LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) 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."