Mark Story

Mark Story: With talent in wings, UK women thinking Denver and Final Four

Suffice to say, the Kentucky women's basketball program is having a pretty nice week.

Sunday, UK punished then-No. 10 Louisville by 20 points in a sold-out Memorial Coliseum.

On Thursday night, the largest crowd (14,508) ever to see a UK women's basketball game in Lexington turned out in Rupp Arena to see if UK had anything for sixth-ranked Duke.

What the crowd saw is an indication that Matthew Mitchell's fifth UK team may have a chance to do special things.

In a game every bit as intensely contested as one would expect of Kentucky and Duke in Rupp, the relentless Wildcats wore down the larger Dookies for a 72-65 victory.

No. 10 UK (9-0) won behind 23 points from junior star A'dia Mathies and two stellar games from Wildcats freshmen. Guard Bria Goss poured in 19 points, and her roommate, 6-foot-3 post player Azia Bishop, came off the bench to deliver a high-energy double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds).

"A great, great win for our program," Mitchell said.

What should be intoxicating for UK fans is the Cats have now won two in a row against top 10-ranked foes yet have two McDonald's All-Americans, injured sophomore guard Jennifer O'Neill and Connecticut transfer Samarie Walker, who have yet to play this season.

Walker, a sophomore forward, will be eligible Dec. 18 when UK visits Notre Dame. O'Neill, who is trying to recover from a fractured bone in her foot, hopes to return soon.

At full strength, what is the ceiling for Kentucky?

"There's no ceiling," said UK senior point guard Amber Smith. "We haven't played our best yet, and that's scary."

Many women's hoops observers started this season thinking UK was one year away from being a genuine Final Four contender. Next season, Mitchell will add talented 6-3 University of California transfer DeNesha Stallworth to what is already a loaded roster.

The current Cats might have an accelerated timetable in mind.

Duke (6-2) came to Lexington having lost only one game, a two-point, neutral-court defeat against defending NCAA Tournament runner-up Notre Dame. The Blue Devils were averaging 15 turnovers a game.

Against the withering UK full-court pressure, Duke had 15 miscues in the first half alone Thursday.

Yet the taller Blue Devils led, 34-31, at halftime because 1.) Kentucky kept turning the ball over itself (12 first-half TOs); 2.) UK was surrendering too many layups (seven).

"We are totally fueled on turnover margin," Mitchell said. "Against a team like Duke, we need to be between eight and 10. I felt like we had too many careless turnovers."

In half two, the Cats tightened the ball security and kept up the full-court defensive pressure against the bigger Blue Devils.

Eventually, Duke wilted.

Kentucky's Mathies, the Louisville product, played like a star for the second straight game against a Top 10 foe. After hitting Louisville with 20 points, she drained four of five three-pointers against Duke and also hurt the Devils with acrobatic buckets in the lane.

Yet the difference for UK was the play of Goss and Bishop.

Over the past two seasons, one weakness UK had against elite teams such as Tennessee and Oklahoma — in other words, programs of Duke's caliber — was a lack of length.

In Rupp Thursday, you saw how Mitchell is addressing that through recruiting.

The 5-10 Goss, the reigning Indiana Miss Basketball, hit two treys and got to the foul line 10 times (making seven). A "long" 6-3, Bishop played the game of her young UK career so far, hitting double figures in both points and rebounds while energizing the Cats with blocked shots (four) and steals (two).

"Bishop was player of the game," Duke Coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "With all due respect to Mathies, who is very good, I don't know that I've ever seen a kid come off the bench and get a double-double in a game as tough as this."

So once Walker becomes eligible and O'Neill gets healthy and both get the rust off their games, how good can Kentucky be?

"I don't think we are nearly as good offensively in the half court as we can become," Mitchell said. "So I think the ceiling for this team is high."

Mile high? As in high enough to reach Denver and the Final Four?

"I think it will be," Mathies said. "Denver, here we come."

After beating two Top 10 teams in five days, Kentucky women's basketball has more than earned the right to think high.

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