Liberty-Kentucky PreviewMar 19, 2010 - 9:26 PM Liberty (27-5) at Kentucky (25-7), 2:30 p.m. EDT
Victoria Dunlap can't match the hype surrounding Kentucky star point guard John Wall. She has no Facebook fan page or YouTube tribute chronicling her greatest hits.
The junior forward on Kentucky's women's team, however, can match Wall's hardware.
Dunlap, like Wall, was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Dunlap, like Wall, is the linchpin on a team with big-time NCAA Tournament expectations.
The only difference? Everybody expected it from Wall and the Kentucky men. From Dunlap and the women? Not so much.
The Wildcats were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team SEC after going 16-16 in 2008-09.
They ended up surprising everyone by surging to second behind perennial power Tennessee and earning their first NCAA berth since 2006. The Wildcats (25-7) open the tournament on Saturday against 13th-seeded Liberty (27-5) at Freedom Hall following the matchup between fifth-seeded Michigan State (22-9) and 12th-seeded Bowling Green (27-6).
"It doesn't matter where you're picked, what matters is what you think about yourself," said coach Matthew Mitchell, the SEC Coach of the Year. "I think it's a credit to the players that they recognize what we as coaches try to tell them. They are a special group and a determined group."
One that proved the doubters wrong by winning their first 11 games then backing it up by going 11-5 in the SEC before falling to the Volunteers in the SEC tournament championship game.
While the Kentucky women lack the men's tournament pedigree - this year's appearance marks just the women's seventh trip to the NCAAs, while the men are in the tournament for the 50th time - they make up for it in confidence.
"Our goal is go to out and win a national championship," said Dunlap, who averages 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
It's heady statement for a program that's long played in the shadow of the men's team, which has seven NCAA championship banners hanging in the school's practice facility.
Yet there is no rivalry. Dunlap understands the hysteria surrounding the men. They have the history and the pedigree. It's a place she expects the women to get to eventually.
"They are well known for the way that they have played in the past," Dunlap said. "We don't look at it and say, 'they are getting all the highlights' and we have to win as many games as they did or win the SEC Tournament."
Maybe, but it doesn't hurt. The Wildcats nearly duplicated the men's SEC championship behind an up-tempo style that features four guards and Dunlap, a former high school track star.
Liberty coach Carey Green likened Dunlap to former North Carolina player and track star Marion Jones.
"Dunlap is that type of athlete," Green said. "She is exceptional."
Dunlap admitted she's a little stunned by her rapid evolution from project to dominant player.
"The coaches always told me that I had a lot of talent and they knew I could be that type of player," she said. "The confidence that my teammates and coaches had in me has helped me get better also."
That confidence has rubbed off on her teammates, namely guard A'dia Mathies, the SEC Freshman of the Year. The Louisville native averaged 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and an SEC-leading 2.4 steals while starting all 32 games. Mathies shrugs off her accomplishments, maybe because she always expected the Wildcats to succeed.
"I really don't feel any more pressure," Mathies said. "Since this is my first year I really don't know what I'm supposed to be feeling right now."
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