March 22, 2010
The undersized fourth-seeded Wildcats raced past bigger -- and slightly slower -- fifth-seeded Michigan State 70-52 on Monday in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament.
Victoria Dunlap, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, shook off an upset stomach to lead Kentucky (27-7) with 21 points as the Wildcats moved into the round of 16 for the first time in 28 years.
Dunlap needed to be treated with IV fluids before the game and landed awkwardly on her right ankle late in the first half, not that it stopped her from making 9 of 13 field goals and snagging eight rebounds.
"I just believe that she was attacking," said Michigan State forward Lykendra Johnson. "She just kept attacking our post players and never stopped."
The Spartans were looking for their second straight trip to the regional semifinals and fourth in the last six years. Yet Michigan State had little answer for Kentucky's relentless pressure, which forced the Spartans into 18 turnovers and harassed them into 35 percent shooting.
Kalisha Keane led Michigan State with 10 points. The Spartans' point total was their lowest ever in the NCAA tournament. They scored 57 in a loss to Rutgers in 2007.
"The kids I thought really committed to pressuring the basketball and that's what we had to do," said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. "I thought we could force Michigan State into taking some shots they don't normally take."
The last time the Wildcats made the round of 16 was 1982, when they advanced to the regional finals before falling to Louisiana Tech. Kentucky hadn't made it past the second round since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
In front of a highly partisan crowd at Freedom Hall that included athletic director Mitch Barnhart, university president Lee Todd and football coach Joker Phillips, the Wildcats simply ran away from the Spartans.
Kentucky led just 37-35 early in the second half before turning on the jets.
Keyla Snowden jumpstarted a 24-6 run with a 3-pointer and A'dia Mathies -- the SEC freshman of the year -- followed with consecutive layups while the Spartans went cold.
"They're the fastest team we've played in the three years I've been here, top to bottom," said Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant.
Michigan State's Lauren Aitch provided the only points for the Spartans during Kentucky's surge, as the Spartans struggled to keep pace as the Wildcats played with the uptempo style that's fueled their turnaround season.
By the time Mathies capped the burst on another layup, the Wildcats led 61-41 with 6:41 to play and were well on their way to joining their men's program in the regional semifinals. Kentucky will play either Nebraska or UCLA in the Kansas City regional semifinal on Sunday.
Deep tournament runs are nothing new to Kentucky's men's program, but is new territory for the women's program. Kentucky was making its first NCAA appearance since 2006, and Mitchell admitted he wondered how his team would handle the pressure.
The Wildcats said they battled some nerves early in their first-round win over Liberty, a game in which they trailed at the half before rallying behind the play of Mathies, who scored 32 points.
Mathies came down to earth on Monday, finishing with eight points, six rebounds and five assists. Though she and the rest of her teammates hardly looked rattled playing in just the second NCAA tournament game of their careers.
Pressing whenever possible, Kentucky took an early five-point lead before the NCAA-tested Spartans caught their breath.
Michigan State put together a 10-0 run to move ahead before the Wildcats rallied despite having Mathies on the bench in foul trouble. The pace slowed with Mathies out, but Kentucky hardly looked bothered, holding the Spartans without a field goal over the last 6:36 of the half to take a 35-31 lead at the break.
Dunlap led the way. The 6-foot-1 junior was giving away eight inches to 6-9 Michigan State center Allyssa DeHaan. No biggie. She simply drew DeHaan away from the basket and pump-faked before going in for easy layups.
"She's a legit, big-time athlete," Merchant said. "She just goes and goes."