Kentucky women's one-for-all mentality has carried them to NCAA sweet sixteen

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 20, 2012 

  • Women's SEC Tournament

    Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt/Missouri winner
    When: 6 p.m. Friday
    TV/Radio: SportsSouth/WLAP-AM 630

AMES, Iowa — It's not often that something leaves Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell speechless.

But his team did that something before its second-round NCAA Tournament game Monday night.

"The players got off the bus hand in hand," he said, his voice cracking with emotion after UK's victory. "They walked as a chain down the ramp, just locked together. I've never seen a team do that before."

But as Mitchell, his coaches and his players tell it, this isn't an ordinary team.

It hasn't been all season.

They certainly didn't look ordinary in their 65-62 win over 10th-ranked Green Bay on Monday night, a win that sends the Cats to the final field of 16.

They will face No. 11 seed Gonzaga on Sunday.

They didn't look ordinary in the dominant first half against Green Bay, when they used their speed an athleticism to race out to a 17-point halftime advantage

But in the second half, an extraordinary effort by Green Bay forced 20 UK turnovers in 20 minutes. The Cats coughed up the ball a season-high 34 times in all before the final horn.

They saw that 17-point lead turn into a one-point deficit inside two minutes to play.

When things looked, bleak, though, Kentucky pulled together. It didn't have a timeout for the game's final five minutes.

But it had its defense, taking three charges in the final 3:30 of the game. That same defense held Green Bay scoreless for the final two minutes while senior Keyla Snowden took a quick pass from junior A'dia Mathies and hit the go-ahead basket with 16 seconds to play followed by two clutch free throws.

"As a coach, there wasn't much you could do," MItchell explained. "There's no play you can run against that defense. You just have to trust your players that they can make enough plays to win a game like this."

"Trust" was the exact word he wrote in big, bold letters on the dry erase board before the game.

But the players already had that, they said, thus the show of unity as they walked into Hilton Coliseum on Monday night.

"We got off the bus focused and ready to win this game," Snowden said.

Other UK players have said the linking of the arms started long before their trip to Iowa.

It started this summer when they went through the most grueling pre-season conditioning they've ever experienced.

"People would be crying and about to die," sophomore Maegan Conwright recalled recently.

After one of the longest sets of wind sprints during conditioning, Conwright remembered guard Jennifer O'Neill yelling out: "Finish this for your teammates. You don't want to quit on your team."

Those summer practices were the start of something special, assistant coach Kyra Elzy said.

"Their practices were so hard and they didn't have anybody else but each other to rely on," Elzy said. "Some days there were tears; some days there were heartaches. They were discouraged, so they had to learn to stick together."

That bond helped UK (27-6) win a grueling regular-season Southeastern Conference title for just the second time in school history and the first since 1982.

It helped the players not worry about who plays how many minutes or which position or in what games.

"We just want to get where we want to go and if that means playing two minutes just to play defense or three minutes to get offensive boards, you know your role," Conwright explained.

She knows. She's had games where her minutes have been in the single digits. She's had games where she's played 25-plus.

She's been a point guard and a power forward for No. 12 UK this season.

"They're my sisters," Conwright said when asked if she minded losing minutes or coming off the bench. "If I was playing with my actual real, blood sister, I wouldn't care. I'd be glad she did good. It's about more than you. It's about family."

Much like a family, every person on the team has a role.

That has been discussed often during the season, Elzy said.

"We talk to them a lot as a staff about chemistry, how it takes everyone to win, how everyone is important, everyone has a trait, a specific gift, that it takes every piece to win," she explained.

"And this team just wants to win."

But doesn't every team want to win?

"Some people want to win, but not at the expense of 'my points' or 'my accolades,'" Elzy corrected.

That hasn't been Kentucky's players this season.

"Everybody has one goal, one mission, there are no hidden agendas," the assistant coach said. "They really don't care who gets the credit. They don't care who's scoring. They don't care who's playing."

Knowing that, seeing it evolve starting this summer has made this run — whether it ends in Denver at the Final Four or this week in the Kingston (R.I.) Regional — extra special.

It has even left Kentucky's head coach speechless.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com

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