LEXINGTON (AP) — A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson arrived at Kentucky four years ago hoping to lift the program from mediocrity into Southeastern Conference contention.
The Wildcats’ duo enters Sunday’s Senior Day with an upgraded plan — reaching the Final Four.
The next step toward that goal is beating No. 8 Tennessee (23-5, 14-1), which clinched the SEC regular season title and ended Kentucky’s one-year championship reign. The No. 10 Wildcats (24-4, 12-3) have clinched a first-round bye for next week’s conference tournament and want to secure the No. 2 seed.
Kentucky’s duo will have a hand in that quest, just as they’ve done in building a 105-28 record with two Elite Eight appearances. As the Wildcats’ winningest class, they’ve also put Matthew Mitchell on the brink of becoming Kentucky’s most successful coach.
Those achievements please the soft-spoken Mathies more than her progress toward becoming one of Kentucky’s all-time greats.
“I had no clue how it was going to turn out,” said the 5-foot-9 guard, the school’s No. 2 scorer with 1,883 points. “When we were being recruited, UK was a .500-level team. To come in here and automatically change it around the first year, we had no expectations. It just changed the whole culture and nature for UK.
“I just went out there head-first, it came out good and I’m glad it did.”
If Mathies’ friends and family had their way, the Louisville native would have been excelling with the hometown Cardinals. While they pushed hard for her to stay home and follow the footsteps of former All-American Angel McCoughtry — a 2012 Olympic gold medalist with Team USA and WNBA Atlanta Dream forward — Mathies was firmly committed to reversing Kentucky’s fortunes.
Her record has proved she made the right decision.
“Angel McCoughtry would not have been there if I went to Louisville, so I never understood that,” said Mathies, averaging 16.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. “I kind of wanted to be that person for this side, that person to change the program and make it an elite program. Even though I had no expectations, we ended up doing it and I am just glad I made that decision.”
Henderson has been a reserve this season after starting 37 of 67 games the previous two years, but the 6-2 forward started Thursday night at Mississippi with DeNesha Stallworth suffering flu-like symptoms. She played 13 minutes and grabbed two rebounds during Kentucky’s 90-65 victory, her latest contribution in a career of doing whatever the Wildcats need.
Like Mathies, the bottom line was about results more than personal achievements. And being part of a team considered a national championship contender has been more fulfilling than her 3.0 points-per-game scoring average.
“Coach talked about improving every year,” Henderson said. “This year, he has talked a lot about having high standards. This team is great and we want to continue to be looked at as great in the future. We want to be seen as the UConn of the SEC and I feel like in the future we will be viewed as one of those programs.”
Kentucky’s immediate focus is getting past Tennessee, which could be without a pure point guard. Ariel Massengale and center Isabelle Harrison both injured their right knees in Thursday’s clinching 82-72 victory over Texas A&M and underwent MRIs on Friday.
Massengale’s possible absence could result in versatile senior Kamiko Williams and shooting guard Meighan Simmons sharing duties at the point. Either way, Tennessee faces a challenge from Kentucky’s pressure defense.
“We’ve just got to be smart. We’re going to have to do it by committee, like we’ve done it in the past,” Volunteers coach Holly Warlick said of dealing with the Wildcats’ defense. “They’re aggressive. They’re athletic. They play so hard. They try to speed up the game. I think people get caught into the tempo. … We’re going to work on their pressure and try to do different things to handle it.”
Mathies’ role in Mitchell’s “40 minutes of dread” defensive approach has made the coach happier about recruiting her. Already impressed by her offensive skills displayed at an AAU showcase, Mitchell quickly discovered something special in her during the Wildcats’ initial practices.
Kentucky has ascended during her career. In the four years before she and Henderson arrived, the Wildcats were 53-46 and coming off three straight WNIT appearances. They were picked to finish 11th out of 12 SEC teams that first season.
Three consecutive NCAA tournament berths have followed, including their second Elite Eight appearance last season. Mathies is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and the preseason pick to repeat, along with being a candidate for several national player of the year awards.
“The flag is placed in the ground the moment that A’dia stepped on campus,” said Mitchell, who can pass Terry Hall (138) as Kentucky’s winningest coach with a win on Sunday.
“She’s not the sole reason, but that’s the moment. That is absolutely the moment that it changed into something very, very different than what it was. She has proven it in the record books, she has proven it in the win column, she’s proven it with championship performance. She is the best player that’s played here in a generation or two.”
Mathies’ impact has been such that Mitchell is considering naming his next child after her. Henderson meanwhile is considered the Wildcats’ “mother hen,” whom teammates turn to for advice and comfort.
The success they’ve built might be why Kentucky has five McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster with several highly-touted recruits on the way next season. The Wildcats hope to greet them with a championship banner in Memorial Coliseum, where Henderson and Mathies hope to exit with another victory.
“We have put a lot of work into what we do,” Mathies said. “We’ve run plenty of suicides and around the stadium, so I think to go out with a win against an elite team like Tennessee on our last game, it would mean everything.”