Hoops Falls to UConn in Elite Eight
March 27, 2012
KINGSTON, R.I. (AP) - Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell knows his team is headed in the right direction.
For 25 minutes the Wildcats "40 minutes of dread" defense allowed them to go toe-to-toe with Connecticut before the Huskies pulled away for an 80-65 win on Tuesday night in the Kingston regional final.
It was the second time in three seasons that the Wildcats have come up one victory short of their first Final Four.
"You get so close and feel like you have a chance and want to punch through and make it," Mitchell said. "We have to keep showing up and keep knocking on the door and at some point and time we'll get in there. It's hard to get to where we got to tonight. We need to stay at it and keep showing up and one day we'll punch through."
The second-seeded Wildcats (28-7) had a great year, winning their first regular season SEC championship since 1982 and tying the school record for victories in a season.
"We had an incredible season," said center Samarie Walker, who led the Wildcats with 14 points. "It's disappointing but we have a really good group coming back and we will be really good again."
Mitchell will have most of his team back for next season. Before the year started, the Wildcats' coach put the Denver Final Four logo in front of the locker room as motivation for his squad. Now they can look toward next season and making it to New Orleans.
"We'll keep knocking on the door and hopefully one day we'll get to the Final Four," he said. "Four or five years ago when these kids thought of coming to Kentucky, they weren't thinking about winning an SEC championship. I'm really proud of them, and what they've accomplished."
The Kentucky women were trying to join their men's team in the Final Four. It would have been the eighth time that a school had both programs in the national semifinals. Connecticut has done it three times including last season. The Huskies are still the only school to win both the men's and women's championship in the same season accomplishing the feat in 2004.
Tiffany Hayes scored 22 points for top-seeded Connecticut, which is back in the Final Four for the fifth straight season.
"We like to go to the Final Four every year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I think we're also realistic, some years it's going to be easier than others. Expectations are always there, regardless of the probability. This year was less than other years. Makes it more worthwhile. Last year we went as a team led by Maya Moore. This year there isn't any of that. The University of Connecticut is going to the Final Four and I think that's pretty cool once in a while."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis added 18 for UConn (33-4), which will play the winner of Notre Dame and Maryland on Sunday in Denver.
Hayes, who was selected most outstanding player of the regional, has been to a Final Four in all four of her seasons. Getting there this time was special to the senior.
"It's even sweeter because this is a team effort, it wasn't one or two people getting us there," she said. "We all had our part in it. Everyone had their way of helping us get there. Glad to be back for the fourth time."
The Huskies matched their own school mark of five straight trips to the national semifinals set from 2000-04. LSU and Stanford have also accomplished the feat.
Unlike their previous four trips to the regional finals, which were quick blowouts, the Huskies had to work hard to pull away from the Wildcats.
UConn led 48-47 early in the second half before turning up its defense. The Huskies used a 21-4 spurt to take command. Hayes, the lone senior on the team, was the catalyst, scoring seven points during the run. She got it started with a lay-in. Then the Huskies started a parade to the free throw line, with whistle after whistle. The Huskies converted 12 free throws during the game-changing run.
While the Huskies were scoring points, their vaunted defense was stymieing the Wildcats. Kentucky torched UConn for 39 points, the most allowed in a first half this season by the Huskies.
The Wildcats found it much tougher to score in the second half. During UConn's burst, Kentucky could only get two field goals over a span of 9 minutes.
Mosqueda-Lewis' 3-pointer with 7:26 left capped UConn's burst and made it 69-52.
Kentucky could get no closer than 15 the rest of the way.