On Feb. 10, just over a month out from Selection Sunday, March Madness seemed improbable for the Kentucky women's basketball team. The Wildcats were 9-11 overall and 2-8 in the SEC.
For senior Rhyne Howard, a two-time SEC player of the year, the end of her outstanding Wildcat career was looking bleak.
Then everything changed for Kentucky. The Wildcats went on a 10-game winning streak that culminated with a 64-62 upset of No. 1-ranked South Carolina on Sunday, giving Kentucky its first SEC tournament title since 1982.
"We started having fun," Howard said of the Wildcats' dramatic turnaround. "When things were getting tough, basically we acted like we didn't want to be there. That's how it looked and how it appeared to our fans.
"We had a team meeting where we were like, 'This is it. We cannot end like this.' Especially with a lot of us being seniors. We knew we had to get it together."
They became the first team in SEC women's tournament history to beat the top three seeds on the way to the title. The Wildcats, seeded No. 7, won four games in Nashville, Tennessee, to take the championship, topping No. 1 seed South Carolina, No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Tennessee and No. 10 Mississippi State.
The winning basket was a 3-pointer by Dre'una Edwards with under 5 seconds left. The Gamecocks weren't able to get off a quality shot, and the Wildcats celebrated the championship that has eluded them for 40 years. Kentucky took the 1982 title over Tennessee when the tournament was in just its third year. Since then, the Wildcats had lost in the SEC final in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014.
It seemed highly improbable not long ago that Kentucky would even be playing in the SEC final this year.
"We had been put in situations when our back was against the wall, and we had enough to step up," Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said of this season. "We're a talented team."
Elzy anticipated that on Kentucky's final possession, the South Carolina defense would focus on Howard, who was the SEC tournament MVP.
"I told Dre, 'If they go with Rhy and you are open, take the shot,'" Elzy said. "I'm confident in that shot; she works on it. When the shot went up, I knew it was good."
Edwards led Kentucky with 27 points and nine rebounds Sunday, while Howard had 18 points. For the tournament, Howard averaged 22.0 points per game.
The Wildcats fell to South Carolina twice in the regular season, but were able to give the 29-2 Gamecocks just their second loss this season on Sunday. South Carolina also lost to Missouri in overtime on Dec. 30.
ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme projects the victory has boosted the Wildcats, 19-11 overall and 8-8 in the SEC, to a No. 7 seed.
Meanwhile, South Carolina still has the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament locked up, according to Creme. The Gamecocks had won six of the last seven SEC tournament titles.
Aliyah Boston had 21 points and 11 rebounds for South Carolina, which has been ranked No. 1 since the preseason. South Carolina won the rebounding battle 44-32 Sunday but made just 12 of 20 free throws, which was costly.
"We've got to go back to the drawing board," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We're not a bad basketball team, we just played two bad quarters at the worst time. It's the fact that we give up 21 points in the fourth quarter. We've got to go back and see where our defense is failing us.
"Hats off to Kentucky. They're hot, they're streaking. I'm super happy for Kyra and their program and their ability to weather some storms early on and find themselves as our SEC tournament champions."