KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Amani Franklin’s eyes were red from crying. But the Kentucky senior had a smile on her face.
“What an amazing ride,” she said as she shook her head slowly. “What an amazing, amazing ride.”
Franklin was in the losing locker room as Kentucky’s unexpected journey through the NCAA Tournament ended in an 88-68 loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight in the Sprint Center on Tuesday night. The Cats had just suffered their worst loss of the season one stop away from a school-first Final Four.
“You know, it’s not even about not going to the Final Four,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “It’s about being in that locker room with a bunch of kids that just absolutely pushed it to the limit. I told them back there I wouldn’t trade places with Coach (Sherri) Coale at all.“I congratulate Oklahoma, but I’m real, real proud of Kentucky.”
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Things that had worked for Kentucky all season seemed to fade in the wake of Oklahoma’s speedy, star guards Nyeshia Stevenson and Danielle Robinson, who combined for 47 points in the Sooners’ win that sent them to their second straight Final Four.
“They were outstanding, veteran guards that weren’t going to be denied tonight,” Mitchell said. “We just weren’t as sharp as we’d been all year. We’ve been sharp a bunch of times.”
Kentucky had been sharp enough to go from the team picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference, to the final team standing from the SEC.
It had been sharp enough to win a school-best 28 games this season, just not this game.
It looked like UK was going to run away with it as it had many games this season behind quickness and finesse.
But the Cats only had one big run and, unfortunately for them, it was to start the game when they grabbed a 15-2 lead and held Oklahoma (27-10) without a field goal for the first six minutes.
The huge lead seemed to drain UK (28-8) and motivate the Sooners, who soon responded with a 21-6 lead of their own. They grabbed the lead for good in the first half on a Robinson layup and made free throw. Their zone defense seemed to cause UK problems at various times.
“Early on, their pressure defense gave us fits,” Coale said. “Later when we counter-punched, I thought their youth and inexperience showed a bit.”
Robinson had 16 points, six assists and five rebounds. Nyeshia Stevenson had 31 points and five steals.
“She was fantastic,” Coale said of Stevenson. “She finally figured out that she’s fast with the ball in her hand.”
Amanda Thompson added 17 points and a game-high 14 rebounds for Oklahoma.
“Our defense lacked energy today,” senior Lydia Watkins said of UK, which allowed Oklahoma to hit 61.5 percent of its shots, the best percentage of any team this season versus the Cats.
The Sooners’ hustle and flow looked reminiscent of what Kentucky had done to other teams in this season.
OU was able to score 24 points off 14 Cats’ miscues. The Sooners turned the ball over 21 times, but UK scored only 19 points off those mistakes.
SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap, who scored 31 points (just two short of her career high) and grabbed 13 rebounds, said there was definitely a difference in the energy level.
“At the end we weren’t ourselves,” said Dunlap, who made the regional All-Tournament team. “We kind of started missing shots and then we weren’t the same defensive team we usually have been.”
A’dia Mathies, UK’s second-leading scorer and SEC Freshman of the Year, scored twice in the early run for the Cats but struggled the rest of the way, missing her next 10 shots and finishing with nine points.
“I don’t think it was a product of us not trying,” Mitchell said. “We wish we’d played better, but we clearly needed somebody to step up and be that complement to Victoria. She had a whale of a game.”
The Cats struggled mightily on the offensive end in the second half, making 23.1 percent of their shots.
Early in the second half, Oklahoma extended its four-point halftime lead to 10. Seven straight points from Stevenson were part of a 17-6 run that gave the Sooners a 66-50 lead. They led by as many as 23 points.
“At the end of the day, we knew we weren’t going to lose this game,” said senior center Abi Olajuwon. “We wanted this badly.”