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Mathies, Cats overcome illness, Dayton en route to Sweet 16

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Battling illness, A'dia Mathies tied a career high with 34 points to lead UK to a second-round victory over Dayton. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Battling illness, A'dia Mathies tied a career high with 34 points to lead UK to a second-round victory over Dayton. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After senior guard A'dia Mathies played a distinctly un-Mathies-like game in the opening round, she seemed back to full strength Tuesday night with a career-high tying 34 points to come to her teammates rescue.

She was far from it.

While it wasn't quite Michael Jordan's legendary "Flu Game," Mathies was positively Jordan-esque at times against Dayton on Tuesday.

"Tonight was very surprising. It was a very surprising game," said Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell. "We referenced 'His Airness' before the game."

Little did he know.

As staff member after staff member and then player after player seemed to come into contact with a stomach virus in Queens over the last few days, it finally struck the hardest at the most inopportune of times. Several Wildcats were limited in the afternoon's shoot-around with several players feeling the effects of a common sickness.

No one knew what to expect come game time.

"It was not a good day as a coach. A lot of uncertainty in the day," said Mitchell. "Very, very low energy at practice and it did not seem like people were feeling great."

Azia Bishop wasn't on the floor for introductions. Kastine Evans quickly asked for a breather early into the first half and Samarie Walker delayed the game momentarily as she tried to find the nearest trash can.

Mathies wasn't feeling her best either, and her body language during shoot-around and before the game suggested she was headed for another rough NCAA Tournament game.

Instead, Mathies and her teammates pushed on to defeat Dayton 84-70 and advance to yet another Sweet 16 in the Bridgeport, Conn., Regional.

Though Kentucky was at less-than-full strength and seemed the Cats would not have the energy that Mitchell had hoped for, their play from tipoff would suggest otherwise. After Mitchell implored his team to come out with high energy and defensive intensity after their first-round win over Navy, the Wildcats were quick to answer the bell.

Within the first few moments of the game, Evans needed a breather. Enter sophomore Bria Goss, who had gone from starter to reserve earlier in the season. Goss filled in admirably and provided instant energy to a physically limited lineup. She was active, aggressive and tough, giving UK the boost it needed.

Mitchell had a feeling that she would be instrumental to UK's success.

"We're really fortunate because we still had Bria and Bernisha (Pinkett) who could pick the ball up and pressure it all the way down the court," said Mitchell. "If I had only had one, I would have thought about changing the game plan."

Goss gave Kentucky six points in 16 huge first-half minutes. With her teammates responding, it was full speed ahead.

Dayton ball-handlers had two or three Wildcats in their face at all times as the Cats trapped and pressured the ball into 14 first-half turnovers, including seven steals. Those turnovers led to UK taking 16 more shots in the first half than the Flyers as Kentucky shot it at a 45.9-percent (17-of-37) clip.

Mathies was the driving force behind the UK offense in the first half, scoring 15 points in the first 20 minutes to pace UK who had lost DeNesha Stallworth in the post to foul trouble. But it actually took the senior standout awhile to get going. Through the first 10 minutes of the game, Mathies managed six points. She would score nine in the final 10 minutes of the half to reach the 15-point plateau to lead all scorers at the break.

In Kentucky's win over Navy on Sunday, it was UK's quick start in the second half that sparked UK to a 20-point victory. With the Cats leading by nine at the half, Dayton quickly cut into that lead in less than two minutes into the second half to make the deficit four at 50-46.

It was Dayton who came out the aggressor early in the second half as the Flyers looked to fight their way back into the game. There was also a feeling that UK had lost its adrenaline surge and the illness was starting to catch up across the board.

Mathies took her first-round performance pretty hard. She was quiet after the game and was visibly frustrated by her efforts despite the victory. Scoring just five points in the game, UK was able to overcome her difficulties.

On Tuesday night, it was Mathies playing both redeemer and heroine on the hardwood.

"I know that I'm a big part of this team," said Mathies. "I knew that I had to go out and have a great game. Everyone was telling me that, 'You're going to have a big game,' especially with how it was last game. I just went out there and played as hard as I could."

Possession after possession, Mathies would come down the floor and if she saw an opening, she was in the type of groove that she was going to take any shot Dayton would give her. And that shot, 76 percent of the time, would fall through the hoop.

Mathies was a staggering 13 of 17 from the field, including a career-best 6 of 7 from 3-point land. It was also the most field goals that she had ever made in a game in her career.

But In a game Kentucky really controlled most of the way, Dayton was able to scratch back to within two of the Wildcats.

That's when Mathies did her best Air Jordan impression.

She wreaked havoc on defense and came up with a huge steal with the possession ending on a nice mid-range jumper that she sank with ease. On the following possession, Jennifer O'Neill found a cutting Mathies under the basket and she deftly finished a reverse layup to push the lead back to six. To close things out, Mathies would hit half of her 3-pointers in the final 11:33. UK never led by less than eight points as the Cats cruised to a 14-point victory.

Mathies' 34 points were good to tie her career-high output and outdo her best NCAA Tournament performance which came on a 32-point performance her freshman campaign. As the Cats advance to a third Sweet 16 in four years, even Mitchell can hardly process what he just witnessed from his superstar player.

"She just felt terrible. I mean she really felt bad," said Mitchell. "It was a definite Michael Jordan-esque performance. It was an unbelievable performance."

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