Shortly after Mickie DeMoss got the head coaching job at Kentucky, she walked into Rupp Arena with her assistant coaches and made a bold declaration.
“We walked into that arena and Mickie told me, ‘We’re going to sell that thing out one day. We’re going to sellout Rupp Arena for women’s basketball,’” recalled then UK assistant and current head coach Matthew Mitchell.
Knowing that UK was averaging just 1,694 fans a game when they arrived 10 years ago, Mitchell remembered thinking DeMoss’s declaration seemed a little bit nutty.
“It was sort of hard to believe at the time because the state everything was in,” Mitchell said on Thursday.
Turns out that DeMoss was right.
Kentucky announced late Friday afternoon that it has sold out the downtown venue as the fifth-ranked Cats face No. 2 Duke on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.
The 23,000 plus expected to attend the game at Rupp Arena on Sunday will be more for one game than UK had in its 13 home games combined (22,024) the season before DeMoss took over the program.
“It was a bold statement,” Mitchell said of DeMoss’ sellout talk. “But I think that’s what great leaders do, is they cast a vision and they can see it before the rest of us can.”
If the 23,000-plus arrive on Sunday, it will be the largest attended women’s basketball game in state history. The previous high was 22,152 at the KFC/Yum! Center on Dec. 5, 2010 when the Cardinals played host to UK.
The previous high at Kentucky was 18,488 at Rupp Arena last season when UK battered DePaul. The season before, a game there against the Blue Devils drew 14,508.
Coach Joanne McCallie was excited by the prospect of playing in front of a sellout crowd. The largest road crowd the Blue Devils have played in front of was 21,118 at Tennessee in 2007.
Tennessee also was the site of the NCAA attendance record for a regular-season women’s game with 24,653 when the Lady Vols faced Connecticut in 2006.
“As far as I’m concerned, we need more of it,” McCallie said of the big crowds. “We just had a team come in with a big crowd and shut us up pretty good (Connecticut), so we know what that’s like. The point is, if women’s basketball is going to be a big deal, that’s exactly what we want.”
After Duke (10-1) beat Albany Thursday night, bouncing back from a drubbing by top-rated UConn, McCallie and her players sounded excited by the prospect of facing UK in front of a record crowd.
“We welcome environments like that,” senior point guard Chelsa Gray said. “It’s exciting. That’s what it’s going to be like in the NCAA Tournament and it prepares us for that in the long run.”
Senior guard Tricia Liston said getting to play in games like this is why she came to Duke.
“We’re all excited,” she said. “It’ll be fun.”
It wasn’t so fun for the Devils in 2011 when they were at Rupp Arena and lost 72-65, turning the ball over 24 times against the Cats’ pressure.
Mitchell credited that big crowd with helping UK earn the win that night and he hopes it will help again on Sunday.
“It’s a huge factor in the game and that’s what I’m telling the team,” Kentucky’s coach said. “It’s such an opportunity. It doesn’t happen everywhere, it doesn’t happen often.”