By LARRY VAUGHT
Playing in Rupp Arena this weekend doesn’t guarantee Kentucky its first Final Four trip. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell only has to point out last year’s home loss to Dayton in NCAA play to make his point.
Friday night UK hosts Washington and if it wins will play the Notre Dame-Stanford survivor on Sunday for a Final Four berth.
Washington won at Maryland last week to advance to Lexington, another fact Mitchell was quick to note Thursday.
“I mean, you have to play. Would it be exciting for us if we get rolling and playing well? Could we have some added juice in the building because it’s us, of course,” MItchell said.
“We’re not looking at pressure right now. We’re trying to look at our attitude and our effort, and that’s how we try to make it happen for us in the first two rounds, and I thought we really hustled and played hard and responded to adversity and that opportunity on our homecourt.
“I would love to go to a Final Four. That’s been a goal of our program and a dream of all of ours, and we believe we’re going to do it one day and we hope it’s this year. But it won’t be because the Rupp Arena floor jumps up and makes any baskets or has — the building won’t get it done for us. The players will, and that’s how we’re trying to approach this.”
Kentucky hosted two games at Memorial Coliseum last week but did not have as many fans as it had for most regular season games and ranked in the bottom half of attendance for NCAA games last week.
“I’m never disappointed when people put down their hard-earned money to buy a ticket to a game and show up. I don’t know where we ranked attendance-wise, but disappointing wouldn’t be anywhere in my thought process on what those crowds were like. They were phenomenal crowds. It was a great, great energy in the building, and I would expect that it’s going to be a great energy in the building (Friday),” Mitchell said.
“We’ve worked hard the last couple weeks to try to make people aware that the game is here. So it’s four fantastic schools. I think it’s really some of the best examples of the students that the NCAA has to offer. Great schools, Washington, Stanford, Notre Dame are incredible universities. We are real proud of our university. We believe it’s a world-class university. So I think that if people are interested in seeing high-level students that are great athletes compete, this is going to be a great weekend for that.
“We sold a bunch of tickets so far, and I’m grateful to people. It’s always an honor if somebody will pay a ticket price to come watch a team play. So we’re excited about the weekend.”
Kentucky senior guard Janee Thompson expects an “electric” atmosphere in Rupp Arena and said games there are always fun.
“We’ve been here a few times this year and the fans really come out and support us. We’ve got the best fans in the country. It will be exciting when we finally get out there and we make some plays and get the crowd going,” she said.
Star guard Makayla Epps agreed.
“It’s a Friday night, 7 p.m., what else could people in Lexington possibly be doing? So I’m encouraging everybody to come out. It’s a homecourt for us. Even though the court doesn’t really mean the team will win or not, but I’m encouraging everybody to come out, and I’m sure it will be fun,” she said.
Epps doesn’t see a UK advantage because her team has played in Rupp and Washington has not.
“I’m sure being we’re playing here in Kentucky the crowd will get behind us and stuff like that, so that will help us in a sense. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter where you’re playing at,” Epps said.
“We’ve got to go out there and make plays and do what we’re supposed to do and outwork Washington to win the game,” Thompson said.
Washington coach Mike Neighbors gave his team a history lesson on Kentucky basketball and kept his sense of humor about playing a road game in the NCAA again.
“We walked into Craft Center yesterday and our kids have their pictures and cameras out taking pictures and videos. You’re like, oh boy, they’re a little bit excited about their environment. And that’s good. I wanted them to be excited,” Neighbors said. “Coming into a place like Rupp Arena, I expect there to be 20,000 people out there. When I said that, they kind of got big eyes. I said we may have 200, and they went crazy.
“They were like, ‘We’re going to have 200 people, you think?’ They were excited about the 200 and not intimidated by the possibility of 20,000. But just to explain to them how tradition rich this area is with basketball and how knowledgeable they are about basketball and how much it means to the student- athlete experience.
“I want our kids to soak it all in. I want them to experience every single part of this, because that’s why they do it. We do have four great teams here that can exemplify good student-athletes when it comes to being on and off the court.”