- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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KINGSTON, R.I. -- The team that forces more turnovers than any in the nation this season had to settle for forcing fewer than any team that took the court Sunday in four regional semifinals.
Kentucky didn't seem particularly perturbed by the development. Going to bed one win away from the Final Four will do that.
Second-seeded Kentucky's 79-62 win against 11-seeded Gonzaga was the final piece of a puzzle that places all four No. 1 seeds and all four No. 2 seeds in regional finals for just the fourth time in NCAA tournament history. It was also a reminder that at least a few of those teams so often stumble in March because little goes according to script this time of year.
What got you here is only as good as what will will get you there. If Kentucky couldn't deviate from the script that got it to Rhode Island, its season might have ended.
"We have a good team; I don't think we're one-dimensional," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Going into the game, I didn't think we were going to be able to force Gonzaga into a lot of turnovers. I was fully prepared of just playing real tough defense and trying to get as many contested jumpers, more than turning them over."
Working with fewer possessions than they are accustomed to in forcing nearly 30 turnovers per game this season, the Wildcats simply made those possessions they had count for more -- literally. A team that entered Sunday's game shooting just 28 percent from the 3-point line over the past month hit 12-of-21 attempts on shots worth an extra point.
Gonzaga didn't abandon the 3-point line, but Bulldogs senior Kayla Standish acknowledged the plan called for the defense to focus more inside, taking away penetration, than on the long-range shot.
It wasn't just a lone player getting a hot hand, either, although Kentucky fifth-year guard Keyla Snowden certainly had one of those working for her. Snowden hit five 3-pointers against Gonzaga after connecting just twice in wins against McNeese State and Green Bay in the first two rounds. But five players hit 3-pointers for the Wildcats, including three from A'dia Mathies -- all seemingly timed to answer potential momentum-swinging baskets from the Bulldogs -- and two from freshman Bria Goss, who hadn't hit a shot from behind the arc in the past seven games.
Asked if the team-wide shooting slump ever reached such depths that he started to worry about it ever ending, Mitchell chuckled.
"I worry about it all the time," the coach said. "You never know; you just have to keep believing. When we got done with the SEC tournament [losing to LSU in its second game], we had really no contact that next week. We just worked on shooting. We started very close to the goal, just started putting in layups. Then we started trying to back out, and just trying to let them know. We've had some terrific shooting nights this year. Just there at the end of the season, they weren't falling.
"There were some things that we could do to change that. Physically, fundamentally there were some things, but then mentally and emotionally, you just have to believe."
To some degree, citing Kentucky's 3-point shooting as a sign of proactive strength is mixing up cause and effect. The Wildcats never really stopped shooting those shots during the slump, and sheer statistical probability suggested there was going to come a night when a disproportionate number of the attempts went in. In that respect, good shooting nights can be good timing and good fortune as much as indications of good coaching or good character.
And yet anyone who has touched a basketball knows a shooting slump goes beyond statistical probability. For Kentucky to get hot on this night might have been partly good fortune. But for the shooters involved to still have the confidence to put up the attempts in the first place, for the offense to remain patient enough to find open looks, does speak to a certain level of resiliency and mental toughness.
"I'm always in Bria's ear and Keyla's ear," fifth-year guard Amber Smith said of keeping confidence up. "I tell them I'm the point guard, so I'm going to pass it to them no matter what because I want them to shoot because I have faith in them because they knocked it down in the past. Just because if they're going through a slump doesn't mean they can't hit now."
In hitting shots, Kentucky did well what it hadn't in recent weeks. The issue of turnovers is a little more complicated.
For just the second time this season, an opponent finished a game against Kentucky with more assists (12) than turnovers (10). The last time it happened, Tennessee walked away with a 37-point win, the middle game of a three-game losing skid for Kentucky that raised at least as many questions about it as an SEC regular-season title answered. It wasn't a sign of weakness this time around.
Trapping less out of its full-court pressure than normal, Kentucky conceded that Gonzaga had too much composure and too many ball handlers to wilt. Instead, the Wildcats just made life unbearable for the Bulldogs once they tried to actually do anything with the ball in the offensive end. It was still pressure, just not the kind with which we've grown familiar.
"It's the same as full-court," Smith said of the half-court defense. "We try to deny, we try to make people uncomfortable and pressure them and not let them get into their offense."
The speed at which Kentucky plays is impressive in its own right, but like the Connecticut team it will face Tuesday night (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 ET), it isn't just the north-south speed of getting up and down the court as quickly as possible. When it's on its game, Kentucky does everything at full speed, right down to Smith plowing into a row of photographers in the first half and then sailing over press row in the second.
The first words out of the mouths of her teammates when they reached the table to pull Smith back after that last one? They weren't about her health. They let her know it was Kentucky's ball, her extra effort rewarded (a result which presumably made the close encounter with the arena floor feel a little less unpleasant).
"Our main thing is defense," Mathies said. "So to see her hustling like that gives us all extra energy to play ever harder all together. She did a great job today."
Kentucky got a tough break having to play a Green Bay team that was woefully underseeded in the second round, but as much as that merits consideration and as much as Mitchell and his players want to talk about how well they played in the first half against the Phoenix, the truth is they simply didn't look very good in the first two rounds.
They looked very good Sunday, and they did it without sticking completely to the script ascribed to them.
"It says a lot about out team and that you have to respect us in all areas of the game," Smith said.
It wasn't exactly a triumph of substance over style for Kentucky on Sunday night. But it was a win that proved there is a lot more substance to these Wildcats than a mere system.
Against Gonzaga's good ball handlers, Kentucky's typical turnover-forcing defense wasn't going to be enough. So the Wildcats picked a perfect time to break out of their shooting slump.