(2) Kentucky vs. (1) Connecticut
Tues., Mar. 27 - 7:00 p.m.ET Kingston, R.I.
TV: ESPN2 ESPN
**** Note: The game has been bumped to ESPN's Flagship so ESPN it is.!!! ****
I have days where it is a chore to continue to write about every game that the UK women play. A have days where it is sheer delight to do this. You can guess which one today is. Tonight at 7PM the UKHOOPS squad plays the biggest game of their entire existence to date. The only question is, will anyone in the Big Blue Nation know it? In the midst of what amounts to the biggest week in Men's NCAA Basketball, will anyone remember that there is another side to this whole equation, and if Matthew Mitchell has anything to say about it, it is going to continue that way for a long time to come.
Is there room at UK for two equally successful programs to compete at the very top of their sport? Surely so, I mean it isn't the 1950's anymore. Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart has preached about this and nudged and prodded and cajoled everyone in Lexington in an approach to try and make UK a balanced and well run COMPLETE athletic department from top to bottom. This is his dream. But is it the dream of the entire Commonwealth? Will every TV be tuned to ESPN2 tonight with rabid fans dressed in Blue and White, anxiously screaming and throwing things in an effort to push their UKHOOPS squad over the top as they take on a team that has won the National Championship so many times that they have a permanent spotlight fixed in the room where it sits year after year?
Well, I am not going to kid myself and say I know that Kentucky is going to support this team as they do their beloved Wildcats. After all, there is no Anthony Davis blocking shots for UKHOOPS. There is no Michael Kidd-Gilchrist running through sagging defenses and making his opponents look like they are standing still in Memorial each game night. No, this is different. Much different. If you want a look inside what makes UKHOOPS such an amazing squad, then follow me after the jump. Just don't say I didn't warn you, because I am going to challenge your fanhood, and maybe even make you fall in love with a group of girls who do not know the meaning of the word quit.
So, we are all experts on what makes UK Basketball special. At least on one side of the Joe Craft Center. But there is another side, a different side. No less hard working, but different in their approach, yet also a part of the bigger picture. Let me introduce you to them.
At the center of all that is UKHOOPS is Matthew Mitchell. Mitchell is Barnhart's single greatest hire. Oh yeah, I know about John Calipari, but the truth is, I could have hired John Calipari to coach UK Basketball. It was a no-brainer. And Cal himself has already said that he was waiting for the call. But Mitchell took work. The right coach had to be brought in behind Mickie DeMoss. After all, she had taken the program to the next step in getting a win over the National Champion Lady Vols, the team she left to come to UK. She had a winning record, and more than that, she had completely erased the memory of Bernadette Locke-Mattox and her unsuccessful run at the helm. Mitchell is smart, creative, and flexible, much a mirror of his Men's counterpart. He oozes confidence, and he generates excitement. Sound familiar? Mitchell is what makes this team, and that has changed to atmosphere surrounding it. He then went about bringing in the athletes to make that work.
When Victoria Dunlap left after last season, expectations lowered a bit for UK. Dunlap was a major star for Mitchell. She was the SEC Player of The Year, She was an All-American, a First Round Draft Pick, and she filled the middle much like Anthony Davis does. But all of a sudden, UK got some help after they were seeded 4th in the NCAA Tourney, just like the Men. Samarie Walker announced that she would be joining the Women, transferring in from UCONN. Yes, the team we face tonight let Samarie go (You gotta love those storylines). Then UK picked up Bria Goss, The Indiana State Player of The Year and Gatorade Award Winner, and following that DeNesha Stallworth joined the fray. The hole that was left by Dunlap was all of a sudden much smaller, especially considering that Samantha Drake had already been signed and brought her 6'3" frame into the picture.
When you add the above components to A'dia Mathies, a finalist for this season's Wooden Award, a dead eye shooter who can run the point, play the lane, hit 3's consistently, and gets it done in the classroom as well, you have a better than decent shot at having a good season. But UK's depth does not end there. We haven't even discussed the Seniors or the bulk of this team.
Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden, and Crystal Riley have been here since before Mitchell's arrival. They were the last holdovers from Mickie DeMoss' tenure and they have worked tirelessly to change their game, and live up to the much higher standards that Mitchell laid down upon his arrival. Smith is the team leader and their point guard, even though there are other more highly skilled players for the position. Smith controls her team. She runs it to Mitchell's exact specifications and she makes other defenses look really bad doing it. Smith makes her share of mistakes, but she never gets down, and she never quits. She is 100% heart and guts. Just exactly what a point guard should be. Snowden and Riley are hired guns. They are brought in for one purpose, and that is to score. Riley can take almost any guard off the dribble, and shoots way above her small frame. Snowden is a three point shooting expert, and can hit from anywhere around the circle.
