One of Kentucky's best seasons in history ended with an exit to a vastly more experienced Connecticut squad.
While the Wildcats won't be going to the Final Four, they're gaining valuable knowledge about what it takes to get there.
Kentucky (28-7) got off to a record start, won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, making it to the Kingston Regional finals before being bounced by the Huskies 80-65 on Tuesday night.
"I think it's important to figure out can you come back with more enthusiasm, can you come back with more determination, can you continue to help the program progress to a point where we can get to a Final Four, where we can win a national championship and it's hard," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It's hard to get to this round and they've just been here so many times and it's difficult but I think we just need to stay at it, we need to keep showing up and one of these days we'll punch through."
Mitchell's squad has been on the right track since he took over five seasons ago.
Kentucky reached the regional finals for the second time under Mitchell in three years and just the third in history, joining the '82 squad that was also a two seed in the tournament.
This year, the Wildcats started 21-2 and won an SEC regular-season title for the first time thanks to its tenacious, risk-taking pressure defense that was dubbed "40 minutes of dread." They forced 26.9 turnovers per game, a school record.
The group will lose starting guards Keyla Snowden and Amber Smith from a team that beat six opponents ranked in the Top 25, but SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies will be back for her senior year and SEC freshman of the year Bria Goss will be expected to be the second part of next year's one-two offensive punch.
California transfer DeNesha Stallworth also will be eligible to go along with 11 returning players.
Add Mitchell back at the helm and Kentucky will likely enter next season as the conference favorite — not Tennessee.
"The program looks a lot different with (the seniors) walking out of the door then it looked with them walking into the door," said Mitchell, the SEC coach of the year. "I don't know, really, if people were really being honest here if they thought what's happened now was really possible. We just historically had one of the worst winning percentages in our conference, we just don't have a lot of tradition ... now these kids have come in and really poured their heart and soul into the program and we at least have a fighting chance to have a good program and to be considered a program that would be nationally recognized."
This scrappy squad battled back from an early 9-0 hole against Connecticut and trailed 48-47 in the second half before the Huskies ran away late with a 21-4 run.
"If you want to blame somebody for this one, you can credit Connecticut's good play and you can blame me for it," Mitchell said. "I thought our team gave a really, really strong effort."
The Wildcats will need to work on their perimeter shooting to move even farther in the tournament. After swarming SEC opponents most of the year, teams adjusted with a sagging defense that dared Kentucky to take jump shots. Too often they fell short both down the stretch of the season and finally against the Huskies.
"We stopped hitting our shots, they were hitting their shots and we never got it really going," Goss said. "I felt like that was the turning point of the game."
But certainly not in the program. Expectations will grow for Mitchell and the 'Cats that this group will finally make a Final Four — maybe even next year in New Orleans.
"I feel like we've done a wonderful job," sophomore Samarie Walker said. "It's very disappointing, but we have Bria returning, A'dia and then DeNesha Stallworth will be able to play next year so I feel like we'll be really good again."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company