Faster Kentucky speeds past Huskers
A day after Baylor knocked out Tennessee, SEC's Kentucky takes out Big 12's Nebraska
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Let's get this straight: This was the Kentucky team that was picked to finish 11th in the SEC? This was the Kentucky team that didn't beat Tennessee when they met twice this season? Indeed, the Wildcats fell both times -- at Knoxville and then in the SEC tournament in Duluth, Ga. -- against the mighty Orange Crush.
Tennessee won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, then got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky took the runner-up mantle in the league and an NCAA No. 4 seed. But guess who's still alive and kicking in the Big Dance?
Kentucky is, knocking out No. 1 seed Nebraska 76-67 Sunday and putting the Huskers on the sidelines along with Tennessee as top seeds to exit early.
"I didn't take it as a sign of disrespect," Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell said of how his team was evaluated before this season. "I don't know that people were that off-base, based on what they had to go on. I said, 'Shoot, we may be next to last if we don't get after it.'"
The Wildcats certainly got after it Sunday. Amani Franklin's 3-pointer with 11 minutes, 27 seconds left in the first half gave Kentucky a lead it never surrendered for the rest of the game. Kentucky led the Huskers by as many as 19 in the second half.
This was the Nebraska program's first trip to the Sweet 16, and for all practical purposes, it was about the same for the Wildcats. Kentucky made it to the regional semis before, but that was in 1982 -- a very different era, when there were just 32 teams in the field for the first women's NCAA tournament.
On this night in the Sprint Center, just three hours south of the Huskers' campus in Lincoln, Neb., the Wildcats were the ones who sprinted the fastest and appeared at home. It really didn't look like an upset. It looked like the Wildcats were a quicker team.
"It almost seemed at times we were playing against five guards out there," Nebraska forward Kelsey Griffin said. "Credit Kentucky -- they played great defense, really scrappy players. They came to play, and I believe my team did as well. There just wasn't something right out there for us. And Kentucky put together a great ballgame. They had players step up and make shots that normally they wouldn't make. They were feeling it. I wish them nothing but the best."
Maybe there is some symmetry to this, strange as it might sound: A Big 12 team peaking at the right time, No. 4 seed Baylor, beat the SEC's champion, Tennessee, pretty convincingly Saturday in the Sweet 16. Then an SEC team peaking at the right time, Kentucky, did the same thing to the Big 12's regular-season champ, Nebraska.
"This tournament has been a lot of fun, and it shows that there are teams out there that are working really hard," Mitchell said. "And to get rewarded for that -- that's why I am so happy for my team."
John Wooden used to say if you had three players on your team that are quicker than your opponent, you have a really good chance to win. And if you look at their lineup, [Kentucky was] either as quick or quicker at every position than us. And that was the difference. They beat us to the ball. And the collection of those plays added up to a win for them.” -- Nebraska coach Connie Yori
Nebraska did not win the Big 12 tournament, which was here in Kansas City two weeks ago, as it fell to Texas A&M in the semifinals. Those were the only two losses in this historic Huskers season, and they had things in common: In both, Griffin did not have a superstar offensive game and the Huskers did not execute as well as they typically had all season long.
"The tapes we were watching, we couldn't find someone who does exactly what we do," Mitchell said of searching in preparation for a Huskers opponent to model Kentucky's attack after. "We're more fundamental man-to-man pressure than UCLA [Nebraska's second-round opponent]; they mix it up more than we do. But that gave us some idea.
"I could not have drawn this up any better or had higher hopes for how it would turn out. I told somebody before the game, if we were able to win, it would not be because our players just did something special this week. They've been building themselves into this team from the very first practice of last fall."
The same could be said for the Huskers, who saw a magical, unprecedented season end prematurely, but understood exactly why it did.
"These guys have heard this probably 1,000 times this year, ever since we started our conditioning sessions," Nebraska coach Connie Yori said. "I said, 'If we can rebound, we can beat just about anybody.' Tonight was an example of us not competing on the boards, and the loose balls and rebounds went [Kentucky's] way.
"John Wooden used to say if you had three players on your team that are quicker than your opponent, you have a really good chance to win. And if you look at their lineup, they were either as quick or quicker at every position than us. And that was the difference. They beat us to the ball. And the collection of those plays added up to a win for them."
The Wildcats forced 16 turnovers and won the rebounding battle 36-25. Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap (18 points, seven rebounds) and A'dia Mathies (21 points) showed why they were picked the SEC's player and rookie of the year, respectively.
"We're not going to have a height advantage over almost any team in the tournament," Mathies said. "So we know we have to use our quickness. We pushed the tempo, we got up on defense. That's what we do, really, every game.
"It helped a lot to play Tennessee; we played better the second time we played them and showed how we really could play. It helped prepare us for what to expect against anybody. And tonight, we were the underdogs. There isn't as much pressure on you."
The Huskers, however, did seem to feel some pressure. Griffin, one of six Nebraska seniors who finished their careers Sunday, had 15 points and 12 rebounds but shot just 5-of-12 from the field. Cory Montgomery had 14 points, but another senior, Vonnie Turner, had a very rough night. She made just 1-of-8 shots and finished with four points.
Junior Dominique Kelley, who has had an excellent NCAA tournament for Nebraska, led the Huskers with 22 points. But whereas Nebraska was able to overcome UCLA's defensive pressure in their second-round meeting, the Huskers couldn't do that against Kentucky.
"You have to realize how hard these players have worked to get into the physical condition required to play at this tempo," Mitchell said. "We don't have a lot of size. We do have good, well-conditioned athletes, so that's our whole method of playing.
"Very deep into the second half, we were still quick-inbounding the ball and running it back at Nebraska, and you can't do that if you're not in shape. The pace of the game was where we wanted it tonight."
And how about against regional final opponent Oklahoma and coach Sherri Coale on Tuesday (ESPN/ESPN360.com, 9 p.m. ET)?
"I've been able to watch her teams in the tournament for several years," Mitchell said. "The energy that they have and the togetherness they exhibit was something I always wanted to have with our team. They look to me to be as well-equipped to handle our style as anyone. They have some great backdoor sets; I've watched them a bit. I think they're a terrific team, and this is going to be an incredible test for us."
But, hey, considering that Kentucky just beat a Nebraska squad that defeated Oklahoma in the regular season, it's pretty clear the Wildcats will be an incredible test for the Sooners, too.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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