BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Matthew Mitchell built Kentucky into a women's basketball program that now regularly makes Elite Eights by adopting a chaotic, full-court defensive system that relies on a fleet of scrappy, quick guards.
Yet in a heaping helping of hoops irony, if UK is to break through against mighty Connecticut and claim its first-ever berth in a women's NCAA Tournament Final Four, it might well depend on the performances of Kentucky's big players.
Mitchell brought high- profile transfers DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker to Kentucky for games like Monday's 7:30 p.m. meeting with UConn in the NCAA Tournament Bridgeport Region finals in Webster Bank Arena.
They know it, too.
"I'm definitely nervous," the 6-foot-3 Stallworth said Sunday. "It's a good nervous, though. I'm anxious to play."
Said Walker: "In this game, I know if I don't rebound, my team will struggle."
It's funny how this has worked out. Two years into his Kentucky coaching career, with a 33-32 overall record at the time (2008-09), Mitchell recognized that UK could not then recruit the kind of big, skilled post players that are a staple on the rosters of traditional women's hoops titans like Tennessee and Connecticut.
So the UK coach came up with a way to take the kind of players he could get at Kentucky, mostly jet-quick but smallish guards, and build an approach that would win.
Since that decision was made — aided mightily by the fact one of the guards Mitchell got was the splendid A'dia Mathies — UK has won 111 women's basketball games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of eight three times in the past four seasons.
"I would say, in the last five, six years, I don't know that anybody has gotten that far that quickly," Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said of UK's women's hoops' rise. "(I don't know) that anybody has done it better in the country than they have."
What Kentucky has not been able to do with its guard-oriented rosters is make the Final Four.
So unable to sign McDonald's All-American-caliber big players straight out of high school, Mitchell compensated by landing transfer students Walker (UConn) and Stallworth (California).
It is the presence of Stallworth (12.6 points, 5.9 rebounds) and Walker (8.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg) starting together that is the biggest difference between the UK team that lost to UConn with the Final Four at stake in the 2012 NCAA tourney and the one that will try again in 2013.
"They have much more of an inside game than they did last year," Auriemma said of UK.
A season ago, when UK fell to UConn 80-65, the Huskies crushed the Cats on the glass, 40-26. A 17-3 Connecticut run early in the second half that broke open a three-point game was fueled largely with offensive rebounding.
That night, Kentucky started four guards.
Stallworth was sitting out her redshirt season after transferring. The 6-1 Walker, who became eligible at UK at mid-semester last season after leaving UConn midway through her freshman year, came off the bench to score 14 points and grab five rebounds for the Cats.
"We don't really think too much about that game," Walker said Sunday. "But the one thing Coach told us to take from it is we didn't rebound very well in the second half. We didn't play with a lot of energy. We weren't very aggressive. That's something we have to do this game."
When UK was upset by Texas A&M in the finals of the SEC Tournament, Walker and Stallworth struggled against 6-6 Aggies center Kelsey Bone.
"I feel like we learned a lot in that game," Mitchell said, "and what we've been able to work on (since) will benefit us in the game" with UConn."
Connecticut's front line is long and powerful. Junior center Stefanie Dolson (14.1 points, 7.1 rebounds though playing with a stress fracture in a foot) is 6-5. Freshman forward Breanna Stewart (12.8 points, 6.4 rebounds) is 6-4. At 6-foot, small forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis leads the Huskies in scoring (17.7) and is a strong rebounder (6.4).
Besides immense talent, UConn is steeped in winning aura. Under Auriemma, the Huskies have won seven NCAA titles, played in 13 Final Fours and are going for their sixth-straight trip to the national semifinals.
UK is trying to crash UConn's party and take the next step in program development with a Final Four trip.
To earn that, a Kentucky program that was built on guards needs its "bigs" to come up huge Monday night.