Kentucky hosts 1st NCAA women’s tourney game
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky players hope playing at home gets them off to a positive start on what they hope is a journey to that ends with a long-sought Final Four berth.
Considering the home success the Wildcats have had, their chances of reaching their fourth regional final in five years look promising.
Third-seeded Kentucky (24-8) will host its first-ever women’s NCAA tournament game when the Wildcats play 14th-seeded Wright State (26-8) Saturday in the Notre Dame Regional. The Wildcats could play two home contests this weekend, and have won 44 straight nonconference games on their floor.
The surging Raiders are on a six-game winning streak, earning their first tournament berth. No. 6 Syracuse (22-9) faces No. 11 Chattanooga (29-3) in the other matchup, looking to halt the Lady Mocs’ 25-game winning streak.
Opening the tournament at Memorial after four straight years on the road is a welcome change for the Wildcats, 12-4 at home this season.
”Certainly, I’d rather be playing here than playing in Wright State’s gym,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Friday. ”It’s an advantage, but we’re really trying to focus on our play and what we need to do to be successful Saturday morning. …I don’t want the players to think somehow that the building is going to win the game for them because that’s not going to happen.”
Still, guard Jennifer O’Neill is happy the Wildcats are playing in familiar surroundings.
”Just knowing the gym and knowing how well we shoot in there,” she said, ”I think that is going to help us.”
With 6-foot forward Tayler Stanton as Wright State’s tallest starter, Kentucky’s length could be a challenge for the Raiders. Wright State coach Mike Bradbury also believes the Raiders will have their hands full dealing with the Wildcats’ athleticism, but said his squad won’t back down in its first tourney game.
”They’re going to play to their strength and we’ll try to play to ours,” Bradbury said. ”I don’t think we can change them.”
In the other game, Syracuse seeks its first NCAA tournament win when they take on a red-hot Chattanooga squad looking to improve its 1-11 NCAA tournament record.
”We know that this is a bigger stage, a different type of game,” Lady Mocs forward Taylor Hall said. ”(The Orange) present some challenges we haven’t faced before, so that is something new for us. It’s nice to be on a streak like that, just (having) some momentum behind us.”
Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s games at Lexington:
BEEN HERE, WON THAT: Just like he did at St. Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State, coach Jim Foster has Chattanooga in the NCAA tournament. Inducted last June into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, the first-year coach has the Lady Mocs on a 25-game winning streak and the nation’s longest active home streak at 39. Not that his players are aware of these achievements. ”At this age, if someone doesn’t text it to them, they really don’t know what’s happening,” joked Foster, 812-310 in 36 seasons.
WILDCATS ON THE SAME PAGE: On-floor improvements in defensive pressure is one reason Kentucky has won five of six. But off-court activities involving Mitchell have also helped eliminate a disconnect players expressed to their coach. ”We were a group that I think was definitely headed in different directions,” Mitchell said. ”My nature is to probably go harder and work harder and be more intense. … You have to listen to your players in my mind or I have to, to be a successful coach.”
TAKEAWAY EXPERTS: Wright State leads the nation in turnover margin at nearly 10 per game and tops three top-20 schools at this regional. Syracuse ranks 14th at +5.3 while Kentucky (+4.9) is 19th after ranking in the top five over the past four seasons.
MOVING ON WITHOUT K.C.: A knee injury to Wright State senior guard K.C. Elkins has thrust junior Sarah Hunter into the starting lineup. Teammate Tay’ler Mingo said that while Hunter is a good fit for the Raiders, losing their career games-played leader just before their tournament debut has been an adjustment. Elkins ”knows our system like the back of her hand, and (missing) that experience does affect us,” Mingo said.
ORANGE SEEKING FIRST WIN: A Syracuse victory would mark its first in six attempts. The Orange have come close in their last two trips, including a 61-56 loss to Creighton last spring. ”Last year, it was our first year (back) and we were excited,” guard Rachel Coffey said. ”This year, we are focused on winning a game.”