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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Kentucky's season ended Saturday, as it does for all but one of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with a defeat.
The Wildcats fought gamely but fell 90-72 against No. 5-ranked Baylor, which was the No. 2 seed in the Notre Dame Regional and moves on to the Elite Eight.
It was a rematch of the epic 133-130 four-overtime classic that Kentucky won back in December. And although this outcome didn't turn out the same way today, the Wildcats can be no less proud of their effort, or their season.
"I'm really proud of the players for the season that we had," coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We had some heavy expectations on us (before the season) and things started going in a way (in mid-season) that we didn't feel like we were going to meet any of those.
"They were able to get it back together, so we learned a lot, experienced a lot. We became very close as a team this year. I built some great relationships that we wouldn't have done any other way if we hadn't had that adversity, so I'm really proud of them, they had a lot of great moments. I think we'll look back on this season as being very significant in the development of our program."
Kentucky completed the campaign with a 26-9 worksheet, setting numerous accomplishments not just for this season but over the careers of seniors Kastine Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker and Bernisha Pinkett.
- This year extended UK's school-record streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
- The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth time among those five tourney appearances.
- UK has charted at least 25 wins the last five seasons, another school record.
- This year contained five wins over Top-10 ranked opponents -- Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road, South Carolina and Baylor at neutral sites and Louisville at home.
"We've been underdogs for so many years and we've always been able to come together as a team and prove people wrong," Stallworth said. "I'm sure many people thought we wouldn't be in this position with the way we started the SEC but we're just proud of ourselves and what we accomplished during the year."
The second edition of the Baylor contest turned out to be a game of frustration for the Wildcats. It began well enough; UK got an early lead and forced a flurry of missed shots on the defensive end - including six straight misfires by All-American Odyssey Sims - but that is where the trouble began.
The taller Bears grabbed rebound after rebound, controlling 10 of the first 11 boards of the game, and began cashing in on the second chances. Problems compounded on the offensive end as the Wildcats earned good opportunities but saw four layups crawl around the rim and fall off. Baylor capitalized with a 16-2 run and led 20-7.
To their credit, the Cats didn't panic and started scratching out of the hole. Makayla Epps began scoring on drives to the hoop. DeNesha Stallworth tallied post-up baskets. Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill got to the free-throw line, and when O'Neill canned a couple of freebies with 4:31 remaining, the Cats had pulled within 32-28.
Then, the decisive time came. Sparked by a suddenly hot Sims, Baylor closed the first half with a 17-4 spurt, and the Wildcats found themselves on the wrong end of a 49-32 halftime score.
Kentucky battled just as gamely in the second half and got within 12 points on four occasions but could get no closer.
An analysis of the game shows that Baylor's height advantage was simply too much. The Bears outrebounded the Cats, collected 20 second-chance points on offensive rebounds and totaled 50 points in the paint. Sims, who came in averaging 28.5 points per game, was held below her average but still showed why she is one of the nation's best with 25 points.
The Wildcats were led by Stallworth, who totaled 19 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Linnae Harper sparked UK's second-half rallies and finished with 14. As noted above, Goss got to the foul line and made 9 of 10 en route to 13 points.
The ending, however, shouldn't overshadow what was another outstanding season for Kentucky. In addition to the 26 wins, the hallmark of this team was who they were and what they overcame.
This group truly came together as a team. Eleven players saw action on a regular basis. And even though UK had one of the nation's top scoring units with more than 81 points per game, no one averaged more than 13. UK shared the ball, shared the defense and shared the responsibility when adversity hit.
As Mitchell alluded to, the Wildcat ship endured some rough sailing early in the SEC schedule. The Cats were 5-5 in league play with the toughest part of the schedule straight ahead. But Captain Mitchell and his players came together to right the ship, grab some memorable wins down the stretch, reach the finals of the SEC Tournament and go to yet another NCAA Sweet 16.
"I want to thank our players for battling through some tough circumstances and doing a good job this year," said Mitchell, who once again showed his respect for his seniors.
