UK women: 'We beat ourselves' vs. UConn last year

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 31, 2013 

  • Monday

    Kentucky vs. Connecticut

    What: NCAA Tournament Bridgeport (Conn.) Regional final

    When: 7:30 p.m.

    TV: ESPN

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Eight minutes.

That's all it took for Connecticut to take a close game and turn it into a rout of Kentucky last season, with a Final Four trip on the line.

"In a real critical eight-minute span, we gave up too many offensive boards that they scored off of and got second opportunities," Coach Matthew Mitchell said Sunday of the Huskies' 80-65 win over UK last season. "I really thought it was a game of second opportunities for UConn."

Now Kentucky will get its second chance.

The Cats, the No. 2 seed, find themselves in the same place as last season: in a region championship game against the top-seeded Huskies.

"It really comes down to who's going to fight harder, who's going to be the tougher team for 40 minutes," Mitchell said of the Bridgeport Region championship on Monday.

Before the NCAA Tournament selection show, before UK even knew that it would be experiencing déjà vu, Mitchell and his staff showed the team that eight-minute span against the Huskies last season.

"We beat ourselves," reserve guard Bria Goss said she learned from the video. "We took ourselves out of the game. Something as simple as rebounding took us out of the game, kept us from a Final Four."

In that eight minutes, Connecticut went from a five-point lead to a 19-point advantage. Kentucky's offense wilted, missing 14 shots, including five layups.

And for every Cats' miss, there seemed to be a UConn defensive rebound.

"We were one and done almost every possession," Goss said, shaking her head.

The Huskies had nine defensive rebounds in that span, in which they outrebounded UK 11-4. Those boards helped fuel a 19-5 run that ended any chance of a comeback.

"They played with a much more aggressive spirit during that real critical time," Mitchell said of Connecticut.

What should have been a horror film for the Kentucky players has turned into a how-to video if they want to surprise the basketball world and go to the first Final Four in school history next week.

"A lot of people don't expect us to beat UConn," guard Jennifer O'Neill said. "We don't mind playing under the radar. We know what we're capable of. We know that if we come out and play hard and play our best it's hard for people to play with us and stop us."

What Kentucky (30-5) says it saw in that replay was that extra effort, extra hustle in a short segment of time was all that separated UK from UConn.

"If we had done better at staying focused for a couple of four-minute segments, we had the possibility of going to the Final Four last year," said senior guard A'dia Mathies, who made just two of 12 shot attempts for eight points in that game. "We believe if we stay focused, it could happen this year."

Of course it will take more than a few minutes here or a few minutes there to unseat UConn (32-4), whose only losses this season have been to top-rated Baylor and No. 2 Notre Dame.

The Huskies still have a roster full of All-Americans. They're still playing in front of their fans. They still have history — six straight Final Four trips — and tradition on their side.

"Your ability to focus and battle through adversity is important and that's what UConn is so good at doing," Mitchell said Sunday. "That's why they keep showing up time after time. That's the step our program is going to have to take to punch through. We're going to have to be very mentally tough tomorrow."

Kentucky's players believe they are better equipped physically, with two McDonald's All-Americans in the post in Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth and another controlling the tempo in O'Neill.

Coach Geno Auriemma agreed that UK presents a more formidable challenge.

"They have much more of an inside game now than they did last year," he said. "Their two guards are shooting the ball way better. Their half-court offense is way better than it was last year."

But maybe more importantly, Kentucky players said they believe they've grown mentally since that loss a season ago.

"We've been in some unbelievable battles this year," junior Kastine Evans said. "It's made us close, real close. ... We've worked too hard to let another opportunity slip like we did last year."


Monday

Kentucky vs. Connecticut

What: NCAA Tournament Bridgeport (Conn.) Regional final

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN

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

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