SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Another season for Kentucky ended in disappointment.
Coach Matthew Mitchell took most of the blame for the Wildcats failure to compete with Baylor in a 90-72 loss on Saturday in the Sweet 16.
“We had a really tough time, and it looked like we were ill prepared and that’s squarely on my shoulders,” he said.
The loss ended a difficult year for Kentucky, which had really high expectations for the season.
The Wildcats made the regional finals in three of the past four seasons, including losing to UConn in the last two. They just haven’t been able to break through to reach the Final Four.
“We played really good teams and we have dared to develop the program to a point to get them in games like this,” Mitchell said. “It is disappointing to perform like this in this type of atmosphere.”
Kentucky had no real chance, shooting just 35 percent from the field, including going 3 for 12 from behind the 3-point line. The Wildcats also didn’t force double digit turnovers for the first time in 187 games.
It also didn’t help that leading scorer Jennifer O’Neill was 0 for 12 from the field, finishing with eight points - all on free throws.
“Leading scorer goes 0 for 12, not a real good recipe for moving forward in this kind of environment in the tournament,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to fathom how that kid can go 0 for 12. She didn’t try to do that. I thought she took some bad shots at times, but some were really good they just didn’t go.”
Kentucky weathered an early run by Baylor to close within 28-24 after Makayla Epps’ layup with 6:26 left in the half. That would be the last basket for the Wildcats until DeNesha Stallworth hit a layup with 9 seconds left. In between Baylor’s Odyssey Sims took over. She scored eight points during a 17-2 run that blew the game open. Baylor led 49-32 at the half.
Kentucky (26-9) had its chances but missed nine layups in the first half. The Wildcats could only get within 12 in the second half.
“I thought we were doing a good job at some things, wish we could have made some of those layups and the complexion of game would have been different,” Mitchell said.
This game was far different than the first meeting between the two teams. These two teams played one of the most exciting games in women’s basketball history when Kentucky came away with a 133-130 four-overtime victory in early December.
The Wildcats couldn’t stop Sims or her Baylor teammates on Saturday.
“Defensively we didn’t do a great job,” said Kentucky senior DeNesha Stallworth, who led the Wildcats with 18 points.” We weren’t together as a team. We dug ourselves a big hole and we fought in the second half that’s what matters.”
The victory came a year after the Lady Bears were eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Louisville in one of the biggest upsets in women’s basketball. Baylor’s now back in the regional final for the fourth time in five years.
This might be the most unexpected of the trips as the Lady Bears (32-4) lost two-time AP Player of the Year Brittney Griner and four other seniors. They still had Sims and coach Kim Mulkey has really developed a talented group of freshmen.
“With what we lost people didn’t know what to expect,” Baylor senior Makenzie Robertson said. “That game was motivation to prove people wrong. It means the world to get this far.”
Coach Kim Mulkey didn’t put any pressure on this young team during the season.
“We didn’t talk about it being an Elite Eight team,” she said. “We definitely wanted be in the NCAA tournament and let’s see how good we are in the course of the year. I watched us get better and better. I knew we’d go pretty deep in this tournament.”
Sims got off to a slow start missing her first six shots before heating up by making 8 of her final 10 to finish the half. A steal and layup, a sequence she’s done many times in her stellar career, with 12:40 left in the first half got her to 1,000 points.
She finished the game with 25 points and is 41 short of the single-season record set by Jackie Stiles in 2001.
Nina Davis finished with 20 points and eight rebounds while classmate Khadijiah Cave added a career-high 18 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore Niya Johnson had 11 points and 11 assists.
“You see how much we improved since the last time we played Kentucky,” Mulkey said. “We have two freshmen posts who almost finished with a double-double.”
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