial Coliseum to face Ole Miss.  It was a hard fought game but one that was never in jeopardy for UK.  Sara Potts would hang 17 on Ole Miss and another of those fabulous freshmen would have a breakout game.  This time it would be Chante Bowman, who captured her first career double double with an 11 point and 11 rebound effort.  Sarah Elliott would also toss in 10 points and grab 5 boards and Nastassia Alcius would add 13 points.  UK moved to 13-5 on the season and 2-1 in the conference.  In the addition, the ‘Cats were riding a 10-game home winning streak for the season.

UK would then go on the road and meet Mississippi State.  Mississippi State had the nation’s leading scorer in Tan White and she would prove why she’s an All-American that night.  White would score 29 that night.  Mississippi State would do what no one else had all season and clamp down on Sara Potts.   I’m reminded of what Nolan Richardson said about the UK men’s team several years ago in regards to Anthony Epps and shutting down UK, “If you cut off the head, the body will die.”  The ‘Cats lost 59-72. 

It didn’t get any easier with the ‘Cats next going on the road to face #7 Tennessee in Knoxville.  Prior to the game, Tennessee honored Coach DeMoss for her 18 years of service to their women’s basketball program with a presentation at midcourt.  However, when the ball was tipped, the niceties ended.  UK would score the first points of the game and then fall behind quickly.   As Mississippi State had done, UT clamped down on Sara Potts.  Samantha Mahoney would be the one bright spot, scoring 15 points.  UK would lose 49-67 in what was likely its worst offensive performance of the season. 

Things didn’t get any easier when the ‘Cats returned home.  The next opponent on tap was #23 Vanderbilt.  UK held steady with Vandy, going into the half tied 34-34.  However, Vandy would prove to be too much for UK and the ‘Cats turned the ball over too many times in the second half.  UK would lose again, 67-73.  In addition, Sarah Elliott would tear cartilage in her knee that would affect her for the rest of the season.  If there was a positive from this game, it was that the freshmen continued to exert themselves, with Elliott scoring 20 and Mahoney tossing in 15 while grabbing 9 boards. 

DeMoss and her team would next host South Carolina.  Against South Carolina, the freshman duo of Elliott and Mahoney would show up again.  Elliott would score 16 and grab 9 rebounds, while Mahoney would get 10 boards.  Potts would finally get some breathing room and toss in 17.  Most importantly, UK got scoring from the point guard spot.  Fan favorite, Angela Phillips, turned in an outstanding game, scoring 14 points, dishing out 4 dimes, and grabbing 3 steals.  After the game, Coach DeMoss commented on her floor general, “That kid never ceases to amaze me. I thought she really stepped up big when we needed a basket. She had some steals against their break. She had four rebounds, two offensive rebounds but that’s just such a mark of a winner and a point guard that just refuses to let this team lose. At 5-3 and 110 lbs., she’s got the heart the size of Lexington. We would get a little rattled and she would settle us back down. We’d go dry, she’d hit a three. She was able to step up and really do some good things for us today. She handled their pressure, handled their press, I just can’t say enough good things about the way she played today.” 

After the USC game, UK would move to 14-8 and 3-4 in the conference.  The remainder of the SEC schedule would not be kind to DeMoss and her crew.  With teams honing in on Sara Potts and now putting Elliott on their radar screen, the ‘Cats would struggle.  UK dropped its next 6 games, falling to Georgia, Florida, Auburn, #1 LSU, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. 

UK would close the season at home versus on Arkansas.  Besides wanting to send the seniors out with a win and break the losing streak, the game meant much more to UK.  If the ‘Cats could defeat Arkansas, they would finish the regular season with a record of 15-14.  This would be big for the program.  It would be its first winning season since the 99-00 season.  It would be another sign that DeMoss had the program headed in the right direction.  The ‘Cats would get this much needed win.  In this game, UK took the lead and never looked back.  Sara Potts was able to shake loose for a change and put up 27 points along with 10 boards.  This would be the beginning of an outstanding run by Potts.     Sarah Elliott would also toss in 11 points and add 7 rebounds.  UK would defeat Arkansas, 73-67. 

Post season. 

Kentucky would enter the SEC tourney as a 10-seed.  They would face 7-seed, Auburn.  The Lady Tigers would jump out quickly on UK.  During the first half, UK found itself down as many as 11.  In the second half, the ‘Cats would fall even further behind, dropping back 15 before making a run.  At the 4:37 mark, UK cut the lead to 5, but could not break through.  During the final minute of the game, UK was able to get the Auburn lead to 3, but Auburn held steady and defeat UK, 62-57.  Potts would lead UK with 22 points. 

UK would return home to Lexington to wait, but maybe more importantly to rest.  The time off would allow a tired team time to recover.  It would allow the bumps and bruises time to heal.  The ‘Cats would have to wait nearly a week and a half to find out if they would be invited to the WNIT and another few days to find out who they were playing.  On the same night that the NCAA pairings were announced, UK found out they would be hosting Eastern Michigan.  This would be first time UK participated in post season play since 98-99.   

Eastern Michigan from the MAC came into Memorial Coliseum sporting a 22-8 record.  Before the game, Memorial filled with a tourney atmosphere.  The crowd was smaller but louder.  The players had an extra bounce in their step.  When Coach DeMoss and her staff made its way onto the floor, they were greeted with a standing ovation.  The post season had arrived in Memorial Coliseum.   

