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Baylor rematch the next step on UK Hoops' path

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Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
When the bracket was unveiled, the matchup immediately stood out.

Kentucky and Baylor, back in December, slugged it out to the tune of four overtimes with the Wildcats coming out on top in a game that appeared at times might never end.

And there the two teams were in the Notre Dame Regional, poised to meet again in the Sweet 16.

"The committee has really just a tough, tough job to do, but you just have to believe they have a sense of humor too," Matthew Mitchell said on the night the field was revealed.

Selection Monday, however, was a long time ago.

To make the rematch happen, the third-seeded Cats (26-8) would need to advance past Wright State and Syracuse in hosting first- and second-round games for the first time in school history.

For their part, the second-seeded Lady Bears (31-4) would have to beat Western Kentucky University and California at home.

As fate would have it, UK and Baylor would take care of business, setting the stage for a reprisal of that thriller in Arlington, Texas. On the line for the Cats at noon on Saturday will be their third Elite Eight trip in as many seasons and fourth in five years.

"It will be a real, real test for our team," Mitchell said. "Baylor has a fantastic team and they've had a great season and we know from firsthand experience how tough they are and so we'll just have to continue to try and prepare well."

In that first matchup, both teams had every opportunity to pack it in during UK's 133-130 win that set an NCAA record for most points in a game.

The Cats could have given in as Baylor's Odyssey Sims hit shot after shot and scored 47 points. The Lady Bears could have yielded as Jennifer O'Neill went off for a career-high 43 and certainly when Sims fouled out late in the first overtime period. Neither would, of course, and a classic ensued.

Nearly four months later, the Cats wouldn't mind another back-and-forth battle. Four overtimes though? That's a different story.

"Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."

The length of the game isn't the only thing Mitchell would like to see change.

While viewers surely enjoyed the scoring and big shots of the first edition of UK-Baylor, Mitchell -- a coach with a sterling defensive reputation -- found himself trying to keep from covering his eyes when he broke out the film.

"When you go back and watch that game, it was a very exciting game to watch, but from a coaching standpoint, it wasn't fun to go back and watch the kind of defense we played," Mitchell said. "We just didn't have a very good defensive night at all."

Sims was the primary reason for that.

"She was terrific," Mitchell said.

Accordingly, Sims has come up often in practice this week.

"(Baylor) really gets the ball in Sims' hands a lot and she's just so explosive and so tough to guard," Mitchell said. "We really try to work hard on how we're going to defend her and then their overall offensive scheme and get as solid as we could. We did a lot of defensive work yesterday."

With a player like Sims, Mitchell said it is the responsibility of all five players on the floor to guard her. That's particularly true when it comes to drawing charges.

"We were able to get her out of the last game by drawing charges and I think you have to have the guts to stand in and take some hits from her because she's so aggressive going to the basket," Mitchell said. "She's really, really physical trying to get loose from denials and things like that so you have to stay strong and that call goes in your favor."

Four of Sims' five fouls against Kentucky were of the offensive variety.

But don't make the mistake of thinking Sims -- the nation's second-leading scorer at 28.5 points per game -- is a one-woman show. The Lady Bears proved otherwise the first time around.

"They have more than just her," Mitchell said. "They have a really good team with good players that made a lot of good plays in that game. One benefit of the game was you could really see their full complement of players because everybody had to get in that game because it was so long."

Much more is on the line this time though. Both teams have a goal of reaching the Final Four and this is the next step. In fact, Mitchell wants it to be the only step the Cats think about right now.

"Baylor will be a huge test, but what we tried to talk about (Wednesday) was getting our mind off the Final Four and getting our mind on Baylor because you can't go if you don't win Saturday," Mitchell said.

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