By: ASHLEY SCOBY
Syracuse chipped and chipped away but didn’t crack the No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats in the Round of 32 on Monday. Kentucky, playing on its home court for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, withstood several Syracuse runs to take away a 64-59 victory and a spot in the Sweet 16.
The Sweet 16 berth is Kentucky’s third in a row – the first time in school history the Wildcats have put together that kind of post-season streak.
That streak was in jeopardy early, though, as the Orange would never let Kentucky get comfortable. The Wildcats held a 40-29 lead with 15:51 remaining, and looked to be on its way to another large-scale victory like their 106-60 one over Wright State in Saturday’s first round.
But Syracuse did what it had done over and over again in the first half, and that was cut Kentucky’s lead and deflate cushion after cushion that the Wildcats created.
“I woke up feeling the W. I really did,” said Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman. “Every time we thought we turned the corner, they got a steal … They got an offensive rebound.”
After Kentucky gained its 11-point lead by the first media timeout of the second half, Syracuse started its pattern of runs. Off three straight Briana Day baskets and a couple of Brianna Butler free throws, Syracuse cut it to five points at 42-37 with 13:38 remaining.
But Kentucky’s Jennifer O’Neill nabbed a steal on the defensive end and assisted on a Makayla Epps bucket. A Jelleah Sidney putback got the Wildcats’ lead back to nine.
Rachel Coffey was the Orange player that would have something to say about that Kentucky cushion next, though. She hit a layup with 12:02 to go, then a three-pointer at 11:53 to sneak within 46-44 of Kentucky.
“I think the three Rachel had hit for us really showed us that we could really do this thing,” Butler said. “I think it increased our intensity and made us go even harder. I think it was a pivotal moment for us.”
For Kentucky, that same play did not faze its routine.
“I honestly don’t even remember when they cut it down to that amount of points,” said senior Kastine Evans. “I think we were really just focused on getting out and pushing. That’s something we’ve always focused on, don’t necessarily worry what the score is. Just keep running and pushing the pace.”
That pace was favorable for the run-and-gun Wildcats, who forced 23 Syracuse turnovers and scored 21 points off them. When Kentucky shot 21 of 58 from the field, and missed several point-black shots at the rim, grabbing those steals (15 for the night) and loose balls was crucial.
“I’m so proud of the players on a night where clearly the ball wouldn’t go in the basket for us and we didn’t always make the best decisions, that they were able to create and force 23 turnovers and get them at crucial times down the stretch,” Mitchell said.
Once Coffey hit her three-pointer, two Bria Goss free throws s gave Kentucky breathing room, as would be the case multiple times throughout the night. Her two foul shots at the 10:34 mark got Kentucky’s lead back to four, which was then built to 10 with the help of an O’Neill three-pointer, Evans jumper and two more Goss foul shots.
By the final media timeout, Syracuse had cut the Wildcats’ lead in half once again thanks to jump shots from Butler, Day and Alexis Peterson.
Goss hit three more free throws down the final stretch, and finished 11 of 12 from the line. Her foul shot with 18 seconds on the clock set the final score of 64-59, and gave Kentucky the chance to finally exhale.
“She (Bria) is always up for any role we ask her to take,” said senior Samarie Walker, who led Kentucky in rebounding with seven boards. “She’s the hustle player and plays with a lot of heart and that’s something I look up to.”
Goss, who finished with 17 points, had six of those in the first half, when the Wildcats struggled from the field, shooting 10 of 32. DeNesha Stallworth paced Kentucky in that first period, scoring in double figures with 10.
The see-saw quality of the second half was a reflection of what happened from the opening tip on. After playing to a 14-14 tie, Kentucky went on a 12-4 run in the next 7:29 to take a 26-18 lead with 4:35 until halftime.
With a Janee Thompson layup, Kentucky took a double digit lead at 30-20, which Syracuse promptly cut in half with a Butler three-pointer and a Peterson steal and layup.
The Orange’s tendency to close every margin came on a night where they were missing their leading scorer, Brittney Sykes, who injured her knee in Syracuse’s first round contest against Chattanooga. While Syrcause certainly could have used Sykes’ scoring, her absence inspired her teammates.
“Because their (Syracuse’s) player did get hurt, they were going to come out and play hard for her,” Evans said. “I think that’s what any team would do.”
That increased intensity fell just short, though, as the Orange could not stop Kentucky from making its third Sweet 16 appearance in as many years.
The third-seeded Wildcats will play Saturday, March 29 against the winner between the No. 7-seed Cal and No. 2-seed Baylor.
For complete coverage of the No. 3-seed Kentucky women’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament, including live coverage from South Bend this weekend, follow @WildcatHoops1 on Twitter, or visit wildcathoops.com.
Wildcathoops.com also has final stats and video from tonight’s Kentucky victory.