"Bernisha had a lot of great moments on the court but I'm more proud of her for getting her college degree. She comes from a neighborhood where only two percent of kids even try college and less than one percent ever finish college. She is a success story just by walking across that (graduation) stage," Mitchell said. "Kastine, you want your child to be like her, she's just such a wonderful young woman.
"Samarie and DeNesha really gifted us with their presence, transferring here and helping elevate the program. Hopefully they benefited from it, too. A class group of seniors, really proud and feel blessed by God that I got to coach them."
And although their seasons end like almost everyone else's, the seniors can hold their head high when they think of what they've done at Kentucky.
"I'm very proud of the team, proud of the coaches and myself as well," Walker said. "I think we've come a long way from when I was being recruited by UK in high school, just seeing how the program has changed and knowing I've had an impact on that really makes me happy."
Evans also was able to look past today's disappointment and take the long-range view.
"My class (committed to Kentucky in Nov. 2009) before that first team with Amber Smith, Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin went to the Elite Eight (in 2010), so we came in wanting to make a change," Evans said. "A lot of credit goes to our class, although we're still up and coming and still have a lot more to do as a program, I think we have put our face out there and start having Kentucky be recognized."
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.
He's helped them learn to "enjoy the ride," to maintain just a little bit more on an even keel through the ups and downs of a long season. He's shown them that putting players first can lead to the kind of program success expected at UK.
But try as he might, Coach Cal knows there's no changing the Big Blue Nation when it comes to Louisville.
"People grieve for a year after the game," Calipari said on the eve of a Sweet 16 matchup with the Cardinals. "People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work."
It doesn't work because the rivalry is too ingrained. Just ask Jarrod Polson, who grew up a UK fan before going on to a four-year career playing for his favorite team.
"I was born to hate Louisville," Jarrod Polson said, only half joking.
Those are the feelings at play on both the blue and red sides of a Sweet 16 showdown between UK (26-10) and Louisville (31-5). On Friday at 9:45 p.m., bragging rights will be decided. Coach Cal knows better than to think he can control any of that, but it's another story with his team.
"We will not make this game bigger than it is," Calipari said. "It's an NCAA Tournament game. We've gotta play a basketball game against a really good team. Every team still standing is playing a really good team. So that's my message. Don't make it bigger than it is. Just play."
To that end, Coach Cal has given very specific directions to the Wildcats.
"Don't watch any TV," Calipari said. "Watch the History Channel, watch Biography, watch the Military Channel, watch movies and don't read anything, don't look at anything. It has no bearing on this game we're about to play."
That's not a difficult message to put into practice because, really, how could there be anything bigger than playing in the NCAA Tournament? No matter the opponent, there are only two options at this stage of the season: win or go home.
"I don't want to disrespect the rivalry or anything, but we're playing for something bigger than the rivalry," Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters in UK's locker room, television tuned to CNN.
Taking his turn after Kentucky's time with the media was up, Louisville star senior Russ Smith was asked about the way Cauley-Stein views the game. Though he has a couple years and a few extra games of UK-U of L experience on most of the Cats, he agrees.
"It is a rivalry game," Smith said. "There's no way around it. But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game. They would have to play with the same enthusiasm and wake up reading the same scouting report as if they were playing a UCLA in the Sweet 16 or UConn. It's just the same game face.
"You just want to get to the next round. And that's what's most important. I feel the same way. I felt the same way the last two, three years, coming into this program, be prepared for every team the same way."
Count U of L head coach Rick Pitino -- a man intimately familiar with the rivalry -- in the same camp.
"I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice," Pitino said. "Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play."
Polson is the only scholarship Wildcat who was in uniform for that national semifinal matchup. When he stepped into the Superdome in 2012, he remembers all thoughts about the rivalry -- long as he's been on the UK side of it -- going out the window.
"I mean, in that Final Four game, to me and our team, two years ago it didn't really seem like a rivalry at all," Polson said. "Once you get so far in the tournament there really is no rivalry games. It's just getting to the next round. That's how we saw it back then and I think that's how we're looking at it this year."