Bria Goss, UK's award winning backup point guard and shooting guard, is only a freshman. But do not let the youth fool you. She has been UK's leading scorer on some occasions, and handles the ball as well as she shoots. Brittany Henderson, another inside presence for UK can be a beast inside when she is rebounding and loves to run. Kastine Evans, Maegan Conwright, Bernisha Pinkett, A'zia Bishop, all make UK's engine run, and none of them are selfish. They all understand their roles in Mitchell's system. And the system is what makes it all work.
Mitchell installed a new defense that is designed to do one thing and one thing only. Create chaos. It makes UK's opponents run like they have never run before. They get no time to breathe, either because UK's high octane offense never takes their foot off the gas. If you are going to play UK, in order to beat them, you must first find a way to slow them down, and that is not easy. Matter of fact, it's incredibly hard. Mitchell plays 10-11 players every game, and they can all shoot, defend, and run. They push you and push you and push you, until you cannot stand to be pushed anymore.
The defense is described by Mitchell as "Forty Minutes of Dread", a slight homage to the Arkansas Razorbacks' defense back in the 80's and 90's under Norm Richardson. UK plays fast, loose, and with completely reckless abandon. They don't shoot better than everyone else, they don't play the half court well either. Their execution is suspect when they are not running, so they just always run. They force you into turnover after turnover, mistake after mistake, until you just tire of keeping up with them. Then you start fouling, and that's where they bury you and leave you for dead. UK averages 15 more points per game than their opponents. They make twice as many 3pt shots, because they attempt twice as many. They overwhelm you at all turns. They have shot 500 more baskets than their opposition. And they out rebound their opponents as well. The defense feeds the offense on every possession.
That doesn't mean that UCONN is the underdog here though. They are a National championship caliber team, and they are playing on what is basically their home court. They don't like to make mistakes, they don't turn the ball over, and they play excellent half-court offense. The only question to be answered is if UCONN can slow down the Wildcats defense and fast break. The answer to this game is simple. Tempo. Control the tempo, win the game. If UK can get UCONN to run the floor with them, and try to keep up with that press, Matthew Mitchell and Co. can book the flight now. But Geno Auremma is not going to want to fall in that trap. He will try to slow the game at every turn. If UCONN can keep it in the 50-60 point range, UK is toast. If this game becomes a 70-80's range shooting spree, UK can take the win and put the T-Shirts on now.
Matthew Mitchell and his team only have one goal.
"Outside our locker room there's a picture of the Final Four logo in Denver," UK Hoops Matthew Mitchell said. "We didn't put an Elite 8 goal on our season we put a Final Four goal and the kids have worked really, really hard to get into this position and so we're not playing all of the Connecticut teams of the past we're playing these players so we're trying to get focused on this team. They're an excellent team, they're very good but we need to go to practice today and have as normal a Kentucky practice as we can and that's my responsibility to make sure that we do the things we've been doing all season long and then at some point your players just need to step up and win a game like this. Players win games, I believe that, and we have some good players and they're going to need to play well and we're going to do everything we can to get them ready to do that."
Connecticut enters Tuesday night's game coming off a 77-59 win over Penn State. Bria Hartley, led UCONN and scored a team-high 20 points. Freshman forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the BIG EAST Freshman of the Year, led UCONN on the glass with 11 rebounds to go with her 12 points. Junior guard Kelly Faris (15), sophomore center Stefanie Dolson (10) and senior guard Tiffany Hayes (10) also reached double figures in scoring. The Huskies are in the top-10 nationally in 10 statistical categories, including the top scoring defense, scoring margin and field-goal percentage defense. Connecticut is second in the country in assists per game, third in field goal percentage, and fourth in 3-point field goal defense and assist-turnover ratio.
Let's face it, this is David Vs. Goliath. UCONN has 7 National Championships, 12 Final Fours, and Auremma is in his 27th season at the helm of the premier women's program in the country. UK makes this win happen and they will have reached not just their goal, but the next level in Women's College Basketball. That's all that is at stake here, no big deal. So, when you are planning your evening, you might just want to turn on ESPN2 about 7PM and get in on this. Unless you like missing out on history, that is.
This will be our Game Thread as well as preview.