During the first half, both teams battled and traded the lead back and forth until UK went on a run with 3:16 remaining.  UK would outscore Eastern Michigan 11-2 in the final minutes of the half to take a 38-30 lead into the locker room.  During the second half, UK never looked back.  Behind the balanced attack of Sara Potts and Samantha Mahoney, both scored 19, the ‘Cats never looked back and went on to defeat Eastern Michigan, 79-68.  Both Coach DeMoss and Eastern Michigan coach Suzy Merchant gave an assist to UK crowd after the game.  Merchant commented, “Kentucky makes one good play and it seems like they just won the game. It just gets you out of rhythm and it felt like their crowd really helped them. Clearly, it was pretty loud and it made it seem like Kentucky just went on a 15-0 run and you have no chance, and it’s only a three- point game. I thought that was a factor. We don’t see those kinds of crowds or that kind of noise unless it’s in the NCAA Tournament. The MAC (Mid-American Conference) just doesn’t have that.”

In the second round of the WNIT, UK would face Chattanooga.  The Lady Mocs would come in sporting a record of 25-4 (19-1).  UK came out hard and fast against the Lady Mocs.  UK took an 18-16 lead on a Mahoney jumper in the first half and never looked back.  Sara Potts was phenomenal and went into a zone.  Against the Lady Mocs, Potts would score a career-high 32 points and hit 7 3-pointers, tying her own record for most 3-pointers hit during a game.  In addition to Potts, Chante Bowman would put up 12 points and Mahoney would add 11 points and 7 assists.  UK defeated Chattanooga, 91-54.

In the WNIT quarterfinals, UK would get a chance to avenge its earlier season loss to Xavier.  XU came in sporting a 22-10 record and had star Tara Boothe.  UK had never defeated Xavier and Xavier had plenty to say before the game, much of which found its way to the UK bulletin board. 

Xavier jumped out early on UK, taking an 18-8 lead.  UK would battle back and cut into the XU lead only to see Xavier extend it to as many as 14 points in the first half.  UK was able to trim the lead to 10 at the half.  Xavier had shutdown the red hot Sara Potts and held her to only 2 points in the first half.  They also dominated UK on the boards.  The second half didn’t start out much better for UK as they watched Xavier stretch their lead back to 14 in just a little over a minute into the second half.  UK would not go away though.  In one of the best individual displays in UK history, Sara Potts went to work.  The UK star went on a tear.  Slowly and patiently, UK chipped away at Xavier’s lead.  UK would trim the lead to 4 with 9:36 remaining in the game, 49-53.   UK started switching up its defense and threw Xavier off balance.  At the 5:26 mark would be the last time Xavier would score, extending their lead back to 62-53.  Forcing Xavier into a series of turnovers and bad shots, UK launched an offensive flurry.  At the 35 second mark, UK took its first lead, 63-62 on a Sara Potts jumper.  When it was all said and done, UK defeated Xavier, 67-62 and Sara Potts put up 29 points in the second half and scored the last 19 of the game for UK.  After the game, Coach DeMoss had this to say about Potts performance, “I think she has this unbelievable will right now. She’s a senior. This is her last walk through these doors. She’s trying to savor every moment and take advantage of every second.”  DeMoss also noted that during her entire coaching career that she had never had a player score 30+ points back-to-back.. 

Next, UK would host West Virginia from the Big East in the WNIT semi-finals.  Just when you think that nothing could top the Xavier game, you find out that it can.  In what would be a very physical game, UK and WVU tipped off in Memorial Coliseum.  WVU jumped out fast on the ‘Cats.  In just a matter of minutes, WVU had 13-2 lead.  UK would try to battle back, but WVU would extend its lead to 38-24 at the half.  Fans were left to wonder if UK could dig itself out of this hole.  It didn’t look like it at the beginning of the second half.  WVU came out on fire again and extended its lead to 22 points at the 16:44 mark.  As she did in the Xavier game, DeMoss again switched up her defense.  UK would hold WVU scoreless for more than 10 minutes while they chipped away at the lead.  By the end of that 10-minute stretch, UK had trimmed the lead to 49-43.  The ‘Cats continued to play tenacious defense and go to the boards.   Finally, at the 2:31 mark, UK took the lead on a basket by Sarah Elliott.  During the remaining minutes, the two teams would battle back and forth.  UK would find itself down 58-56 with 16 seconds remaining.  Right on cue, Sara Potts drove the lane and hit a jumper to send the game to overtime.  During the first OT, the teams would continue to exchange leads.  Again, at the 16 second mark, UK would find itself down by two.  West Virginia would foul Potts on a rebound.  The senior would go to the line and hit both free throws to send the game to double overtime.  In the second OT, the ‘Cats ran out of gas and would eventually fall to WVU, 75-80.  Potts would finish her career by scoring 29 points and number 4 on the all-time scoring list.

With that final buzzer, the book closed on Mickie DeMoss’ second season at UK.  In just 2 years, she took the program from an 11-17 record to 18-16.  When DeMoss arrived at UK, the players didn’t stay on campus during the summer, the recruiting classes weren’t highly ranked, and the program had no identity.  Now DeMoss’ highly touted freshmen are sophomores and she’s working on another great class.   The players are staying over the summer.   There are over 4000 season ticketholders.   And this program has taken on an identity, the one of its coach – competitive, tough, gritty, and never quits.


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