As the UK Hoops team crowded around the flat-screen television in Coach Matthew Mitchell’s basement, they were all handed blank printable brackets so they could fill in the names of their mystery opponents. A hush fell over everyone as the ESPN Selection Show started, with analysts unveiling the first bracket.
It was when the second bracket was revealed that guard Jennifer O’Neill stopped filling hers out.
“I was just so excited,” O’Neill said, trying to tone down her grin enough to talk. “I was just like, ‘I’m going home!’ I finally get to go home and we get to go to New York… A lot of people have never been there. It’s an amazing place and I’m just happy we get to play in my home city.”
Senior A’dia Mathies smiled, too, when asked about her teammate’s reaction to the news.
“She’s the most excited,” she said. “She’s not even filling out her bracket anymore. It’s good because we’re going to have a lot of support from New York…It should be nice.”
Kentucky has several players from the northeast area in addition to O’Neill’s New York City roots. Sophomore Jelleah Sidney is also from New York (Queens Village), while Kastine Evans is from nearby Salem, Conn., and Bernisha Pinkett is from Washington, D.C.
“When Queens looked like some place we could go, clearly with Jennifer and Jelleah, that was the most exciting and attractive place for us outside of going to Columbus where our fans could travel…I think you saw them get very, very excited, so real happy for them.”
The battle for a Final Four berth – the team’s goal since Day 1 – begins with a battle against 15th-seeded Navy Sunday, March 24 in Queens. If the Cats were to take the win in the opening round, they would play the winner of the 7/10 matchup (Dayton and St. John’s, respectively).
This is the second year in a row Kentucky has been a 2-seed in Connecticut’s region. The Huskies are once again the top seed in Kentucky’s region – UConn is, of course, the same team that knocked the Cats out of last year’s tournament, 80-65, for a spot in the Final Four.
Different results this time around are what the Cats are hoping for, even as they face the déjà vu of last year’s disappointment.
“We know we’re a different team this year,” Mathies said. “We feel like if we do the things necessary, the things we should be doing, then we definitely should make the Final Four.”
Maybe then O’Neill will finish filling out her bracket.