LOUISVILLE — The phrase du jour this post-season has been about Kentucky playing to its identity as a tough, defensive-minded team to win games.
But playing against Liberty in its first NCAA Tournament since 2006 on Saturday, Kentucky barely recognized itself.
"I don't know how to explain it," Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We just weren't ourselves."
The fourth-seeded Cats fell behind by as many as nine points before righting themselves and pulling away from the feisty Flames 83-77 at Freedom Hall in front of 3,560 mostly blue-clad fans.
"We didn't always have things going our way, but to the players' credit they were able to get things turned around," Mitchell said.
The one player who probably should have had the most jitters because she was a freshman playing in her hometown in front of many friends and family members was the one who carried Kentucky.
A'dia Mathies broke a school record for points in an NCAA Tournament game, scoring a career-high 32. She also had four rebounds and four steals.
"She's a big-time player, let's just put it like that," guard Keyla Snowden said. "She was the backbone of our team tonight."
On Monday night, Kentucky will face fifth-seeded Michigan State, a 72-62 winner over Bowling Green in the first game on Saturday.
The Cats have struggled with teams from the Big Ten, losing their last eight games, including a loss in the second round to Michigan State in 2006.
For a while on Saturday, it looked as though the big team from the Big South was going to be just as troubling for Kentucky.
The Flames broke out to a 13-4 lead behind center Avery Warley, who finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds.
"It looked like we hadn't played basketball in a long, long time," UK junior Victoria Dunlap said. "We weren't getting shots or making shots, missing layups."
Kentucky responded with a 17-0 run to grab a 21-13 advantage. The Cats' defense held Liberty seven minutes without a field goal.
That might spell the end for some teams, but not the Flames. They lit UK (26-7) up, scoring 11 unanswered. They had a 35-33 lead at the break, hitting 46.9 percent and outrebounding the Cats 23-14.
Liberty extended its lead to 37-33 early in the second half.
Kentucky trailed 48-47 with less than 15 minutes to play before it responded with a 16-5 run.
In that spree, Snowden hit two three-pointers, including one with 11:22 to play when the Flames had closed within 55-52.
She hit another one minute later.
"Those three-pointers were huge," Mitchell said. "She was a big difference in the game."
Snowden got open looks in the second half because Kentucky started penetrating, Liberty Coach Carey Green said.
He said UK's ability to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line — where it shot 20 more times than the Flames — was the difference in the game.
"We get more shots; we outrebounded them; we had more points in the paint, more second-chance points and my bench outscored theirs," Green said.
"We were really standing around there in the first half," he said. "At some point, people were going to have to start attacking the basket. ... Everybody got into the act."
Liberty (27-6) was led by freshman guard Devon Brown's 24 points. Kylee Beecher added 16 points and seven rebounds, and Jelena Antic 10 points and seven rebounds.
UK won its 26th game, the most in school history, but more importantly to Mitchell, it was able to fight through some adversity along the way.
"We could've lost that game," he said. "There's no question Liberty was good enough to beat us today.
"We hear so many times what a great season we've had and how great things have been and what a special group we are. One of the things you worry about is them saying, 'Well, we've done enough.' But they did not do that today."