Three months ago, the Cats and Cards faced off when the rivalry was the biggest thing at play. Then, UK picked up its signature regular-season win in Rupp Arena, 73-66.
"Honestly, I don't even remember the first game, the first time we played them," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, the only thing I can really take from that is we fought for the whole 40 minutes of the game and that's what we have to do tomorrow, is just play like we played against Wichita (State), which we didn't even realize how close we were to winning or losing the game until the buzzer."
In defeating Louisville, the Cats played with the kind of 40-minute intensity that's become their hallmark in the postseason. With that, UK has improved by the day since the Southeastern Conference Tournament, making them a far different team than on Dec. 28.
"I think we just all settled down and just started thinking about having fun and it's still basketball," Aaron Harrison said, explaining UK's improvement. "We just go out there and have fun and fight for each other."
In a battle of Louisville's experience -- four starters played key roles on last year's title team -- and UK's youth, that carefree approach could work in the Cats' favor.
"The difference between freshmen is freshmen are going to play hard no matter what," Smith said. "That's what's so scary. Freshmen, regardless of how prepared they are, regardless of how trained they are, they're going to always be ready to play and they're always going to come play hard. They may not do the right things, but they're always going to be ready to play."
Differently comprised as UK and U of L may be, their goals -- and their approach to facing their archrival in the tournament -- are the same.
"The goal is to get to the Elite Eight," Smith said. "If you let the university or the other school that you're playing against get in the way of that it could potentially become a problem."
"We're playing to move on and that's the way we're coming into the game," Cauley-Stein said. "We're not thinking about, 'Oh it's Louisville so it's a must-win because it's Louisville. It's a must-win because we're trying to win a national championship."
To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.
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."
Kentucky had to give everything it had in the 64-59 win, and the fans were there every step of the way.
The Big Blue Nation made up nearly all of the nearly 5,000 fans witnessing UK make the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season. Combined with a small, but vocal, contingent of Orange fans, band and cheer squad, it made for an entertaining atmosphere. There was a lot on the line on the court, and the fans answered.
"The crowd really responded two days in a row," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We had an unbelievable environment so thank you to the fans."
It was the type of game that left you sitting on the edge of your seat. For the fans at Memorial Coliseum, most of them didn't bother using their seat at all in the last several minutes.
With each made basket, steal or defensive stop, the energy was there both on and off the court. It had an impact, on both sides.
"It's a great team, a bunch of athletes in a great environment for women's basketball," Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said of Kentucky and the Memorial Coliseum crowd. "It's unique for women's basketball, to come to a place like this and they bring a great crowd, a very respectful crowd, too. It's just a very good venue for women's basketball."
When Syracuse got within five in the second half, the Wildcats -- and the Big Blue Nation -- answered. When Syracuse cut UK's lead to two at 46-44, the Wildcats, and their fans, had an answer.
There was no giving up, and the Wildcats made it known, the fans had an impact.
"It helped being in our house where the fans were really helpful," Kastine Evans said of making shots down the stretch. "They made a lot of noise when we needed it. Especially when we made big plays.
The party continued well after the final buzzer. The team stuck around for several renditions of the fight song. Coach Mitchell pumped his fists to both sides of the blue-filled Coliseum stands. The players waved and showed their appreciation.
It was a fun night at Memorial Coliseum. Combined with Saturday's opening-round win, it was a fun weekend at the old arena. Whether it was at 11 a.m. Saturday or Monday evening, the noise was there.
Now, the Cats, and the ever-loyal Big Blue Nation, take the party to South Bend, Ind. The Wildcats will play either Cal or Baylor. No matter the color of the Bears, be it blue and gold or green and gold, it will be another tough test for UK.
Kentucky won't have the benefit of the home crowd, but knowing the Big Blue Nation, there will be a sizable number of fans cheering on the Wildcats on the road.
Even with all the momentum the Kentucky women's basketball team took into the NCAA Tournament coming off a nice run at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Mitchell just wasn't sure what to expect.
Hosting a NCAA Tournament game for the first time, having not played in two weeks and facing a relatively unfamiliar opponent with postseason pressure Mitchell had good reason to feel that.
