Mark Story: Kentucky might finally have enough to get past UConn

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 30, 2013 

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — From the moment Kentucky lost to Connecticut in the 2012 NCAA Tournament round of eight, everything Matthew Mitchell has done has been geared to getting back for another shot.

Even the slogan Mitchell adopted for his program in 2012-13 — 40 Minutes — was born as a reaction to UK's 80-65 defeat to UConn in last season's Big Dance.

Early in the second half of that game, Kentucky was going eyeball-to-eyeball with the mighty Huskies and trailed only 52-49. Then Geno Auriemma's team went to war on the offensive glass and unleashed a 17-3 blitz that ended UK's Final Four dreams.

"They had about an eight-minute stretch where they really devastated us on the offensive boards," Mitchell recalled Saturday.

On Monday night at 7:30, exactly one year and five days since UConn's devastation ended UK's season last year, we'll find out if the Wildcats now have what it takes to go the full 40 minutes against a member of women's college basketball's elite.

Kentucky earned its right for a rematch with UConn with a 69-62 victory over Delaware on Saturday afternoon in an NCAA round-of-16 matchup in the Webster Bank Arena. Jennifer O'Neill scored 19 points and A'dia Mathies had 16 points and nine rebounds to lead the Cats.

After UK saw a 16-point second half lead shrink to two, Kastine Evans hit a cold-blooded three-pointer from the top of the key with 2:21 left to steady a foundering UK ship and give the Cats a 65-60 lead. In winning, Kentucky (30-5) overcame a 33-point, nine-rebound performance from Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and snapped the Blue Hens' 27-game winning streak.

The victory puts Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament round of eight for the third time in four years. At a school that had won four Big Dance contests in its entire history before the 2009-10 season, that is a marquee achievement.

Now, the question for UK is whether it is ready to break through that final-eight ceiling and reach the Final Four for the first time.

"I think we have more talent than the team last year," Mitchell said after Kentucky had beaten Delaware (32-4) but before Connecticut (32-4) had bested Maryland. "I think no matter who we face, if we play really hard on defense and make shots, we can (win)."

Unlike the parity-driven chaos that is men's college basketball, the very top level of women's college hoops oft seems like a permanent caste system. Last year's Final Four teams — Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford and UConn — are this season's No. 1 seeds. Of the last 16 women's Final Four slots, those four schools have claimed 12.

Yet in facing a Connecticut squad bidding for the school's sixth straight Final Four appearance, the Cats say they are closer to being on that level themselves than ever before.

Mathies, who Saturday became the second woman in UK basketball history and the fifth Kentucky player overall to reach 2,000 points in her career, said the presence of transfer post players DeNesha Stallworth (California) and Samarie Walker (UConn) will allow Kentucky to compete on the glass with a powerful Connecticut front line.

"Lots of times in the past, we played four guards," Mathies said. "Just our having two solid post players on the floor at most times now, it really helps us out, especially our rebounding."

Evans, the Salem, Conn., product whose game-sealing jump shot Saturday was a big splash in her home state, pointed to the emergence of O'Neill at the point as an offensive dimension UK lacked last season.

"Our point guard now is a lot more dynamic than some of the point guards we've had in the past," Evans said. "Jen is so fast, she's a scorer, she makes it really hard on other teams to guard."

It has not taken the basketball IQ of Mike Krzyzewski to identify what has sabotaged Kentucky in its two Elite Eight losses over the past three years.

In 2010 in a defeat to Oklahoma, Kentucky shot 32.9 percent from the field. Last year, in falling to Connecticut, UK shot 31.1.

Whether it can execute in its half-court offense when it has to and if it can make a decent percentage of shots are apt to determine if Kentucky makes a game of it Monday night — or if the Cats make some history.

So in its third try in four years, does Kentucky have a chance to break through to women's basketball's promised land?

It does, but against a team of UConn's tournament moxie that is playing in its home state, it will take the best performance UK has given this season.

And 40 minutes of it, too.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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