After a one-year absence, the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team is back in the Big Dance.
On Monday night the Wildcats received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky is the No. 6 seed in the Greensboro Regional and will begin its tournament run against No. 11 seed Princeton on Saturday at 11 a.m. in Raleigh, N.C.
The team was scheduled to learn its tournament path at a watch party at Malone’s restaurant on Tates Creek Road, but ESPNU inadvertently leaked most of the 64-team bracket hours before the selection show was set to air, prompting the network to announce the field early. The team still gathered at Malone’s for a group dinner and to address the media.
The Wildcats had become an annual fixture in the NCAA Tournament before last season, having made eight straight appearances including four trips to regional championships. But UK missed last year’s tournament after compiling a 15-17 record. On Monday, Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell acknowledged that this year’s bid was made even sweeter in light of last year’s disappointment.
“I’m really proud of this particular bid to the tournament,” Mitchell said. “You think back a year ago today, our name’s not called. Incredible disappointment, first time in eight years. And the players felt that. They knew what that meant and it was incredibly crushing, incredibly disappointing.
“I think back to all the work we were putting in. We weren’t getting a lot of results on the scoreboard but all that work was paying off. It paid off in the off-season. And this is a team that was able for the sum to be greater than the parts. That is a true team and a true testament to these players. ...They worked hard for it, they overcame a lot. I think that’s why they’re so excited to play.”
Senior guard Maci Morris said the goal during her last tournament run remains the same as her previous two.
“We’ve got to try to go out the best we can. Since our freshman year we’ve tried to make it to the Final Four and that’s our goal again this year,” Morris said. “This is what we’ve worked all season for, to try and make a run in the NCAA Tournament and, again, try to make it to the Final Four.”
Kentucky was ranked No. 17 in the most recent Associated Press poll and No. 17 in the coaches’ poll. The Wildcats amassed an overall record of 24-7 and finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference, going 11-5 in league play. Their tournament resume included victories over South Carolina and UCLA, ranked No. 15 and 20, respectively, in the latest AP poll.
Princeton earned an automatic bid to the tournament after beating Penn, 65-54, in the Ivy League championship game. This will mark the program’s eighth appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2010. After suffering a seven-game losing streak early in the year, the Tigers hit a hot streak and went on to win their second straight regular-season league title. They enter the matchup against Kentucky with a record of 22-9, having won 12 straight games. The Tigers were dominated by the only two ranked opponents they faced this year, falling to then-No. 16 DePaul, 82-67, and 15th-ranked Syracuse, 92-61.
Princeton’s most potent offensive weapon is junior wing Bella Alarie, who averages 23.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Senior Gabrielle Rush is the Tigers’ most dangerous outside-shooting threat. The 5-foot-10 guard averages 12.5 points per game and has hit a team-high 87 three-pointers this year, shooting 35 percent from long range.
“(Princeton) is the class of the Ivy League,” Mitchell said. “They have a lot of experience in the tournament. I have not seen them play this year, we’ll go after this and start digging into the Princeton Tigers. But we’re just so happy to be playing.”
UK’s NCAA Tournament opener
No. 6 seed Kentucky vs. No. 11 seed Princeton
What: NCAA Tournament Greensboro Regional
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Raleigh, N.C.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 24-7, Princeton 22-9
Series: First meeting