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UConn, 40 minutes all that stand between UK Hoops and first Final Four

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Kentucky looks to advance to its first Final Four in Elite Eight rematch with Connecticut on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky looks to advance to its first Final Four in an Elite Eight rematch with Connecticut on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It would already be an intriguing matchup for Kentucky, the Bridgeport Regional's No. 2 seed, to face the region's No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Huskies' home state.

Kentucky just defeated the fifth all-time leading scorer in women's college basketball history in Delaware's Elena Delle Donne while snapping the Blue Hens' 27-game win streak. Meanwhile, Geno Auriemma's UConn squad just dismantled Maryland 76-50 in its regional semifinal.

A one vs. two matchup in the Elite Eight is about as exciting as it gets when it comes down to the top teams in the regional battling for the right to earn a Final Four berth.

For Connecticut, it would be its sixth straight trip to a national semifinal. For the Wildcats, it would be the first in program history.

Intriguing enough... but it gets better.

Samarie Walker, a junior forward for the Wildcats who transferred from Connecticut to be closer to home and play for Matthew Mitchell at Kentucky, will get a chance to compete against her former program.

Jam-packed with storylines, this matchup has one more important one that just might pique your interest: This is the second straight season that UConn and UK have tangled in a regional final as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

Mind blown? Hopefully not because you'll need to tune into this one Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN as Kentucky looks to accomplish something the Huskies have made seem routine. Since the beginning of the season, Mitchell and his team have been focused on taking the necessary steps to making this a Final Four-caliber team by adopting their "40 Minutes" mantra which has led to program record 30 victories.

Ironically, and as fate would have it, all that stands between Kentucky and that goal is another 40 minutes of basketball. And UConn. Again.

Understanding that much could be learned from last year's matchup with the Huskies even before Kentucky learned its NCAA fate, Mitchell showed his team game film from last year's Elite Eight game. He showed the Cats two crucial four-minute clips where the game got away. He didn't want to see that that same type of collapse happen again.

"It was a three-point game coming out of the under-16 media (timeout) in the second half, and they really went on a big run," said Mitchell. "When you go back and look at that film, they did a lot of good things, but the thing they did better than us during that eight-minute period was to rebound."

Mitchell said that Connecticut also played with a much greater competitive spirit in the second half, which allowed the Huskies to pull away when Kentucky had pushed the Huskies to the brink in the first half.

While Kentucky seeks its first Final Four appearance and sees Monday as a great opportunity, the players still look back to last season's game as one that got away.

"We watched (the tape) as a team and it was more so a missed opportunity," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "We were there in the first half. A mental lapse and like a couple four-minute segments where it wasn't like they just poured on points. It was little by little.

"We believe that if we stay focused that can definitely happen this year."

The Wildcats have been focused on Kentucky, and that's exactly what Mitchell wants. While they will prepare for Connecticut just like every other team they've met so far in the NCAA Tournament, UK needs to continue to do what's brought it this far. Kentucky's 40-minute style has helped the Cats wear down teams and outlast them.

At this point, even though Kentucky's next opponent is Connecticut, Mitchell just wants his team to be its best self.

"I think the opponent in the NCAA Tournament for us has been for us to try to play our best," said Mitchell. "That's who we've been trying to measure it against.

"Now, our opponent is outstanding and excellent and you should be playing someone like that to go to the Final Four. I think anybody we would play in this round was going to be really good and have our respect."

With last season's experience in their back pocket, the Wildcats feel more prepared this time around with a stronger supporting cast.

"We got very close. Last year is last year, but we realize we have another opportunity to take it to the next level," said Mathies. "We got great players in addition to our team last year such as DeNesha Stallworth, Janee Thompson and Jelleah Sidney. We're just looking forward to playing the game tomorrow."

And Jennifer O'Neill - who sat out last season while recovering from a foot injury - has taken over the role of starting point guard to help solidify Kentucky's dynamic back court along with Mathies.

Though Kentucky is completely confident in its ability to beat the Huskies and finally "punch through" to the Final Four, to borrow a phrase from Mitchell maybe not everyone else is. Maybe not everyone else ever cares.

The networks and media have made a big deal covering Kentucky's last opponent Delaware because of Delle Donne's success over the past four years. After the game, much of the discussion was about her career and the game that she played.

After Connecticut's win, the discussion shifted to the Huskies moving on to yet another Elite Eight for the opportunity to advance to yet another Final Four. Very little was Kentucky mentioned the major media outlets.

But for Kentucky, that's just fine with them. It's been that way most of the season.

"I think we are under the radar," said O'Neill. "I think a lot of people don't expect us to beat UConn. I was watching ESPN and they weren't really talking about us or anything like that, but that's fine. We don't mind playing under the radar because we know what we're capable of. We know that if we come out to play and play our best that it's hard to for people to stay with us and stop us."

Kentucky is battle-tested as well. Already this season Kentucky has faced No. 1 Baylor and four other teams that reached the Sweet 16. So when Connecticut brings its style of play, one similar to the one that the Wildcats use themselves, they should be well prepared.

"Because of the way that we play, that's something that we face during practice as well," said O'Neill. "You talk about them putting pressure on people, but we play the same way. We play with a lot of ball pressure and are in the passing lanes. I don't really think it's going to be a challenge because it's something we face every day in practice. A lot of us have grown as players because of the way that we practice."

A while back, Kentucky may not have been ready to handle this pressure and the atmosphere they will see at Webster Bank Arena in front of roughly 8,000 UConn fans. Mitchell has no doubt that Monday his team will be ready, not scared, to take Kentucky to the next step.

"We just keep showing up. We keep having these experiences," said Mitchell. "If scared is in our team's mind, it's not happening tomorrow. I don't think that's where we are at all. I think this team has competed well against some really tough teams. If our team's lacking confidence, then that's just been a failure on my part to get us ready for this point in time.

"I don't think that's really as big of an issue as maybe it would have been four years ago and so I think we're making progress in the area of feeling like we belong and we're a team that has a chance to punch through to the Final Four."

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