Kentucky players, coach respond to ESPN’s early leak of NCAA bracket
When the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team begins its NCAA tournament run in Raleigh, N.C., it will mark the Wildcats’ first game in more than two weeks. By the time No. 6 seed Kentucky tips off against No. 11 Princeton on Saturday morning, 15 days will have passed since the Cats were bounced from the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
At the team’s media event on Selection Monday, that lengthy layoff led to questions about the possibility of rust setting in ahead of the Big Dance. But Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said any drawbacks from the break would be more than offset by the health benefits that come with it.
“It’s such a long time to wait. We’ve played Saturday or Sunday in the SEC Tournament so many times, and to go out on Friday just makes it a long, long time,” Mitchell said. “I think for this particular team and this particular year, I think it was really good for us. Coming down the stretch we were playing tough, tough games. ... I thought (the schedule) had depleted us a little bit.”
One of the casualties of that difficult conference grind was the health of Maci Morris. In mid-January the senior guard was held out of a home game against Mississippi because of a sore knee. After giving it a go in pregame warm-ups, Morris was scratched from the lineup in what turned out to be a 55-49 loss to the Rebels.
Though she never missed another game, Morris never seemed quite right down the regular season’s home stretch. She continued putting up numbers, finishing as the team’s second-leading scorer behind breakout freshman star Rhyne Howard, but Morris’ shooting percentage dipped and she had trouble getting past defenders and attacking the basket.
Morris was still good enough to help the Cats round out their tournament resume with seven wins in their final eight regular-season games, as well as earn a spot on the All-SEC First Team. But Mitchell acknowledged that she was less than 100 percent during the final leg of the season.
“I think that was something that hampered her throughout the SEC portion of the schedule. So the rest and recovery for her and the treatment that she’s received (has been important).”
The Wildcats held an intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday during which Mitchell said he kept a close eye on Morris.
“One of the things I wanted to see on Saturday in the scrimmage was to get her back in game action and see how she’s feeling and moving and help her get her timing going. ... I think she’s feeling a lot better and she’s feeling really confident in her health right now.”
Morris admitted her lingering health problems took a mental toll.
“Any athlete, it’s going to frustrate them not to be able to perform the way they want to,” she said. “You just have to take it day by day. Time is on your side when it comes to trying to heal yourself. Luckily we’ve had time for my leg to be able to heal up. I’m just excited to get back out there and play like I used to.”
Whether or not Morris is fully healed, Mitchell is confident she won’t let her college career come to a close without putting up a fight.
“Here’s one thing you know about Maci Morris; just one of the most incredible competitors I’ve ever been around. I can promise you she wants to win on Saturday and she will move heaven and Earth to get it done,” Mitchell said. “On my list of concerns she’s way down on the list. I can tell you she’ll be ready to roll Saturday.”
Mitchell spoke at length during Friday’s pregame news conference about Rhyne Howard as the freshman prepares to play in her first NCAA Tournament.
“You never know what’s going to happen the first time you take the floor for the NCAA Tournament,” MItchell said. “But as far as her work ethic and her desire to be prepared for tomorrow, I give her a A-plus on that and I think she’ll be ready to go.”
Howard leads Kentucky in scoring (16.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.7).
“I think she’s been doing a great job of progressing and growing during her freshman year. And this is another opportunity for her to grow,” he said. “It’s a different type of intensity when you get to the tournament and you know, you’re only guaranteed 40 minutes.”
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