UK women to open NCAA Tournament play at home as No. 3 seed

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 17, 2014 

  • Ticket information

    NCAA Tournament: First and second rounds in Memorial Coliseum

    11 a.m. Saturday: Kentucky (24-8) vs. Wright State (26-8),

    1:30 p.m. Saturday: Syracuse (22-9) vs. Chattanooga (29-3)

    6:30 p.m. Monday: Second-round game

    Tickets: Single-session reserved tickets are $22 for adults (ages 19-64), $15 for youth (0-18) and for seniors (ages 65+); all-session ticket prices are $36 for adults, $24 for youth and seniors

    Purchase: Online at www.ukathletics.com, in person at Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or by calling the UK ticket office at (800) 928-2287

  • Matchups

    KENTUCKY (24-8)

    Tournament record: 14-10, 11 appearances

    Last appearance: 2013 (advanced to Elite Eight)

    Scoring leaders: Jennifer O'Neill 12.7 ppg, DeNesha Stallworth 12.3, Bria Goss 9.9, Samarie Walker 9.1, Janee Thompson 8.8, Kastine Evans 8.4, Linnae Harper 6.8, Azia Bishop 5.3

    Assists leaders: Janee Thompson 3.1 apg, O'Neill 2.8, Evans 1.7

    Three-pointers: O'Neill 50, Evans 38, Goss 31

    Last 10 games: 7-3

    The skinny: UK advances to the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time, including a school-record fifth straight. Kentucky is 0-4 in Elite Eight games and has its eyes on getting to the first Final Four in school history, conveniently a short drive away in Nashville this season. Mitchell says his team "became a true team" during its run to the Southeastern Conference championship game and he's confident heading into this tournament. For the first time since 2011, Connecticut is not at the top of the Cats' bracket, but another unbeaten team is in Notre Dame. And if UK should get that far, it could mean a battle with an unbeaten team on its own home floor for a trip to the Final Four. After being a No. 2 seed the past two years, UK is a No. 3 seed this time around and for the first time since 1983.

    WRIGHT STATE (26-8)

    Tournament record: First appearance

    Scoring leaders: Kim Demmings 22.7 ppg, Ivory James 17.2, Tay'ler Mingo 15.1, KC Elkins 8.1, Tayler Stanton 7.5, Breanna Stucke 3.9, Abby Jump 3.5

    Rebounding leaders: Stanton 9.1 rpg, James 6.5, Demmings 6.2

    Assists leaders: Mingo 4.4 apg, Demmings 2.6, Elkins 2.3

    Three-pointers: Demmings 83, James 58, Elkins 54

    Last 10 games: 9-1

    The skinny: Fans in Memorial Coliseum might do a double take when they see the Raiders play on Saturday. Wright State looks a lot like the Cats of old with their small, four-guard lineup with no starter taller than 6-foot. They run an aggressive, full-court defense, which makes them the top team in the nation for turnover margin. That's a title UK held for several seasons. The Raiders force 10.4 steals a game (14th best in the nation) and take excellent care of the ball, averaging just 12.1 turnovers a game (ninth best in the nation). The Raiders are the nation's fourth-best offense, averaging 84 points a game and will face UK's, which is 14th nationally at 81.3 points a game. But Wright State will have to contend with some nerves, having never played in the NCAA Tournament in school history and facing UK on its home court.

    JENNNIFER SMITH

The bright lights of Times Square called to Kentucky last season in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

The Cats took advantage of the trip to New York City and made a bus trip downtown to take in the sights and sounds.

That's tougher to do when the first two rounds are in Lexington this year, but UK is going to try and make the most of it.

Kentucky needs to "enjoy being at home, enjoy being in Lexington, enjoy playing at our facility, but really understand that it's not going to guarantee you a thing," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said after the Cats were named the No. 3 seed in the Notre Dame regional. "You have to go out and earn you some victories here."

At an intimate Selection Monday party in Memorial Coliseum, the 10th-ranked Cats (24-8) learned they will meet Wright State, a first-time winner of the Horizon League, in the first round at 11 a.m. Saturday in Memorial Coliseum.

Should UK advance, it would meet the winner of the second Saturday game between No. 6 seed Syracuse (22-9) and No. 11 seed Chattanooga (29-3).

Should the Cats keep moving forward, they'd move onto the regional at South Bend, Ind., home of the unbeaten Fighting Irish, the only top seed that will get a chance to play on its own home floor with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

A potential rematch of the four-overtime, ice storm game at Cowboys Stadium in December looms large in the region semifinals against Baylor, too.

But Kentucky, which has advanced to the Elite Eight three of the past four years only to get shut down by Connecticut in the last two tournaments, has learned not to look too far ahead.

Mitchell said his team is just going to do what it did at the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week and move forward together as a team.

"We want to be serious as far as preparation goes, but trying to keep that theme of going out and making it fun on the court with our play and try to have some fun when we're together off the court."

But not too much fun.

After the NCAA Tournament draw, Mitchell mentioned the team would be staying at a local hotel during the tournament rounds in Lexington and treating it like a road game for fewer distractions.

Will there be any side trips like the ride to Times Square last season or the dinner on a mountain in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2011?

"Could take them to the Horse Park; we could take them over to Ashland, see the mansion," he joked. "I'm not taking them to Maker's Mark, going to try to keep our wits about us in the NCAA Tournament. We don't need to be boozing it up."

The coach will remind them that they have a special opportunity to play at home for the first two rounds and that they need to make the most of it.

"We need to use it to our advantage," Mitchell said. "We've had a good run here historically, but this has been a year where it's not been automatic that we win at home."

The players have known since before the season started that they would be hosting the first two rounds at their home venue, but it still felt special when Lexington popped up on the ESPN selection show, forward DeNesha Stallworth said.

"We're just excited to start," said the Richmond, Calif., native who admitted she was hoping a little bit that the Cats' region would be in her home state. "I'm just so excited, just happy."

Wright State connections

Just a day before the selection show, Mitchell was sending a congratulatory text to Wright State Coach Mike Bradbury after the Raiders won their first Horizon League championship.

"It was such a big win for him yesterday to beat Green Bay and get into the tournament," Mitchell said. "He and I share a bond being former Morehead State coaches. I've known him a long time and I was happy for him. I know they have a good team. ... I know Mike's an awfully good coach."

Bradbury took over the Morehead State program when Mitchell was hired at Kentucky. Bradbury also is a Chattanooga graduate. The Lady Mocs are the No. 11 seed in the second game in Lexington on Saturday.

The Raiders have one other Kentucky connection in former Ryle standout Abby Jump. The junior guard comes off the bench and averages 3.5 points a game.

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

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