No. 19 Kentucky 83, Liberty 77
A'dia Mathies wouldn't let Kentucky settle for a cameo in its return to the NCAA tournament.
The Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year scored a career-high 32 points as the fourth-seeded Wildcats beat 13th-seeded Liberty 83-77 on Saturday in the opening round of the women's NCAA tournament at Freedom Hall.
``She wasn't going to let anybody stop her,'' said Kentucky forward Victoria Dunlap. ``That's just how she played.''
And the rest of the Wildcats followed.
Dunlap, the SEC Player of the Year, scored 15 points and added eight rebounds while Keyla Snowden sparked the Wildcats (26-7) with 15 points - all in the second half - as Kentucky moved into the second round for the first time since 2006. The Wildcats will play fifth-seeded Michigan State on Monday.
``I thought we were really standing around there in the first half,'' said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. ``But we were able to find a way to step up.''
Thanks in large part to Mathies, a Louisville native who chose to play for the Wildcats rather than the hometown Cardinals.
While the Cardinals missed the tournament after making it to the NCAA championship game last year, the Wildcats have surged behind the play of their scintillating freshman.
Mathies set a school record for points in an NCAA tournament game. Lea Wise set the previous mark with 30 points against Illinois in 1982.
``She can do it all, she's an all-around player,'' said Liberty's Avery Warley. ``She just got off tonight.''
The Wildcats certainly needed it after the Flames (27-6) roared to an early nine-point lead.
``It looked like we hadn't played basketball in a long time the way we were running around and missing shots, missing layups,'' said Dunlap.
Though Freedom Hall is typically inhospitable to the Wildcats - they hadn't won on Louisville's home floor since 1999 - Mathies appeared right at home in her hometown.
She helped the Wildcats overcome the shaky start by turning up the pressure on the Flames (27-6). Mathies, who led the SEC in steals, had four against the Flames as Kentucky forced 22 Liberty turnovers.
Kentucky took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Mathies with just over 12 minutes remaining then held on. The Flames hung around but would get no closer than six over the game's final 10 minutes.
``The second half the game just started slipping out of our hands a little bit,'' said Liberty coach Carey Green. ``We had an opportunity.''
The Flames outrebounded the Wildcats 38-26, outscored them 54-30 in the paint and had 19 second-chance points. They just couldn't match Kentucky's ability to get to the free-throw line.
The Wildcats made 26 of 36 free throws, compared to just 11 of 16 free throws by Liberty. Green gave credit to Kentucky for its relentlessness attacking the Liberty defense, a charge that was led by Mathies.
``That was the difference in the game,'' Green said.
The NCAA-tested Flames were hardly intimidated playing in front of a highly partisan crowd in what was a de facto home game for the Wildcats. Liberty, making its 13th NCAA appearance in the last 14 seasons, scored the game's first six points and led by as much as eight before the Wildcats woke up.
Kentucky stormed back with a 17-0 run, holding the Flames without a field goal for seven minutes to take a 21-13 lead.
Liberty responded with an 11-0 run of its own to go back in front and the Flames took a 35-33 lead into the break and appeared on the verge of posting their first NCAA win since 2005.
The Wildcats, however, steadied themselves behind Mathies to move on.