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UK Hoops converts inside edge into dominant first-round win

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Samarie Walker had 12 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 106-60 first-round win over Wright State on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Samarie Walker had 12 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 106-60 first-round win over Wright State on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On paper, UK had a significant inside edge against Wright State. The Wildcats were bigger, stronger and had the stats to back it up.

In an NCAA Tournament win, the Cats made sure that edge counted on the floor.

"They had physical advantages in size, speed, depth, and so I really tried to go into the game thinking about just playing 40 minutes, coaching them, encouraging them and making sure that we moved on to the next round," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.

UK (25-8) blew past the visiting Raiders (26-9) in hosting a first-round game for the first time in school history, claiming a double-digit lead in barely five minutes and never looking back. The Cats set school NCAA Tournament records for points and margin of victory in a 106-60 that saw them do much more than survive in advancing to the round of 32.

"I think our personnel and our depth probably helped wear them down a little bit physically, so I think just our depth and our overall talent was the reason we were able to be so successful," Mitchell said.

From the very beginning, it was UK's potent post game that set the tone against a Wright State team that primarily played a four-guard lineup.

Samarie Walker --a proven producer in the NCAA Tournament -- had a double-double by halftime and finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds in just 24 minutes. Walker, a senior, seemed intent to make her final shot at playing in March count.

Walker, as well as she played, was hardly UK's only player to get it done inside.

DeNesha Stallworth (11 points, nine rebounds), Azia Bishop (10 points, eight rebounds) and Linnae Harper (12 points, seven rebounds) nearly had double-doubles of their own. The Cats had a school-record 67 rebounds as a team, tying an NCAA Tournament record for all schools and holding a plus-27 rebounding edge --tying a season high -- in a fast-paced game.

"Rebounding is always an emphasis for us," Mitchell said. "Coach makes sure that we know that's what we need to do every game no matter who we're playing. This time, he definitely emphasized that and especially since we had a size advantage, there was no reason for us to lose the boards today."

In topping the century mark, UK shot 55 percent from the field -- its second-best percentage of the season -- getting good looks inside over and over. The Cats outscored Wright State in the paint, 66-26, setting up a second-round matchup with either No. 6 Syracuse or No. 11 Chattanooga at 6:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

"That's the way we've been practicing," Jennifer O'Neill said. "Today everybody was just clicking on all cylinders. We had seven people in double-digits so everybody was clicking on all cylinders today."

When UK did venture away the basket, it was O'Neill who most often did the damage. She scored a game-high 21 points and hit all four of her 3-point attempts. O'Neill credited her big day to the way her bigger teammates played.

"It freed us up a lot," O'Neill said. "We were able to play an inside-out game and that's something that we have been struggling with. We've been struggling to get post touches, and this game Matthew told us that height was going to be an advantage and we just looked to go to them as much as possible."

That advantage paid off on the defensive end of the floor as well.

Wright State entered Saturday's game fourth in the nation in scoring at 84.0 points per game, but the Raiders never could find a rhythm against Kentucky. UK held its opponent to 19-of-82 (23.2 percent) shooting and blocked a season-high 12 shots in the process.

"I think that we had a real advantage personnel-wise and we had some size advantages that made it difficult for them to score at the rim," Mitchell said.

Stallworth had five of UK's blocks, Bishop four, Jelleah Sidney two and Walker one, helping to frustrate Wright State's Kim Demmings. Averaging 22.7 points before facing UK, Demmings scored just 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting.

A raucous home crowd loved every second of it, helping build the energy the Cats brought from the opening tip. In past years, UK has had its struggles against first-round opponents, but not this time.

Nearly two weeks removed from heartbreaking loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game, the Cats were raring to go.

"I think we kind of felt that sadness from the loss and we wanted to make a run in the tournament," Walker said. "That's what we came here to do."

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