LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky came up with the big shots and stops to survive Syracuse’s upset bid and make it back to the Sweet 16.
Bria Goss was key on both ends as she scored 17 points to help third-seeded Kentucky beat No. 6 seed Syracuse 64-59 on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Goss went 11 of 12 from the foul line as the Wildcats (26-8) ground out a victory two days after beating Wright State by 46 points. Syracuse’s physical play and its trademark zone defense had a lot to do with disrupting Kentucky’s rhythm and scoring opportunities in a 36-percent shooting performance.
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The junior guard made 3 of 7 from the field but got to the four line, determination that Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said ”helped us a tremendously tonight. On a night where the ball wasn’t going into the basket. She had no fear, getting to the rim, getting to the foul line and it really saved the day.”
Kentucky offset its offensive struggles with scrappy defense that forced 23 Orange turnovers and held them to 33 percent shooting. It culminated with a victory that moved the Wildcats into the round of 16 against Baylor, setting up a rematch of their four overtime thriller from earlier this season.
DeNesha Stallworth added 13 points and Kastine Evans 11 for the Wildcats, who scored 21 points off turnovers and outscored the Orange 32-28 in the paint. But Goss’ foul shooting symbolized the difference as Kentucky shot 12 more free throws than Syracuse, making 18 of 28 while the Orange were 12 of 16.
”We just had to trust the process and see it through,” said Stallworth, who also had six rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Goss added two steals.
Syracuse (23-10) fought hard but couldn’t follow up its first-ever NCAA tournament win after losing star guard Brittney Sykes to a right knee injury on Saturday. Brianna Butler had 15 points and Briana Day 13 for the Orange, who got within four with 23 seconds left but failed to get the needed play on offense or defense to draw closer.
”They did a great job of staying poised when we made our run,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. ”That’s what great teams do. Every time we pushed at them, they made an incredible play to stabilize the run.”
Kentucky faced a tall task of following up Saturday’s record-setting victory over Wright State, a 106-60 shellacking highlighted by 67 rebounds that tied an NCAA tournament mark. Two days later, the Wildcats were outrebounded 41-38 by the Orange.
They were OK with that because they won.
”It was tough,” Kentucky forward Azia Bishop. ”They played really hard and I think we did a good job of attacking. The referees let us play a little physical, so that helped a lot too.”
Syracuse meanwhile faced the challenge of replacing top scorer Sykes (16.7 points per game), who injured her right knee in the second half of Saturday’s 59-53 win over Chattanooga. Sykes was on crutches with the leg wrapped as she cheered on teammates, but the voids she left with scoring and rebounding proved tough to replace.
Especially at key moments.
”We wanted to make it a great game,” guard Alexis Peterson said. ”We knew if we stayed in the two- to 4-point range we could compete. We just didn’t have enough to make the run.”
Kentucky led 32-25 at halftime and by as many as 11 with 15:51 left in the game but couldn’t turn those small bursts into big runs like Saturday. Syracuse rallied to trail 46-44 with 11 1/2 minutes remaining in the game thanks to Briana Day’s eight straight points early in the half and the Orange forcing Wildcats mistakes.
A 9-1 run helped by Jennifer O’Neill’s 3-pointer, Evans’ jumper and four free throws by Goss provided Kentucky a double-digit lead that came in handy as Syracuse kept fighting back down the stretch.
Said Mitchell, ”give our players credit for fighting through and getting the win.”