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UK wins one with grit, defense, advances to Sweet 16

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UK advanced to a third Sweet 16 in as many seasons with a 64-59 win over Syracuse on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK advanced to a third Sweet 16 in as many seasons with a 64-59 win over Syracuse on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell had a hard time containing himself at various points on Monday night.

Coping with the 2-3 zone defense Syracuse mixed with full-court pressure and myriad traps, his Kentucky Wildcats did things that made him scratch his head. Frankly, it was a wonder he didn't do more than that.

"There were times where I wanted to run out to half-court and scream and go nuts or sometimes I wanted to leave the building a couple times with some of the decisions that we were making," Mitchell said. "But what we had to do tonight was keep our wits about us."

Two days after the Cats piled up the points, the Orange made them work for the Sweet 16 berth they so badly wanted. Even though the scoreboard had a much easier time of it than in a record-setting 106-60 win over Wright State on Saturday, UK moved on with a 64-59 victory in spite of shooting just 36.2 percent from the field.

"It still was just very, very difficult to make it happen," Mitchell said. "And I'm so proud of the players on a night where clearly the ball didn't go in the basket for us and we didn't always make the best decisions, being able to create and force 23 turnovers and getting them at crucial times down the stretch and answering every run that Syracuse made today."

The Orange made plenty of them.

When UK (25-8) built a nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes left, Syracuse (23-9) charged back with seven straight to make it 46-44. When the Cats built the cushion back to 10, the Orange wouldn't go away either.

It wasn't until Bria Goss buried five of six free throws over the final 3:52 to salt away the win and clinch a third Sweet 16 berth in as many seasons. For the game, Goss scored led all players with 17 points, 11 of which came at the line.

"I'm really confident going to the line and it's almost like an automatic two and I think that my team knows that and they know my abilities," Goss said. "That always helps."

Goss was valuable as much more than just a free-throw shooter on Monday, making hustle plays on both ends in grabbing six rebounds and snagging two steals.

"On a night where it was difficult to score because the opponent played really, really well and worked real hard to keep them from scoring and confused in so many ways, to have a player that would fight for loose balls, would hang onto the ball when she got fouled, attack the basket when we were struggling to score and no fear going up through three people and getting to the rim and getting to the foul line, it was huge," Mitchell said.

While Goss was drilling shots at the line to salt away the victory, Janee Thompson was coming up with clutch defensive plays.

The sophomore point guard, in many ways, perfectly represented her team on this night. Thompson couldn't make a shot, scoring just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, and was responsible for many of the decisions that left Mitchell wanting to exit the premises in committing five turnovers, but she hung in with the help of an individual talk from her coach at the five-minute mark.

"He basically pulled me aside and just told me to stay ready and he wanted me to come in and play tough defense and try to get some stops down the stretch," Thompson said. "That's just basically what I was trying to do when I got back in the game."

She did just that, coming up with a key steal from Brianna Butler, who led Syracuse with 15 points in the absence of leading scorer Brittney Sykes. The play came when the outcome was still in doubt with 44 seconds left, short-circuiting a possession when the Orange trailed 63-57.

Eleven seconds and two missed free throws by Jennifer O'Neill later, Thompson did it again. This time, it was a blocked shot on a 3-point attempt than killed crucial seconds.

"That's what you like to see, a player bounce back from a real disappointing 35 minutes or up to that point in the game and she got it together and contributed to the victory," Mitchell said.

It's a victory that propels UK into a Sweet 16 rematch with Baylor at noon ET on Saturday in South Bend, Ind. Regardless how it looked, Mitchell is just glad the Cats got it.

"We were not very explosive offensively and we were able to get it done on the defense," Mitchell said. "So I love them and I just want to keep coaching them and I'm real, real excited about the upcoming week."

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