Belmont-Kentucky Preview (Mar 14, 2017)

The possibility exists for Kentucky to play four consecutive games in Lexington during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

But the fourth-seeded Wildcats are more interested in making sure they don’t overlook their first-round opponent.

Kentucky opens play against 13th-seeded Belmont on Friday at Mitchell Coliseum in the Lexington Regional. The Bruins have won 21 consecutive games and haven’t lost since Dec. 14.

That kind of winning streak creates a huge dose of confidence and prompts the 18th-ranked Wildcats (21-10) to understand they may receive a stern test from Belmont (27-5), the Ohio Valley regular season and tournament champions.

“If you’re regular season and tournament champions — you’re a good team,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “So, I don’t know a lot about them — I just know that if they’re tough and gritty, they’ll have winning on their minds. So we have to get winning on our minds to get prepared for them.”

The Wildcats are in the tournament for a school-record eighth consecutive season, a stretch that includes three visits to the Elite Eight.

The school is host of first- and-second-round games at Mitchell Coliseum and the following two rounds — beginning with the Sweet 16 — will be held at Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington.

The players relish an extended opportunity of playing locally. But Mitchell has issued a warning about looking ahead.

“We just met after the bracket was announced and the only thing that really matters for us is Friday and that’s the way you’ve got to go into it and look at it,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to get prepared because if you don’t get it done Friday, you certainly won’t get it done in Rupp Arena. You’ve got to take care of Friday and that’s what we’re worried about right now.”

Belmont is making its third NCAA appearance and second in four seasons under coach Cameron Newbauer. The Bruins have won 13 road games, second nationally behind top-ranked Connecticut (14).

And Newbauer knows, a victory on Friday would rate as Belmont’s biggest away-from-home win of the campaign.

“There will be 8,000 fans there,” Newbauer told the Tennessean. “The Big Blue Nation will show up for this game and that’s just all the more fun for us to compete with the stacked deck. Our players like adversity. It’s March, and we’ll see what we can do with this.”

The Bruins are led by junior forward Kylee Smith, who averages a team-best 15.7 points per game. Sophomore guard Darby Maggard has drained 111 3-pointers while averaging 14.4 points, and junior center Sally McCabe (12.4 points, team-best 7.8 rebounds) and senior forward Lauren Thompson (10.3) round out a productive quartet.

Senior guard Makayla Epps (17.2 points) and senior forward Evelyn Akhator (15.8 points, team-leading 10.5 rebounds) lead the Wildcats. Sophomore point guard Taylor Murray (12.7) and sophomore guard Maci Morris (11.7) also average in double digits.

Murray and backup freshman guard Jaida Roper (2.8 points) are battling injuries. Mitchell said Roper (head) returned to practice on Monday and he expects Murray (whiplash) to be play.

The winner faces either No. 5 Ohio State or No. 12 Western Kentucky on Sunday.