By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE – There’s a reason that the games aren’t played on paper.
If they were, Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell would not have had to worry about his top-seeded Wildcats against eighth-seeded Florida on Friday afternoon in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena. But he knew that was far from reality.
Mitchell expected that Kentucky, which this season captured its first SEC regular-season title since the 1982 campaign, would be in for a hard-fought, grueling battle against the Gators.
“I was so concerned about our opponent,” Mitchell said. “Coach Butler, I think, is one of the finest coaches in the country. I knew they would be prepared, they would compete and they would play hard. It’s a difficult day for us, not playing yesterday.”
And that’s exactly what it was – a difficult day.
Florida (19-12) led 32-25 at halftime and held as much as a 14-point advantage in the first half. The Gators looked on the verge of advancing to their first SEC Tournament semifinals since 1998.
So how was Kentucky able to emerge with the 71-67 victory on Friday?
“I’m not sure exactly how we won the game,” Mitchell admitted. “But we were able to make enough hustle plays in the second half. I thought we finally started hustling a little bit more, and that’s a real key for us. I’m really proud of the players. It did not look good there for a large portion of the game. For us to overcome poor shooting and find a way to win is something I’m proud of our players for doing.”
When the Wildcats needed energy the most, they turned to senior point guard Amber Smith, who has prided herself on being the team’s emotional leader. Looking at the stat line, you wouldn’t see much evidence of Smith’s contributions, but her 17 minutes proved more than the numbers showed.
“We needed somebody to come off the bench with some energy,” Mitchell said. “She had been struggling in that department in practice and in games. I was really proud she was able to rise to the occasion because we needed it badly. We were just sort of lifeless out there at that point position. We just told her she needed to go in and make some plays. I thought she played probably her best game of the year.”
For Kentucky, the performance was uncharacteristic of a team that has strung together one of its best seasons in program history. The Wildcats, while mindful that they are beatable, don’t expect today’s scare to be the norm.
“Just the first game, you kind of loosen up a bit as the game goes on,” said senior guard Keyla Snowden. “Just being in the atmosphere, we’re a team that has been here before. I think that comes with anybody or any team.”
The Wildcats will face the winner of the Arkansas-LSU game in Saturday’s semifinals. Mitchell knows it will be a tough test, but he also expects his Kentucky team to feed off the confidence of Friday’s comeback victory.
“Whoever it is, LSU or Arkansas, they are clearly both outstanding teams,” Mitchell said. “We had very tough games with both. So, I’m sure it will be a tough game. But our players have to have some confidence headed into tomorrow overcoming a tremendous deficit to win this game. I’m really proud of them. They need to be pumped up and ready to go tomorrow, and I think they will be.”