On Sunday, the University of Kentucky will say goodbye to its women’s basketball program’s winningest senior class in history: A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson carry a 104-28 record into Thursday’s game against Mississippi, their second-to-last of the regular season.
But even more than that, Coach Matthew Mitchell and the rest of the UK Hoops squad will be saying goodbye to two women they now consider family.
Henderson, for example, is known as “Grandma Betty” by her teammates.
“She’s older than everybody,” Mitchell explained. “She moves a little slow during stretching so that may have something to do with it.”
Henderson may move slowly during stretches, but not in pranking her coach. Mitchell says he has “almost expired 10 or 12 times” because of the scares he has experienced from his team’s pranks – even going so far as to accuse Henderson specifically of trying to give him a heart attack. The team set off fireworks at Mitchell’s house to surprise him on his birthday – a memory Mathies considers her favorite during her time at UK.
It hasn’t always been fun and games between Mitchell and his seniors. He says himself that the first few years of his and Henderson’s relationship was rocky because of one specific misunderstanding between the two of them.
“When I would be addressing her, it would look like she was rolling her eyes at me,” he said. “She just swears…that it was just an inadvertent rolling of the eyes. That went on for about three years and that caused a lot of pain in our relationship so now we laugh about it…But it’s funny that it doesn’t happen anymore so I guess maybe she got it corrected. We spent about three years at each other’s throats because I would think she was rolling her eyes at everything I said and she would say she wasn’t.”
Mitchell paused. Then a small smile crossed his face and he added, “It’s been fun.”
With the joking and pranks off the court, it’s easy to see why Mitchell would be close to his two 2013 seniors. But it’s what the two players have done for the UK women’s basketball program as a whole that will make this goodbye particularly difficult for each side.
Henderson has helped the program’s recruiting, according to Mitchell. She didn’t come in as a top recruit, but has developed into a solid contributor for the Wildcats – even grabbing 18 rebounds in a 2011 game, tying her for the 10th-highest single-game rebounding performance at UK. Mitchell says that her development is something recruits will look to as hope that they can make the same strides.
“She came here…and started showing that if you came to Kentucky, the coaches were going to work with you and help you develop in all areas of your life,” he said. “That helped us build some confidence and some credibility with different people around.”
Mathies, however, came into her freshman year as a highly-ranked recruit who would have to explain for years to come why she didn’t go to Louisville for her college career. Growing up in the city, Mathies has a family that considers itself Cardinal fans. People around Mathies would always tell her to play for Louisville and continue what star Angel McCoughtry had begun there.
“They say, ‘Why didn’t you go to Louisville?’” Mathies said. “I’m just like, ‘Angel McCoughtry isn’t going to be there when I go to Louisville.’ And I kind of wanted to be that person on this side, to change this program around and make it an elite program.”
She has certainly done her part in that transition. The reigning SEC Player of the Year has been added to two midseason national player of the year award watch lists this season, including the one for the Naismith Trophy. Mathies is second on the all-time scoring list at UK (and leads all guards), only behind former All-American Valerie Still – long considered to be the best women’s basketball player ever at UK.
“The flag is placed in the ground at the moment that A’dia stepped on campus,” Mitchell said, speaking of the moment when the Kentucky basketball program began to change for the better. “She’s not the sole reason but…that is absolutely the moment that it changed into something very, very different than it was… She is the best player that’s played here in a generation or two.”
Now, Kentucky is competing for the regular season SEC championship. They will go into the NCAA tournament with a top seed, ready to compete for the national title Mitchell thinks this team is capable of winning.
Results on the basketball court that this senior class has accomplished, however, have not just impacted the future of the UK program. Those results have impacted Mitchell on a much more personal level.
Mitchell has said that if he and his wife, Jenna, have another child, they want to name it after Mathies.
“I don’t want to coach anywhere else,” he said. “The reason that you get to stay (here) is because you win, plain and simple, and Victoria (Dunlap), who we named Saylor after, made a huge impact on my life and on Jenna’s life to have a job here at Kentucky. I just want to honor that. A’dia has made some huge plays that have just directly resulted in us winning games, and I want to honor that. We’re here and we’re able to stay here because of the players. And those aren’t the only two players, but it’s just our way of trying to make sure that that connection exists.”
It’s a connection that has gone beyond the boundaries of a basketball court and into the boundaries of a home. Mathies and Henderson, although the winningest senior class in Kentucky history, have made a much further-reaching impact on those around the UK Hoops program.
Even with the birthday fireworks and eye-rolling, this senior class will go down as not just history-making, but as part of a family.