UK Women's Basketball

UK shows no fear in taking next step

LOUISVILLE — Amber Smith got obliterated, flat dropped to the floor, by a first-half Michigan State pick. On a later play, A'dia Mathies had not one but two shots stuffed right back into her face by the taller Spartans.

Poor Lydia Watkins took such a beating from a stout MSU front line that they were checking her for a concussion behind the Kentucky bench.

Trips to the NCAA Tournament's round of 16 aren't given; they have to be taken.

Monday night, for the first time since 1982, the Kentucky Wildcats took one.

Kentucky outran, out-scrapped, and finally out-muscled a larger Michigan State team to earn a 70-52 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament's Kansas City Region.

For the Kentucky women's basketball program, long considered a sleeping giant in the sport, this was a huge step in what has been a season of awakening.

The team that was picked 11th in the Southeastern Conference in the pre-season is headed to Kansas City on Sunday to face either No. 1 seed Nebraska or UCLA.

"We played like a remarkably confident team to be in this situation," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I didn't see any fear at all."

This was a game where fear would have led to extinction.

Instead, the Cats are going to Kansas City because Victoria Dunlap came through in a big moment the way an SEC Player of the Year should.

Dunlap had 21 points and eight rebounds and used her abundant athleticism to confound an MSU front court that included 6-foot-9 center Allyssa DeHaan.

"You're not SEC Player of the Year by accident," Michigan State Coach Suzy Merchant said of Dunlap. "She's a legit, big-time athlete. She's got a motor on her that goes and goes."

For all Dunlap's brilliance, Kentucky is still alive because her teammates supported their star the way a team has to to capture an NCAA tourney slugfest. Including Dunlap, seven Kentucky players scored six points or more.

Finally, the Cats are still playing because they fought as ferociously in a big game as any basketball team wearing 'K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y' across its jersey ever has.

Michigan State — the same school that eliminated Mickie DeMoss's best UK team in the second round of the 2006 NCAAs — pulled within two early in the second half at 37-35.

Kentucky responded with a withering 24-8 run that flat took the life out of MSU.

"We knew about their speed, their athleticism," MSU's Merchant said of UK. "But that was the most physical team we've played in my three years at Michigan State."

So intense was the atmosphere, there was even a confrontation in the stands between a Kentucky fan and some Michigan State backers that required police attention.

A Freedom Hall crowd of 3,361 that was at least 96 percent decked out in UK blue made enough noise for a crowd four times as large.

The game ended with Mitchell circling the court at Freedom Hall gleefully pointing into the stands.

It ended with UK's Watkins and Smith exchanging an emphatic chest bump and all the Kentucky players singing On! On! U of K on the floor.

By finally getting Kentucky back into the women's basketball round of 16, Mitchell and his gritty squad secured the designation as the best UK team since the golden era of Valerie Still.

The last time Kentucky won two games in an NCAA Tournament, Ronald Reagan lived in the White House; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts had America's No. 1 record; and down in Mississippi, little Matthew Mitchell was 11 years old.

"The danger for us right now is to feel like the Sweet 16 is a place of arrival," said the all-grown-up Mitchell. "We need to resist that as much as we can. This team has a good chance to advance in the next round, and that's all they need to worry about."

He's right. There's no need to be satisfied with the round of 16.

But for Kentucky women's basketball, at long last, there's every reason to celebrate a night when they went toe-to-toe with an established program under NCAA tournament pressure and refused to be denied.

You might say UK has earned the right to party like it's 1982.

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