UK Hoops’ dream of winning an SEC tournament championship fell short Sunday, as Kentucky fell 75-67 to Texas A&M in a closely contested game where the Cats struggled to produce offensively in the second half.
Kentucky shot 27-76 from the field, including 12-38 in the second half. From behind the arc, they were 6-24, with point guard Jennifer O’Neill shooting 2-13 from long range.
After 20 minutes of play, Texas A&M and Kentucky looked to be heading towards a barn-burner. Neither team could wrestle the momentum away from the other, and the game was within four points or less the whole way.
Then O’Neill drained a three-pointer at the 1:33 mark, which kicked off a personal 7-0 run that led to the Cats leading 36-34 at the half.
UK had shot 15-38 in the first segment of the game, but held Texas A&M to a similar15-34 shooting performance.
What seemed to be a Kentucky team with all the momentum – and with a point guard who was on fire – skidded to a grinding halt in the second half.
The Aggies used an early 6-0 run to eventually grab a 45-38 lead off a Courtney Williams trey. Bria Goss’ shot from outside helped the Cats climb to within three points again at the 13:36 mark, but that momentum was short-lived. Another shot wouldn’t fall for the Cats until Mathies’ drive inside with 7:23 on the clock. At that point, Texas A&M was up 57-48.
Coach Matthew Mitchell was disappointed with the shooting effort, but took the blame upon himself for the lack of baskets in the second half.
“That is coaching. There’s no other way around it,” he said. “I should have done a better job at this point in time in the season of being better able to manufacture some offense. I feel really badly about that.”
O’Neill, who went 3-14 (1-9 from the three-point line) in the second half, was especially emotional about her performance after the game.
“I kind of felt like I couldn’t make a shot,” she said. “My teammates and my coaches kept telling me, ‘You’ve got it. You’re a good shooter. Stop thinking about it.’ They just kept encouraging me to shoot but I just couldn’t hit anything today.”
Kentucky’s case was not helped by A&M’s Kelsey Bone having an 18-point, 15-rebound performance, with 14 of those points coming in the second half. The top-20 finalist for the John R. Wooden Award was a frustration for Kentucky’s post players defensively.
“She is a strong player. She’s big. She’s physical,” said forward Samarie Walker. “It makes me question my own physical strength but there’s nothing you can do about her one-on-one in the post.”
Bone only played eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. The extra rest was exactly what Bone needed to come out of the locker room and have a monster half of basketball.
“When I’m sitting on the bench, eight minutes in the first half, I still have 20 minutes left in my tank,” she said. “It probably was a blessing in disguise… I felt like we had taken their best shot and we had not thrown our best punch yet. I felt like we were ready.”
Kentucky’s ‘best shot’ will come next against a team in the NCAA tournament. The Cats were projected as a No. 2-seed heading to Iowa City, according to ESPN bracketology, before the championship game Sunday.
Regardless of where UK Hoops is headed next, the sting from losing its third SEC tournament championship game in four years will stay with the players for a while.
“This feeling is indescribable,” O’Neill said. “This is the championship. We just lost the championship."
Senior A’dia Mathies, who was named to the All-SEC Tournament team for the third time in her four years at Kentucky, is on her last ride as a Wildcat. She had spoken previously about the strong desire this team had to cut down the nets in Duluth, Ga., for an SEC tournament championship Kentucky hasn’t had since Valerie Still’s days in 1982. Now, however, she says the team has to move forward.
“It’s just disappointing because we know we had the capabilities to win this game and should have won this game,” she said. “We are going to use this game to move forward because we’re not going to let this game define our season. We’re going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.”