Retirement isn’t all it’s cranked up to be. It’s actually a thousand times better! I know it sounds cliche but the freedom to be able to finally do something you really love is liberating beyond your wildest imagination. I’ve always loved UK sports and I’ve always loved to write. Although the past couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to combine these two passions filling in for other media members at other venues, I’ve never been granted press credentials for a game in my beloved Rupp Arena. So when the opportunity came to write for the Nolan Media Group this past weekend for the UK Hoops game against Washington in the Women’s NCAA Regional Semifinals, I jumped at the chance. Following is my column. Hey, I know it’s not Pulitzer worthy, but you have to start somewhere. I’m living the dream!
3/25/2016 UK Hoops versus Washington –by John Huang
After UK succumbed to the dreaded IU Hoosiers in the 2nd round of the men’s NCAA tournament last week, I felt like I really needed some time to mourn. My first preference was to rent a room in a local monastery but after 48 hours of seclusion, I knew I still needed a basketball fix. Like so many others in BBN, I was not ready for the season to end so abruptly. Thus, I eagerly returned to the hallowed halls of Rupp Arena to cover the UK Hoops women’s team as Coach Matthew Mitchell and his Wildcats attempted to advance through the Elite Eight and into the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Unlike the men’s team, the women’s team received an extremely favorable draw from the tournament selection committee. The Cats had already “edged” past an outmatched UNC Asheville squad 85-31 and romped past a very solid Oklahoma team 79-58 in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum during the first two tournament rounds. Now just two miles down the road on a raucous Friday night, the Rupp Arena Lexington Regional beckoned with the likes of Washington, and traditional powers Notre Dame and Stanford standing in the way of victory and redemption for the beloved BBN.
Prior to tip-off, with over 8500 blue-clad Cat fans filling nearly the entire lower level of Rupp, I couldn’t help but reflect on the development and success of the women’s basketball program over the years. Long-time Lady Kat fans will certainly recall all-time leading-scorer Valerie Still, together with guards Patty Jo Hedges and Lea Wise, directing Kentucky to an SEC championship, a #4 national-ranking, and what was then a national women’s attendance record back in the early 1980’s. More recently, younger UK Hoops fans will undoubtedly remember the Wildcat program flourishing with All-American players such as Victoria Dunlap and A’dia Mathies leading the Wildcats to four Sweet Sixteen tournament appearances in the last five years. Surely this would be the year then, with the road to Indy winding directly through Lexington, that Coach Mitchell and crew would finally propel the Cats into the rarefied air of a long-awaited Final Four slot.
But it was not to be. The Washington Huskies, despite a slow start from their star point guard Kelsey Plum, gradually pulled ahead of the cold-shooting Cats. Junior forward Chantel Osahor dominated inside and out, grabbing numerous errant shots off the defensive boards while hitting multiple mind-boggling line-drive-set-shots on the offensive end, seemingly without her feet ever leaving the floor. At halftime, Kentucky was fortunate to be down only 40-35 after shooting an anemic 32.5% from the field against the Huskies’ pesky zone defense.
In the second half, with the Rupp Arena crowd in a full-throated roar, UK attempted a gallant comeback. Makayla Epps did what she always does–running the fast break, driving the lane, dishing off, and hitting threes. She finished with a career-high 30 points but it was not enough to offset Washington’s torrid (59%) second-half shooting. Led by senior Talia Walton’s 30 points, the Huskies thwarted every UK rally attempt and held on for the well-deserved 85-72 win. Plum finished with 23 points and 7 assists while Osahor recorded an impressive 19-point, 17-rebound performance. For Kentucky, Janee Thompson’s 11 points capped off her stellar Wildcat career. Her emotional leadership will certainly be missed next year but Evelyn Akhator’s 10-point and 14-rebound production bodes well for the future. UK closes out this season with a 25-8 record, once again disappointed by not making it past the Sweet Sixteen round. In the other regional semifinal, Stanford upset top-seeded Notre Dame 90-84 to set up an Easter Sunday showdown with the Huskies.
In the end, Coach Mitchell blamed the defense. He said “Our defense, it’s sad to say, it just wasn’t there.” It’s sad for me to say that this basketball season ended with BBN wanting and needing just a little bit more. The transient successes along the way were ultimately eclipsed by falling just short of realistic expectations. With UK basketball, anything short of the Final Four leaves every true-blue fan with a painful void in their passionate heart, wondering what could have been. I think I’ll head back to the monastery for now. See you for Spring football!