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UK Hoops tries to put Gonzaga in the forefront, avoid side stories

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UK Hoops can advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons with a win over Gonzaga on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK Hoops can advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons with a win over Gonzaga on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
KINGSTON, R.I. - Walking out of the Kentucky women's basketball locker room at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, Ky., the Wildcats are greeted by a sign with the 2012 NCAA Final Four logo. Every time they go to practice or leave practice, it's there. It's also always on their collective mind.

On Sunday, the Wildcats will tip off against No. 11 seed Gonzaga (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) just two wins shy of reaching that goal and heading westward for Denver. The storylines seem to be everywhere for the Wildcats. They're coming off a game where they turned it over a season-high 34 times against Green Bay, a win Sunday could potentially pit sophomore forward Samarie Walker against her former school, Connecticut, and UK Hoops has never reached a Final Four in program history.

The one Kentucky seems to be most concerned about however, is Gonzaga itself.

"We know they are a very good team, obviously with them being here in this position," Walker said. "We have watched film on them a few times, and they are a very good team and somebody we are not going to overlook - just because they are the 11 seed doesn't mean anything."

Nor should it.

After all, this 11 seed is the same team that defeated No. 6 seed Rutgers by 13 points in the first round and No. 3 seed Miami (FL) by 11 points in the second round. Still, the storylines are present, and Kentucky has to address them.

The one perhaps most asked has been Kentucky's most recent win, a 65-62 blowout-turned-nail-bitter against seventh-seeded Green Bay in Ames, Iowa. Kentucky jumped on the Phoenix in the first half and went into the break with a 17-point advantage. With less than two minutes remaining in the game though, Green Bay was leading, thanks in part to that astounding turnover total.

Savvy play by senior guard Keyla Snowden in the final minutes pushed Kentucky on to the next round, but another 34-turnover performance could prove to be fatal.

"(Green Bay was) down 17, (we) completely sold out and it happens sometimes, you make a few bad plays and it goes downhill," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We did not go in and break down tape and dedicate a whole practice to not turning the ball over. It was more of the good play of Green Bay than any place we were really deficient. Sometimes we don't give our opponent enough credit."

And perhaps there's something to that - Green Bay was ranked two spots higher than the Cats, sitting at No. 10 in both The Associated Press and coaches polls.

Whether they turned it over a lot or just once doesn't seem to be of Mitchell's concern. What is, is that Kentucky is still playing and building a reputation as a power in the sport of women's basketball.

Just two short seasons ago Kentucky was in the midst of a run to the Elite Eight after being predicted in the preseason to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference among the league's 12 teams. Now, the Cats are SEC champions and a two seed looking to advance to its second Elite Eight in the last three seasons.

"It means a lot (to be here)," junior guard A'dia Mathies said. "All of the hard work that we put in has brought us here for another year. Every game is precious and we are just trying to survive and advance. Just to be in the tournament and to be in the Sweet 16 where a lot of teams want to be is special. I am glad to be here, but we want to go even further."

Up first is Gonzaga, one of the top scoring teams in the country, ranking seventh in assist-turnover ratio, eighth in assists per game, ninth in scoring offense, 13th in field-goal percentage and 17th in scoring margin.

Led by star senior guard/forward Kayla Standish (16.1 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game), UK will have its hands full. Fortunately for Kentucky, the Wildcats faced one of the top players in the country last weekend in Julie Wotja, and held Green Bay's national player of the year candidate to 6-of-20 shooting and zero 3-pointers.

In doing that, Kentucky had to use a team effort, helping on defense and communicating throughout the game. Mitchell says if Kentucky is to advance to the regional finals, a similar performance will need to occur Sunday at the Ryan Center.

"That's a key component with us," Mitchell said. "If we have any chance here we are going to do it as a team. One person will not be able to win the game (Sunday). ... It's not about one person, it's about the collective effort. We are going to try and keep it going."

If so, the sign outside the team's locker room will be just one game away.

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