- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Victoria Dunlap stepped away from track and field after her freshman season at Kentucky. She competed in the pentathlon/heptathlon growing up. And in the SEC, she did the high jump and threw the javelin.
It wasn't the easiest thing for her to give that up; she said she especially misses tossing the javelin. But she was good enough at basketball that she realized that needed her full attention.
"It was different because I'd done basketball and track for pretty much my whole life," said Dunlap, a 6-foot-1 junior forward. "It was probably a good choice, though, for the health of my knees and just my mentality to get better as a basketball player."
This season, Dunlap's talent has fully flourished. She was named the SEC's player of the year and led the Wildcats to their first league championship game since 1982 -- and now their first NCAA Elite Eight since that year.
Kentucky lost to eventual national champion Louisiana Tech in the regional finals in '82, the first year of the women's NCAA tournament. The program has made just six NCAA trips since, counting this season. But it's this year's appearance that might signal the start of something that could be pretty regular for Kentucky.
The Wildcats will be attempting to join Baylor as a No. 4 seed in the Final Four when they meet third-seeded Oklahoma in the Kansas City Regional final Tuesday night (ESPN/ESPN360.com, 9:07 ET) at the Sprint Center. The Sooners also are hoping to join Baylor, which would give the Big 12 two teams in the same Final Four for the first time.
Oklahoma is seeking that program's third appearance in the Final Four, and Kentucky looks to what the Sooners have done as a model for what the Wildcats hope to do.
That desire to make an impact at a school that hadn't had a lot of success is a big part of the reason Dunlap, who is from Nashville, Tenn., chose Kentucky. She didn't want to go to a program that already had made its name in women's basketball. Instead, she went to a school where men's basketball was beloved beyond measure and women's hoops was just trying to gain any kind of foothold in the SEC.
Now, the Kentucky men's season is finished and the Wildcats women's team is the lone SEC representative left in the NCAA tournament.
"We've come to a lot of points in the season where we could have gotten a sense of arrival, of stop and smell the roses, feel like things were great," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "And [the players] have resisted the urge to do that. They have continued to punch through and work hard.
"And so this will be -- everybody is aware of what's on the line. It's a big, big moment. I think it's silly to say it's just another game. It's not. But what we will try to do is get all of those things off our mind and focus on what we need to do."
Specifically, that's counter Abi Olajuwon and Amanda Thompson inside the way that Notre Dame didn't do. The Sooners duo combined for 33 points and 25 rebounds in their 77-72 overtime win over the Irish in the semifinals.
Kentucky does not have much size, but that wasn't an issue in defeating top-seeded Nebraska 76-67 and outrebounding the Huskers by 11. Kentucky's quickness helped greatly with its dominance on the boards, as six Wildcats had at least four rebounds.
Dunlap led the way with seven boards and had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. She and freshman A'dia Mathies have been the Wildcats' top threats all season. Mathies had 21 points and four rebounds against Nebraska.
"We're at a big disadvantage in size," Mitchell said of the matchup with Oklahoma. "We will have five players committed to scrapping and working. We call it action-oriented rebounding: grab, pull, snatch, dive, whatever you can do. We talk about those words before games because we just can't get into a jumping match and get rebounds."
Well if all the Wildcats were like Dunlap, they could. As mentioned, high jump was one of her strengths in track and field.
"She was an All-American in high school in track," Mitchell said. "You have to get yourself mentally prepared to run a race or compete in an event. So she showed up really equipped to compete at this level [in basketball]."
Dunlap was originally recruited to Kentucky by Mickie DeMoss, but didn't play for her. DeMoss left to become an assistant at Texas in 2007, and Mitchell took over as the Wildcats' head coach.
"I liked Mickie DeMoss' mindset and where she wanted to take the program," Dunlap said. "I wanted to go to the SEC and to a team I knew was rising. It's the same with Coach Mitchell. I wanted to be able to start a tradition, something for younger players to look up to and give them goals."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.