UNC Asheville-Kentucky Preview
(AP) - Kentucky believes it is in a good place entering the NCAA Tournament, beyond the obvious advantage of playing at home.
The early season departures of four Wildcats loomed over the program, followed by a 2-5 midseason slump before they recovered to win eight in a row down the stretch. They reached the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals, where South Carolina dealt them a 30-point loss.
The Wildcats (23-7) still received a third straight No. 3 seed for Saturday's first-round game against No. 14 seed UNC Asheville (26-6).
If they hold serve at Memorial Coliseum, a bigger potential reward awaits Kentucky a few blocks away at Rupp Arena, home of the men's program. The Wildcats could get two more games in their quest to reach the Final Four - an achievable goal for a team that has been able to find a way to get it done despite the turmoil.
''All that is why we're a team right now,'' said senior guard Janee Thompson. ''We had a lot to go through. We hit some walls, we hit some adversity, but we're peaking at the right time. We're ready to play.''
Thompson's 12.6 points per game rank second on the team to junior guard Makayla Epps (16.5) - the duo comprises Kentucky's main scoring threats. Several newcomers, including forward Evelyn Akhator and guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray have become significant contributors.
Kentucky has won 14 of 16 at home and is a formidable challenge for UNC Asheville, winners of five straight including the Big South Conference Tournament.
''We've just got to make sure we take advantage of it,'' Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said of his team's home-court prowess. ''I'm in a situation where I have to keep them focused on Asheville.''
That's because the Bulldogs, who are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, boast a few strengths as well.
Junior guard and Big South Player of the Year Chatori Major (13.9 points) leads the Bulldogs. Tianna Knuckles is next at 12.3 per contest while forward KJ Weaver (6.5) is their top rebounder.
And having improved from 9-22 last season to win more games than the previous three combined, UNC Asheville coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick believes her team is eager for more success.
''There have been a lot of challenges, but that makes the success that much more rewarding,'' she said.
Kentucky won the only two previous meetings, which both took place in 1995.
The winner moves on to Sunday to face the winner of the matchup between No. 6 seed Oklahoma and 11th-seeded Purdue.