LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Hosting an NCAA Tournament regional was the last thing Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell could have envisioned when the Wildcats were mired in a three-game losing streak that seemed to have them destined to start the tournament on the road.
Kentucky (23-9) regrouped down the stretch to reach the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals and earned a No. 2 seed and the opportunity to host 15th-seeded Tennessee State (18-12) on Friday. No. 7 Dayton (25-6) and No. 10 Iowa State (18-12) meet in the opener.
Now the Wildcats a chance to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years, but they have to first win their rematch with the Tigers. Kentucky's 87-75 victory in December required a first-half scoring outburst that provided a buffer against the Tigers' comeback.
Kentucky didn't have senior guards Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill in that game because of injuries, but both are healthy and major reasons why the Wildcats have won four of five since last month's slide.
"I believe there are some players who have made a lot of progress since then," Mitchell said Thursday. "It's a different team. A lot has happened since then. We've been through a lot since that game."
Tennessee State also been through a lot since December.
The Tigers are on a school-record 10-game winning streak that helped claim the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title. TSU earned its third NCAA Tournament berth and first in 20 years and gets to follow up against a Kentucky team that's strong at home.
"I know how good they are and they're very good," Tigers coach Larry Joe Inman said of Kentucky. "I'm just excited for our kids to be here and play a team like Kentucky."
Some things to watch in Friday's first-round games in Lexington:
HIGH-SCORING FLYERS: Dayton enters with the nation's No. 20 scoring offense (75.2 points per game) and has posted 90-plus points twice in its last nine contests. Senior guard Andrea Hoover (17.6 points) leads the Flyers.
STRETCH-RUN STRUGGLES: Iowa State enters the game on a two-game losing streak and has won just 4 of 12. But a couple of the Cyclones' wins were big: a 76-71 victory over Baylor and an 84-76 overtime defeat of Oklahoma. Both Big 12 Conference teams are in the tournament, quality wins that boosted Iowa State's prospects.
HOMECOMING: Much of Inman's success came near Lexington at Eastern Kentucky in nearby Richmond. He went 314-244 with the Colonels from 1998-2008 with NCAA Tournament appearances in '97 and '05. "It's always special and it's a great feeling to be here and share it with family and friends that are here," he said. "We feel like this is home as well as where live now (in Nashville)."
OFF-COURT FRIENDS, ON-COURT RIVALS: Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly and Dayton counterpart Jim Jabir have known each for two decades but will meet for the first time on Friday. Jabir won't be shocked by anything he sees and said, "Bill (Fennelly) has always run a lot of junk defenses and so we will see a diamond-and-one, 2-3 zone, triangle-and-two, so we have to make sure we run our sets with respect of what they're doing. We just have to be disciplined when we're running our stuff."
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