He ended up witnessing -- and contributing to -- one of the better all-around performances Kentucky has put together all year.
"I certainly didn't come into today with this kind of expectation that we would play this sharp," Mitchell said. "We've historically kind of struggled in this game for whatever reason, because of the long layoff and so my mindset going into the game was just to let them know that they had clear advantages in the game."
Mitchell may not have anticipated his team would play as well as they did, but he certainly enjoyed the 106-60 victory. Much of the success may have been down to his simplified message before the game: to exploit Kentucky's physical advantages be them in terms of size and speed.
"I didn't go in thinking we were going to win by 20, or 40, or anything like that," Mitchell said. "I sort of showed up with the mindset (Saturday) of let me do my part for the victory, let me coach the best that I can and let's see what happens. Nothing that they did really surprised me, but I was extremely pleased and grateful to the players that they came out and executed the game plan."
And so Mitchell turned his attention to Syracuse, Kentucky's second-round opponent, and the challenges the Orange will pose to UK when the two tip off Monday at 6:40 p.m. ET inside Memorial Coliseum.
But instead of focusing on the painstaking details of the matchup, Mitchell has been stressing a similarly simple approach to the one UK used going into Saturday's win. The Wildcats will need to continue to excel in every aspect of the game from here on out should they hope to advance.
Standing in the way will be Syracuse and the many variables that could affect how people play them.
"What I see with them is a team that is able to create some turnovers in a different way than we do," Mitchell said. "They full-court press you, three-quarter court press you, they've got some half-court traps that we're going to have to deal with and then the 2-3 zone, which we've had some success against, but it certainly hasn't been automatic this year. There have been times where we've struggled against the 2-3 zone."
The Orange -- in Mitchell's eyes -- match up far better with UK than Wright State. Thus Mitchell and his Wildcats will look to play even better than they did on Saturday morning. In other words the Wildcats are looking to improve on what was already arguably their best-played game of the season.
"We had a great day yesterday and we had a significant advantage in personnel," Mitchell said. "This game, the difference in personnel is not as great, the advantage is not as great and we have to be ready to play."
Arguably the biggest challenge for the Wildcats could be executing offensively against Syracuse's base 2-3 zone defense, which UK struggled against early in the SEC schedule. But the Wildcats have since shown they can make shots and get the ball to the paint no matter what defense they face.
And yet like their coach, the Wildcats themselves are embracing the challenge of facing a formidable zone defense in the high-pressure NCAA Tournament.
"I think it should be easier for us because it's just one thing we have to focus on, it's the 2-3 zone," UK guard Jennifer O'Neill said. "We don't have to worry about them playing man or trying to switch it to a 3-2 or stuff like that. We know what they're going to play and now we just have to go out and perform and execute."
Samarie Walker also doesn't seem to sweat the prospect of facing a 2-3 zone so long as UK can execute its offensive counterattack to the zone.
"It's a little frustrating for inside players because we don't know where were going to get the ball, we have to work just a little bit harder than (against) man (defense)," the senior forward said. We might not always get the ball on the block which is where we want to get the ball, it's a lot more movement for us but I think by now we should be used to it because that is what we got played most by in the SEC."
For his part, Mitchell seems more concerned with his team playing its best more than he focuses on specific opponent game planning. Although he likely watches plenty of opponents' game film and develops schemes to attack other teams too, Mitchell indicated he goes into big games keeping it simple, focusing more on his team positioning itself to play its best than preventing other teams from playing theirs.
Mitchell admitted as much when asked how he would prepare the Wildcats for playing Syracuse without knowing the injury status of one of the Orange's best players: Brittany Sykes.
"I don't know if this point in time with our team that we make it totally about the opponent," Mitchell said. "We really try and have a good plan that we can execute whether she's playing or not."
The Syracuse sophomore guard has since been ruled out for Monday's game, but the news likely won't change the broader theme for UK.
Mitchell is focused on his team playing its best as early and as often as possible as UK continues into the second round of the the NCAA Tournament.