LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky hopes that holding serve at home smooths the short path to its ultimate destination.
The Wildcats have lost just three of 18 games in Lexington, with one against then-No. 23 Arizona State coming in overtime a few blocks away from campus at Rupp Arena. Besides helping the Wildcats deal with the departures by players and staff, Kentucky wants to use Memorial Coliseum’s friendly confines to earn a chance to stay home through next week’s regional final at Rupp.
”Playing at home really means a lot to us,” Wildcats senior forward Evelyn Akhator said Thursday. ”But, as long as we have trust in the team, we don’t really care where they take us to. … It’s really going to help boost our morale.”
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Home-court advantage will be extremely important for the fourth-seeded Wildcats (21-10) to slow down streaking No. 13 seed Belmont in Friday’s NCAA Tournament first-round matchup. The winner will face the winner between No. 5 seed Ohio State (26-6) and No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (27-6) on Sunday.
Belmont (27-5) brings a school-record 21-game winning streak that’s second only in Division I to UConn’s amazing 107-game run. The two-time Ohio Valley Conference tournament champions are focused on adding their NCAA win, a quest that will involve tuning out the noise.
”We know Big Blue Nation is going to be here in full effect,” Belmont coach Cameron Newbauer said. ”We’re excited about that.”
The Bruins’ long-range accuracy could go a long way toward silencing the Wildcats and their fans.
Belmont ranks 11th nationally with 272 3-pointers and averages nearly nine made per contest on 37 percent shooting. Darby Maggard leads the team with 111 made from behind the arc, and the fact that every player has at least one 3 demonstrates the green light Newbauer has given them.
”It’s one of our best qualities as a team because we play inside-out a lot,” said guard/forward Kylee Smith, whose 77 3s rank second on the team. ”It’s fun that when someone with size comes inside and doubles, we can kick it back out. … We want the great shot, so we make the extra pass.”
Some other things to know about Friday’s games in Lexington:
MURRAY’S STATUS: Kentucky sophomore guard Taylor Murray has practiced and is expected to play for the first time since missing the Southeastern Conference semifinals with a neck strain and whiplash. Murray, the Wildcats’ third-leading scorer at 12.7 points per game, was injured after crashing into a screen and falling to the floor against Alabama. ”`I’ve gone through contact and doing whatever I need to do to get myself ready,” Murray said.
HIGH-SCORING BUCKEYES: The Buckeyes average nearly 87 points per contest to rank second in the Big Ten Conference. Junior guard and two-time conference player of the year Kelsey Mitchell leads with 23 points per contest and needs six 3-pointers to break the league’s career mark of 365 held by Penn State’s Maggie Lucas.
RED-HOT `TOPPERS: Western Kentucky also enters on a roll, having won 12 straight and 17 of 18. The Hilltoppers won their second Conference USA championship in three seasons with senior guard Kendall Noble (16.1 points, 6.2 rebounds) leading the way. Noble, Tashia Brown and Micah Jones have broken 1,000 career points with forward Ivy Brown just 56 away.
BACK IN TOWN: Three former Kentucky players are in Lexington with other schools, setting the stage for an interesting reunion if the Wildcats and their new teams advance to the second round. As it is Ohio State guard Linnae Harper, the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year, will face WKU and ex-teammates Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and reserve guard Jaycee Coe. ”Everything happens for a reason,” Harper said of her Kentucky departure without being specific. ”But it’s good to be back here. I had two great years here and I’m getting focused on my game on Friday.”
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