Mark Story: For UK women, improved offense is the key to crashing the Final Four

UK seniors put hearts into making program's first Final Four

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 3, 2013 

When Samarie Walker transferred from Connecticut to Kentucky in January 2011, she found herself inheriting a quest of historic proportion:

Being part of the first Kentucky women's basketball team to make an NCAA Tournament Final Four.

"It's something we've talked about since our freshman year," Walker said. "We want to be part of the team that does it."

Over the past four seasons, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell has led the Kentucky women's basketball program on a relentless climb.

Since 2009-10, Kentucky has won 10 NCAA Tournament games. In all the years prior, UK won four.

Over the past four seasons, Kentucky has 20 victories against ranked foes. From 1992-93 through 2008-09, UK had 19 such wins.

On its current roster, Kentucky has seven McDonald's All-Americans. Before Mitchell signed Jennifer O'Neill as part of his 2010-11 incoming recruiting class, UK had never inked one player off the Mickey D's list.

Yet the final step upward has proven elusive for UK. In spite of advancing to the NCAA Tournament round of eight three times in the prior four seasons, Kentucky has yet to make a Final Four.

For Walker and the other four members — DeNesha Stallworth, Kastine Evans, Samantha Drake and Bernisha Pinkett — of a five-person senior class, the coming season is the last chance to be the group that takes Kentucky women's basketball to the college hoops promised land.

"We definitely have a lot more heart into (this season)," said Evans, a 5-foot-8 guard whose cold-blooded three-pointer clinched Kentucky's NCAA Tournament victory over Delaware last season in the round of 16.

"We understand what an opportunity we have, and know this is one of the better teams, collectively, we've been on."

One doesn't require the basketball intelligence of Brad Stevens to diagnose what has kept UK from breaking through from the Elite Eight to the Final Four.

In 2010, when Kentucky fell to Oklahoma in a regional finals, the Wildcats shot 23-for-70 from the field.

Two years ago, when the Cats lost to Connecticut in the round of eight, UK made 19 of 61 field goals. Last year, when eventual national champion UConn stopped Kentucky cold again, the Wildcats hit 19 of 62 shots.

Mitchell's installation of a frenetic-paced, full-court pressing defense four seasons ago turned Kentucky from perennially mediocre into a top-10 program. Yet to push through to the Final Four, UK has to get better in its half-court offense.

"I think our defense is tremendous, that's what we're known for," said the 6-3 Stallworth, who is UK's leading returning scorer at 12.5 ppg. "But our offensive execution in the half-court definitely has to get a lot better."

Taking advantage of the NCAA rule that now allows basketball coaches to work with their teams for eight hours a week (no more than two hours a day) in the summer, Mitchell and Kentucky worked this past off-season on the offense.

Over and over and over and over.

"All I can tell you is that it got very boring," said Walker, UK's leading rebounder (8.1) last season. "But you can already tell it helped a lot."

Another thing that would enhance UK's Final Four chances would be getting away from UConn in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Given that Geno Auriemma's team is a habitual No. 1 seed, the one way Kentucky could ensure NOT seeing the Huskies before the national semifinals is to earn a top seed itself.

That makes non-conference games against expected top-10 teams Louisville (Dec. 1), Baylor (Dec. 6) and Duke (Dec. 22) especially important. It also puts a premium on UK winning the SEC regular-season crown for the second time in the past three seasons.

One thing Mitchell should not have to worry about is his team's sense of urgency. There are four juniors on the Kentucky roster in addition to the five seniors. All that veteran experience is focused on fulfilling a quest and getting past the Elite Eight and into the 2014 Final Four.

"That would be amazing," Stallworth said. "And that's our goal."

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

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