Led by a balanced scoring effort that saw six Wildcats score more than eight points but none more than 11, second-seeded Kentucky topped the never-say-quit McNeese State Cowgirls at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.
"Forget the seeding, that was an awfully good team right there," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I don't think it has anything to do with the seeding, it's all about the opponent. They were tough. We won and we're through (to the next round). McNeese State played well. They are a well-coached team and well prepared."
The Wildcats couldn't force 15th-seeded McNeese State into turnovers, star junior guard A'dia Mathies played a season-low 18 minutes due to foul trouble, Kentucky was 2-17 from deep and shot just a smidge over 57 percent from the charity stripe. But thanks to a season-high rebounding effort that included 22 offensive boards, as well as a balanced scoring attack, Kentucky will play again Monday against the winner of seventh-seeded Green Bay and 10th-seeded Iowa State.
Known for its "40 minutes of dread" defense which has forced a nation-leading 874 turnovers (28.2 per game), Kentucky couldn't rattle the Cowgirls' star guards Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett. The twin sisters kept their dribble alive throughout the game and McNeese turned it over just 13 times, a season-low by a UK opponent.
Without the extra possessions normally earned by forcing those turnovers, Kentucky limited the Cowgirls' possessions by dominating on the glass.
"Hopefully they (UK's forwards) leave the gym with some more confidence because I thought they just battled the way they needed to," Mitchell said. "They made their hard work pay off today so I was happy with that."
Sophomore forward Samarie Walker grabbed 13 rebounds and Samantha Drake grabbed six while earning her first start since Dec. 28. It wasn't just the bigs though, as guards Kastine Evans, Bria Goss and Amber Smith each grabbed seven.
"I think it's crucial to our team any night where one of our players can step up, and tonight the whole team did," Mathies said. "I think that really showed tonight in the scoring. No one person really shined. We all did it collectively, so I'm proud of my teammates for what they did tonight."
One such player who did rise to the occasion was Smith. The senior guard who came to Kentucky along with Mitchell in 2007, shined in an eight-point, seven-rebound, four-assist performance. Smith, who hadn't started for UK since Senior Night against South Carolina on Feb. 23, came out and gave the spark for which she is known.
The performance, Mitchell said, was due in part to Smith being able to rest and get her body healthy again with the two-week time off between the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
"She just plays with so much more pop right now and so much more explosiveness," Mitchell said. "A couple weeks ago going into that last week of the regular season, we went with Maegan (Conwright) just because Amber couldn't give us any explosiveness and I thought (Smith) did a good job with that today."
Similar to Kentucky's win over the Florida Gators in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, in which the Wildcats didn't play their best game but found a way to win and advance, Saturday's performance against McNeese State gives the Wildcats a lot of confidence moving forward.
Kentucky's season isn't still alive because of one great individual performance. Instead, the Cats will play another game because of what they did together as a team. After all, it is always harder to beat a team rather than a single player.
"I was happy that the other kids stepped up and played big for us," Mitchell said. "I think that bodes well for us for Monday night's game. If our usual top scorers come out firing on Monday, we'll be tough to stop. We'll be clicking on all cylinders."