Matthew Mitchell shared four words with his players before they left the locker room for their NCAA Tournament opener Saturday morning.
“Let’s go be Kentucky.”
It took the sixth-seeded Wildcats almost three full quarters to show 11th-seeded Princeton what that meant, but when the moment arrived it devastated the proud and feisty Ivy League champions.
The result was an 82-77 Kentucky victory at Raleigh, N.C., that propelled the Wildcats to a second-round matchup Monday night against host and No. 3 seed North Carolina State in the Greensboro Regional.
“Princeton is a really good team and very smart so we had to adapt to them and make sure that we were playing our defense and go from there,” said Kentucky senior Maci Morris, who scored 13 of her 19 points in the second half.
ESPN’s camera inside the Kentucky locker room captured Mitchell’s pregame confidence-builder, but UK needed some time to shake off the rust of a 15-day layoff since being eliminated from the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Princeton, led by 6-foot-4 Bella Alarie — daughter of former Duke standout Mark Alarie — pounded the Wildcats on the glass throughout the first half, kept Kentucky’s offense in check with a scrappy 2-3 zone and led 37-33 at halftime. At one point, Princeton (22-10) led by nine.
“What you saw right there was this team in a nutshell, and the resilience of this group was on display,” Princeton Coach Courtney Banghart said.
Mitchell promised last week that his seniors would not go home without a fight. He proved prescient during a third quarter that Morris opened by swishing a three-pointer. After numerous lead changes during a thrilling 10 minutes, another senior, Taylor Murray, broke a 52-all tie with a three that gave the Cats the lead for good at the 1:25 mark. Morris then drove for a bucket and closed the period by splashing a three that expanded the Kentucky lead to 61-52.
“When I see them go in, it just gets me going,” Morris said. “It felt really good since I’d been struggling a bit the past few games.”
If that didn’t buckle the Tigers, the moment that did came with 5:30 left in the game. Freshman Rhyne Howard, who finished with 15 points, five rebounds and four assists, drove for a layup. Murray stole the ensuing inbounds pass and tossed in another layup and just like that a seven-point lead became 71-60.
“Let’s go be Kentucky.”
The Wildcats’ full-game, full-court pressure at last took the toll Mitchell intended.
“I thought that we had a great halftime session and our team responded in the third quarter,” he said. “Our seniors did a great job of leading the way and getting the job done.”
The Cats forced 16 turnovers on the day and committed only seven.
Alarie, forced to play cautious after picking up two first-quarter fouls, still finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Kentucky made her work for all of them as she made just eight of 23 shots.
Alarie, a junior who was named Ivy League player of the year, said Princeton proved something Saturday.
“This game really showed we can hang with some of the best teams in the country. “
Murray scored 14 of her 19 points in the second half to join Morris in sparking Kentucky’s rally.
Mitchell also credited sophomore Tatyana Wyatt (12 points, five rebounds) and junior Jaida Roper (seven points, five assists, three rebounds, two steals).
“I cannot say enough of about the way that Tatyana Wyatt and Jaida Roper played today and how much energy they brought,” the UK coach said. “It made a difference.
“Today we are just extremely proud of our players for fighting so hard. This is our first victory in this tournament and now we will just try to get some rest because we played with a lot of energy today to get this victory.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
No. 6 seed Kentucky vs. No. 3 seed North Carolina State
What: NCAA Tournament Greensboro Regional second-round game
Where: Raleigh, N.C.
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 25-7, North Carolina State 27-5