Well, here we are. Nearly a complete year since the Cats ended their 2011-2012 season in Rhode Island to Connecticut, Kentucky finds itself in an eerily similar situation today. UK Hoops has a chance to make their first Final Four in program history tonight, but the top seeded Huskies of UConn are standing in the way. Kentucky (30-5) truly believes it has the team that can make that elusive step into the land of the elite in women’s college basketball, and if they want to do it, the time is now. The NCAA Tournament is wide open after arguably the bigget upset ever in the women’s game, as the Louisville Cards somehow someway took down the monster Baylor Bears and ended Brittany Griner’s career in doing so. The Cats wanted a chance at revenge, and now they have it. It’s time to put up or shut up.
This year’s version of UK Hoops is better than last years squad who lost 80-65 to the Huskies in the regional final, and UConn is not as intimidating as they have been in years past. All signs point to a close game, but that is IF Kentucky can back their talk up, and walk the walk. All weekend, the Cats have preached and punched home the fact they are not scared of the Huskies and confident they can match them player for player. Coach Mitchell knows that “if being scared is on our team’s mind, it’s not happening for us on Monday.” Kentucky has to go out on the court and believe that they belong to be there with UConn. With three trips to the Elite 8 in the past four years, there’s no question UK has made huge strides in improving it’s women’s basketball cred, but they have a tendency to fold in the biggest moments.
Since the beginning of the season, Connecticut has been on Kentucky’s mind. The whole #40MINS mantra? That entire mindest the team has revolved around since day one of this season stems from last season’s loss to the Huskies. In that game, UK played a very competitive first half and only trailed UConn by two points at the break. The wheels fell off in the second half however, and this is why Kentucky now prides itself on playing a full game of tough, aggressive, in your face basketball. Since the before this season even began, Coach Mitchell has showed his team film of that loss, a video that shows a team who can play with Connecticut, but who backed down in the crucial moments.
What does UK need to do to pull off the upset? Kentucky will need a “good day” from point guard Jenn O’Neill. When O’Neill is good…she’s great. She is the pace pusher, and deadly from outside when she’s hot. The Cats can’t afford bad turnovers from her giving the Huskies easy transition buckets. Obviously, a big game from A’dia Mathies would be ideal. Mathies’ college career is coming to a close, and you know she must have something up her sleeve for the biggest opportunity in UK Hoops program history. Center DeNesha Stallworth was stuck in foul trouble all game against Delaware, so she needs to avoid the early calls and be a force against the big gals UConn has down low. Samarie Walker needs to be Samarie Walker…UK’s go-to hustle player, cleaning up the trash and doing the dirty work. The Cats have an advantage on the bench, but they have to weather the heavy storm of offense the Huskies starting players have.
What it all comes down to is Kentucky’s ability to match Connecticut’s talent, runs, and “attacker mentality”. If Kentucky can wear them down with their defense, frustrating a Huskie team who only averages around 14 turnovers a game could be key. The Cats have to close out and contain UConn star Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who leads the nation in 3-point percentage at nearly 50%. If Kentucky can hang with the Huskies into the second half, there’s a chance. UK cannot afford to get down early and play catch up. PS…player to hate this game? Stefanie Dolson. She manhandled Kentucky inside last season, and her ogre-like tendencies rub me the wrong way.
Game tips at 7:30 on ESPN. Live blog tonight as Matt, Drew, Hayley and I are still staying strong in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Be there and cheer on the Cats. Final Four bound.