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Wildcats show grit, toughness in thrilling 65-62 win to advance to Sweet 16

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UK Hoops advances to its second Sweet 16 in three years after a 65-62 win over Green Bay (UK Athletics, Britney McIntosh). UK Hoops advances to its second Sweet 16 in three years after a 65-62 win over Green Bay (UK Athletics, Britney McIntosh).
AMES, Iowa - Like a scene from a movie, the Kentucky women's basketball team left the bus and walked toward the arena hand-in-hand. It showed togetherness, it showed camaraderie and it showed Kentucky women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell that his squad was in for a fight. It's a good thing.

After losing a 17-point halftime lead, and trailing for the first time with less than a minute to play, the Wildcats dug deep and got clutch play after clutch play by senior guard Keyla Snowden. The end result was a gritty 65-62 victory that pushes the Wildcats to their second Sweet 16 appearance in the last three years, and their third all-time.

"I'm proud of my players and the way the ladies played tonight," Mitchell said. "They played incredibly tough. It was an incredible game and Green Bay is an outstanding team. I congratulate them on an amazing fight."

At halftime, it didn't look like a huge fight was going to be necessary. The Wildcats played one of their best halves of the season to open Monday's game, shooting 55.6 percent from the field, outrebounding the Phoenix by seven and displaying the type of energy that won them the Southeastern Conference regular season championship.

But in the second half, like its mascot, Green Bay rose from the ashes, forcing Kentucky into 20 turnovers and 19 fewer points in the final stanza. What began as a 17-point deficit turned into a one-point lead for the Horizon League champions.

With its collective back against the wall, Snowden and the Wildcats rose to the occasion and made the crucial plays necessary to advance to the Sweet 16. Snowden scored the final six points of the game, including the game-winning jumper with 16 seconds remaining, and two free throws with 5.4 seconds on the clock.

"I don't like to take credit at any time, but sometimes a coach can draw up a play and get an execution and you can say, 'Well, I'm glad I called that play,' and 'That was the right play,' but this was not about that tonight," Mitchell said.  "Players just had to play. I can't explain it to you. They just wanted to win and they did it."

Another factor down the stretch was the play of sophomore forward Samarie Walker. Coming to Kentucky as a highly regarded transfer from UConn, Walker was expected to be a star for the Wildcats from day one. She's had her moments, but she has also struggled at times.

In the biggest game of the season for Kentucky, Walker shined.

Finishing with a team-high 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go along with her second consecutive game of 13 rebounds, tying the most by a Wildcat in an NCAA Tournament game, Walker was virtually unstoppable. It wasn't just her impressive double-double stat line though; it was the crucial buckets she made to help slow down Green Bay scoring runs and rebounds she grabbed to keep UK possessions alive.

"I thought Samarie Walker's offensive rebounds were the difference maker," Green Bay head coach Matt Bollant said. "She was amazing, and I think a big key for us was not being able to keep her off the offensive glass."

Coming to Kentucky during the spring of 2007, Mitchell instilled what he calls UK Hoops' three winning tools: honesty, hard work and discipline. Each were on full display at Hilton Coliseum.

Mitchell says each time they go out on the court they want to give an honest effort and be able to look each other in the eye after the game knowing and believing they gave their all.

Check.

He says they want to work hard in everything they do, especially in tough situations.

Check.

And finally, Mitchell says they want to remain disciplined, and not lose hope in the face of adversity but to instead stand tall.

Check.

"An undisciplined team doesn't lose a 17-point lead and find a way to come back and believe," Mitchell said.

There were many things shown by the Cats in the tight victory, but perhaps the most inspiring is the fight. After their own initial flurry of haymakers, the Wildcats absorbed many blows themselves in the second half. In the end, when the buzzer sounded -- ending a night that began with a movie-like introduction -- it's the Wildcats that are left to see what the next scene has in store.

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