No. 5 Kentucky sells out Rupp Arena for No. 2 Duke

The Kentucky Wildcats hope a record-setting crowd turns out to

watch them take on the Duke Blue Devils on Sunday.

They would also like to notch another statement win.

The fifth-ranked Wildcats (11-0) made history on Friday by

selling out 23,000-seat Rupp Arena. On Sunday, depending on how

many fans turn out for the showdown with No. 2 Duke (11-1), the

program could break the Commonwealth attendance record for a

women’s game. The mark was set in 2010 when 22,152 saw host

Louisville beat Kentucky in the new KFC Yum! Center.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell’s program has set attendance

marks the past two years at Rupp, but he never imagined packing the

house for one game the way the Kentucky men’s program does

regularly.

”This one is big because it is sold out,” senior forward

Samarie Walker said.

She downplayed the awe factor of playing there, adding, ”our

fans will coming out to support us and their fans will be there

supporting them. It’s just exciting to be playing in front of that

kind of crowd.”

Mitchell on Thursday credited athletic director Mitch Barnhart,

former university President Lee Todd and former marketing and

promotions director Mickie DeMoss in particular for beginning the

work years ago to make this possible. But Mitchell, in his seventh

year, has done his part. He has built a competitive on-court

product, building a mediocre program into one with national

championship aspirations. The Wildcats are seeking their first

Final Four berth after reaching the NCAA regional final three of

the past four years.

The uber-extroverted Mitchell – a marketing major – has become

the program’s face: He’s featured in ads for a local bank along

with men’s coach John Calipari and football coach Mark Stoops. Big

Blue Madness meanwhile has provided a popular platform for him to

perform creative dance numbers.

In the early days, Mitchell rode around town on Pepsi trucks to

spread the word about his program that now has a devoted

following.

”I feel bad for the businesses in town that that’s what they

had to resort to,” Mitchell said, laughing. ”In women’s

basketball, it’s a lot of things that you need to do to market the

sport and I think you just have to be willing to engage the

community. It’s a grassroots (matter), there has to be a

connection.”

Mitchell has forged a home following at the Wildcats home court

on campus at cozy 8,000-seat Memorial Coliseum, just a few blocks

from Rupp Arena. Though attendance is off about 420 per game from

last season at 5,724 through six nonconference dates, that figures

to pick up once Southeastern Conference play begins next month.

Kentucky’s total includes a Dec. 1 sellout against in-state

rival Louisville, a 69-64 comeback victory spurred by a loud

partisan crowd that has provided a tangible home court advantage.

The Wildcats are 88-13 at Memorial during Mitchell’s tenure and are

70-3 overall at home the past five seasons.

Kentucky is 22-12 at Rupp including victories over Duke and

DePaul since lone appearances resumed two years ago. Both games set

attendance marks with a record 18,488 for last year’s win over the

Blue Demons.

That showing made selling out a realistic target this year,

especially with Kentucky unbeaten and not far removed from an epic

four-overtime victory over No. 9 Baylor before 12,818 in Arlington,

Texas. Facing a Duke team that just sustained its first loss

Tuesday night to defending champion and No. 1 Connecticut has

boosted appeal, but assistant AD for marketing and promotions

Nathan Schawke believes Sunday’s packed house might have happened

anyway.

”It’s one of those things where a lot of things have fallen

into place,” Schwake said. ”We’re not surprised because we’ve

seen it coming. … The special-event feel (of this game) really

helped us push it.”