LEXINGTON, Ky. — Only after A’dia Mathies beat No. 8 Tennessee did the Kentucky senior guard show some sentimentality over playing her final home game with the Wildcats.
She was typically reserved in thanking the sellout crowd at Memorial Coliseum, which witnessed Mathies at her cool and collected best during a second-half run that helped No. 10 Kentucky send her and fellow senior Brittany Henderson out as winners.
Mathies scored 13 of her 16 points in the second half, highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers during Kentucky’s 19-6 run, helping the Wildcats pull away from Tennessee for a 78-65 victory on Sunday.
“It was great today,” said the SEC’s 2012 player of the year and Kentucky’s No. 2 career scorer, who added four rebounds, four assists and four steals. “We went out there and wanted to win for a purpose, and that was that they wanted to send me and B-Hen (Henderson) out the right way. We came out with great energy and effort, and I was excited to get a win at Memorial Coliseum for the last time.”
Jennifer O’Neill added four 3-pointers for 16 points as Kentucky (25-4, 13-3) claimed the No. 2 seed for this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Wildcats started both halves quickly, but the second one was crucial in staying safely ahead of Tennessee. Leading 36-32 at the break, Samarie Walker (10 points) helped get things going with three steals and two rebounds leading to nine straight points and 13-point lead.
Mathies’ shots from behind the arc made it 55-38 with 12:28 remaining, providing the cushion that eventually made Matthew Mitchell the program’s winningest coach with 139 victories.
DeNesha Stallworth and Bria Goss each added 12 points for Kentucky, which shot just 38 percent (31 of 82) and was outrebounded 43-37 but dominated the offensive boards 19-10. The Wildcats also forced the Volunteers into a season-high 31 turnovers.
Asked about the Wildcats’ defense, Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons said, “I think we just underestimated. We didn’t come ready to play, honestly. For me, we started off late in the game. We started to pick things up later on in the game but we didn’t start off as strong as we should have.”
Simmons led Tennessee with 17 points.
A depleted roster might have been a reason for regular-season champion Tennessee (23-6, 14-2). The Volunteers played without center Isabelle Harrison, who sustained a right knee injury Thursday and is considered week to week.
Point guard Ariel Massengale, who was also questionable with a knee injury, started and finished with five points. Bashaara Graves had 12 points, Cierra Burdick added 11 with 11 rebounds and Taber Spani also had 11 for Tennessee.
There was nothing on the line for the Lady Volunteers, who took care of their most important matter by clinching the SEC on Thursday. But they were concerned about the future of Harrison, who dressed but spent most of the game with an ice pack on her knee. She had already missed six games this season with a left knee injury requiring surgery.
Injuries have been an issue for Tennessee, which lost freshman guard Andraya Carter for the season with a torn labrum on her right shoulder while Burdick missed eight games with a broken bone in her right hand. Kamiko Williams also hurt her right leg in the first half Sunday but returned to play 26 minutes.
“It’s just things that we’ve had to deal with,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of the injuries. “It’s part of the game. People have to step up, and we didn’t step up today.”
Massengale’s presence offered some relief, though she didn’t seem like herself. For that matter neither did Tennessee, which committed 19 first-half turnovers alone and managed just 18 points overall in the paint.
The Lady Volunteers still trailed just 36-32 at the break by taking advantage of the Wildcats’ 31 percent inaccuracy, which might have doomed Kentucky if it hadn’t created twice as many opportunities (44 to 22) as Tennessee.
But after taking its largest first-half lead at 30-17 on Azia Bishop’s layup with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half, Kentucky was outscored 15-6 behind 3-of-11 shooting. Bishop made two of those baskets in the final 25 seconds, including one as the horn sounded at the end of the half.
She finished with 8 points and 4 rebounds, but those baskets gave Kentucky some space and the Wildcats emerged strong from the break and eventually stretched the lead to 57-38 with 12:06 remaining.
“Azia did a good job,” Mitchell said of his reserve forward. “We just wanted to make certain at halftime to stay on the attack. We weren’t making a lot of shots, and that cracks the door open for Tennessee.”
However, Kentucky never let the Volunteers through, going on to finish 16-1 at home while recording its second straight win over Tennessee.
Just as notable was the Wildcats’ 64-3 home record with Mathies and Henderson, who were honored before the game in a ceremony during which Mitchell held his emotions in check as he bid farewell — at home, that is — to Kentucky’s winningest class.
The two entered the game with a 105-28 record during which the Wildcats went from mediocrity to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and two Elite Eight berths. They left with a chance to add more wins and perhaps a Final Four berth.
“I can’t tell you how important it was to send A’dia and Brittany off with a victory,” said Mitchell, who passed Terry Hall on the career wins list. “Kentucky looks a lot different now because of them.”