UK women advance to Sweet 16 with win over Syracuse

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 24, 2014 

  • WOMEN'S NCAA TOURNAMENT SWEET 16

    Kentucky vs. Baylor

    When: Saturday, time TBA

    Where: South Bend, Ind.

    Records: Kentucky 26-8; Baylor 31-4

As Kentucky limped through the middle of its season, the players talked about poise and their lack of it in close games.

The Cats found they had just enough of it on Monday night as they held off Syracuse 64-59 in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time.

As the Orange climbed back from an 11-point deficit early in the second half and trimmed it to two points midway through, Kentucky found a way to keep its lead and its composure.

"Every time we pushed them, they made an incredible play to stabilize the game," Syracuse Coach Quentin Hillsman said.

As Kentucky struggled to find its shot most of the game in Memorial Coliseum, Coach Matthew Mitchell had to make sure he kept his composure, too.

The coach who talked about the need for poise had to find some of it himself.

"There were times I wanted to run out to half court and scream, go nuts," Mitchell said. "A couple of times I wanted to leave the building with some of the decisions we were making, but what we had to do tonight was keep our wits about it and stay poised."

So when Rachel Coffey scored five straight points, including a huge three-pointer with 11:53 to go, Kentucky did just that.

"I don't think we were scared," senior Samarie Walker said. "It speaks to the poise we had in the game."

Fellow senior Kastine Evans said she didn't even look at the scoreboard. "I don't think it really fazed us."

Kentucky responded with two Bria Goss free throws and then a huge Jennifer O'Neill three-pointer from the top of the key that sparked a 9-1 run that ultimately put the game out of reach.

Goss scored 11 of her game-high 17 points in the second half, almost exclusively on free throws, of which she hit 11 of 12 for the game.

The junior guard said a "boo boo" on her knee kept her from bending it correctly, and caused the one free throw to be short.

She hardly looked dinged up in the win, Kentucky's seventh in the last eight games as the Cats head to the South Bend Region for a Saturday date with Baylor.

"To have a player who would fight for loose balls, handling the ball when she got fouled, attack the basket when we were struggling to score and no fear when she'd go up through three people and getting to the rim and getting to the foul line was huge," Mitchell said of the junior, who also had six rebounds and two steals in 33 minutes. "It really, really saved the day."

Kentucky also got 13 points, six rebounds and three steals from DeNesha Stallworth. Evans added 11 points, including hitting three three-pointers in the victory.

The Orange (23-10) were playing without leading scorer Brittney Sykes, who injured her knee in the first round. They were led by Brianna Butler's 16 points, but UK turned her over six times with its aggressive defense.

Alexis Peterson added 12 points for Syracuse, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

Hillsman was hoping the run would continue.

"I had a good feeling about it at 6 a.m. this morning," he said. "I woke up feeling a 'W.' I really did. ... We got to a point where I thought we could turn the corner, but every time we turned a corner (UK) made a huge play."

The Cats (26-8) struggled at times against the Syracuse 2-3 zone but they found a way to win.

"I'm so happy for our players," Mitchell said. "It's just a tremendous accomplishment for this team."

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

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