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UK Hoops embracing Sweet 16 spotlight

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UK advanced to the Sweet 16 with an 84-70 win over Dayton on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the Sweet 16 with an 84-70 win over Dayton on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The eyes of the women's basketball world will be trained on Bridgeport, Conn., this weekend.

The Bridgeport Regional features a pair of programs with national-championship pedigrees in Connecticut and Maryland. Joining them are a six seed with one of the nation's top players - Delaware and Elena Delle Donne - and one of the game's ascendant programs - Kentucky.

"I think it's fantastic to be in that environment," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said on Thursday. "I think it is very important that you recognize excellence in your sport and you strive for that in your sport and that's what we're trying to do."

The storylines are too many to count, but they will all be explored in the coming days. And as thankful as Mitchell is for his team to have the chance to play on such a stage, he knows guarding against potential distractions is a must with important basketball yet to be played.

Mitchell is always mindful of such things, but his concern is minimal. Kentucky (29-5) has had its missteps, but the Wildcats have overcome all sorts of obstacles to reach their third Sweet 16 in four seasons. They have taken on five teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament and the Cats feel as prepared as any team reasonably could.

"It is a fine, fine line now about winning and losing and advancing, so I have no doubt we can compete as far as what's happened up to this season," Mitchell said. "I think we've proven we can play at a high level, now we just have to go do it."

At perhaps no point this season has UK overcome more trying circumstances and played at a high level than Tuesday in the second round. With seventh-seeded and No. 18/15 Dayton waiting, a stomach virus spread rapidly among the Wildcats.

A'dia Mathies, Kastine Evans, Azia Bishop and Samarie Walker were among the players confirmed to be under the weather at some point during the game, but UK was undeterred. Mathies tied her career-high with 34 points and the Cats turned an impressive overall effort in an 84-70 victory to keep their season alive. After everything they dealt with, the Cats help but look back on Tuesday night with pride.

"I think (it was UK's most satisfying win) because it could have been an easy game where we went down and just gave up and not fought and just said that we've got people sick and came out with a loss (against) a great Dayton team," Mathies said. "We definitely pushed through that and made it to the Sweet 16."

Two days later and hours away from flying back to the Northeast, the Cats were fully healthy and without any lingering effects from the illness than struck with speed reminiscent of UK's "40 minutes of dread" defense.

With the bug behind them, the Cats shift their attention to sixth-seeded and No. 15/16 Delaware (32-3) for a game on Saturday (noon ET on ESPN). Winners of 27 in a row, the Blue Hens are led by Delle Donne, the 6-foot-5 do-it-all star. She is unquestionably one of the nation's best players, posting per-game averages of 25.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

"She's just an all-around talent," Mathies said. "She has great post-up moves and she's got guard skills. She can rebound, block shots. She can pretty much do everything, especially for somebody to be 6-5. We're just looking for a great game and she's going to be a great matchup for whoever has to check her."

In the midst of her senior season, Delle Donne has been arguably the top story of the tournament, averaging 33 points and 7.5 rebounds in two games. But as good as she is, the Cats know viewing the game as one on five is the quickest road to defeat.

"To me, I think you're making a big mistake if you put it solely on one player," Mitchell said. "She's very important obviously to what they want to do because she's so talented, but we'll be really trying to make this more about our team and the Kentucky team and how we do what we do well."

That's a lesson UK learned the hard way two games into the season. The last time the Cats took on a team with a player as highly regarded as Delle Donne, they fell in blowout fashion against Baylor and Brittney Griner.

"I think it's more so based on what we do instead of worrying about what they do and us making open shots and doing things like that that we didn't do when we played against Baylor," Mathies said. "I think that can really help us out a lot and if we just focus on us then we should have a good outcome in any game we play from here on out."

It's no accident that Mathies says "from here on out" rather than just "against Delaware." She and the Cats are different in that they don't hide their Final Four goals behind a veneer of "one game at a time." They, however, don't allow that attitude to be a burden.

"We think we have a chance to do it," Mitchell said. "We think we have a fighting chance going up there that we could possibly do it with the four teams that are up there. (There are) Certainly no guarantees. I wouldn't call it pressure; I'd call it just a burning desire to try to get it done."

Particularly for Mathies, the best descriptor is "quiet confidence."

"We're just going to go out there and play," Mathies said. "If we give our best effort, then we should be able to advance to the Final Four, but it's no pressure. We're just going to go out there and do what we're used to doing."

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