- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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KINGSTON, R.I. -- Two of the best team defenses in college basketball will try to prove otherwise when No. 1 seed Connecticut faces No. 2 Kentucky on Tuesday night, but Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has been on this stage often enough for his words to carry a certain gravitas.
You earn a chance to play for a spot in the Final Four because of a collective effort. The top eight seeds are still playing because they are too much better, too much deeper than the rest of the field.
But taking that last step to reach the Final Four often comes down to 40 minutes of individual excellence.
"You don't know how kids will react in that situation," Auriemma said of the game to reach the holy grail that is the Final Four. "Some rise to the occasion and own the moment; some are beaten down by the pressure of it. Tuesday night, somebody needs to step up and be big for us. Starting Tuesday and whatever happens beyond that, if we're fortunate enough, this is when somebody or somebodies need to step it up and make it happen."
It's a time for doing rather than talking, which suits Kentucky's A'dia Mathies just fine.
The somebody who rises to the occasion isn't always the obvious candidate. When Texas A&M finally got past Baylor in its fourth try last season, beating the top seed in a regional final en route to an eventual national championship, it wasn't Aggies All-American Danielle Adams or scoring sidekick Tyra White who led the way on offense. It was Sydney Carter, the complementary guard who scored 22 of her team's 58 points in that win, more than doubling her season average at the time.
Kentucky knows the feeling all too well. It got the kind of game it needed out of All-American Victoria Dunlap when it made it to a regional final in 2010. Dunlap scored 31 points and totaled 13 rebounds against Oklahoma, but it wasn't enough, in large part because Sooners guard Nyeshia Stevenson picked that day to have the performance of a lifetime, matching Dunlap's 31 points.
But more often than not, as Connecticut's Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi proved time and again in the past decade, this is the time for stars to shine. As much as Kentucky's success is built on a solar system of movable parts capable of suffocating opponents on defense, the offense orbits around the potential of one particularly luminous object.
Kentucky's leading scorer this season is not the same kind of presence as Moore or Taurasi, or even contemporaries such as Nneka Ogwumike. Mathies led or shared the lead in scoring in just 16 of Kentucky's 34 games leading up to Tuesday. But she was responsible for 10 of the 15 instances in which a Kentucky player scored at least 20 points, including 34 points in a season-defining win against Tennessee. If one player is going to live up to the Auriemma doctrine and lift Kentucky to an upset, the betting starts with the player labeled the "silent assassin" by her current coaches during the recruiting process.
Mathies is no stranger to the big stage. In at least one respect, the junior guard might be more familiar with it than just about anyone else in the tournament. Although this is just her second appearance in a regional final, with a program seeking its first trip to the Final Four, it's also the 10th consecutive season in which she has played at either the college or high school varsity level, a run that began when she made the varsity team at Louisville's Iroquois High School in sixth grade.
By the time she was fully immersed in the college recruiting scene, she was a known commodity, a top-100 recruit who went on to win Kentucky's Miss Basketball. She was also inscrutable, earning a reputation for shyness and reticence around those outside her inner circle. It's a label she thinks is inaccurate, even if she doesn't waste a lot of words explaining why.
"Around people I don't know, I don't really think there's much to say," Mathies explained. "If I get to know you and have something to talk about, I can talk. I don't think I'm really shy; I'm just more observant and really don't think there is much to say."
Coordinating Kentucky's recruiting in pursuit of an in-state talent, associate head coach Kyra Elzy thought her efforts with Mathies were going nowhere when phone conversations kept producing sequences of one-word answers from the player. It reached a point at which she finally asked Mathies whether she didn't like talking on the phone. For the next few months, they communicated largely by email. Elzy would send a few questions, and Mathies would respond with multiple pages' worth of response, letting loose the full weight of an inquisitive, insightful mind. It's just a mind that processes the world in its own way.
Gradually, her teammates unlocked the same door to that mind. If you believe them -- because you aren't likely to see it for yourself -- Mathies supplies as many laughs as points.
"It just took her time to get comfortable, so probably the first season, not right off the bat," fifth-year guard Amber Smith said of the time it took the team to fully understand Mathies. "She's very quiet, but, as time went on, we got to see the real A'dia. She's very funny. She actually talks a lot -- not a lot, but a lot more than people think."
As a complementary scorer alongside Dunlap on the Elite Eight team her freshman season, Mathies excelled, opening her NCAA tournament career with 32 points in a too-close-for-comfort win against Liberty. But her sophomore season was a struggle from start to finish, her scoring average dropped even as people looked to her to inherit a larger role. When the Wildcats exited the postseason in a second-round loss against North Carolina, Mathies hit just 3 of 13 shots from the floor.
That Kentucky is now playing for a spot in Denver on the heels of an SEC regular-season championship is at least partly a reflection of Mathies' putting that sophomore season behind her. But after she took just seven shots in 31 minutes in a second-round escape against Green Bay, the coaches reminded her that whether or not she speaks softly, this team is at its best when she carries a big stick.
"When she comes out early making shots and playing aggressive, for whatever reason, the team just flows," Elzy said. "They follow her lead. And when she plays less aggressive, they become a little more passive. So we talk to her, along with Bria Goss, about having that killer instinct."
As Elzy put it, it was never about the physical game with Mathies. It was just about finding the right mental framework to thrive. Along those lines, the challenge Tuesday for every player is not entirely about the physical side of things. Mathies likely will have to deal with the very tangible challenge of being guarded by Kelly Faris, one of basketball's best on-ball defenders. But as Auriemma suggested, the most daunting opponent any player faces when she's close enough to the Final Four to taste it is the moment itself.
It's either the perfect setting for Mathies, the psychology major more interested in what makes others tick than in sharing what makes her tick, or a recipe for getting lost in her own head.
"Once I took my Psychology 100 course, I just thought it was more so me than anything else I could pick," Mathies said of her major. "Just the fact that I observe stuff and how people act and their reactions to different situations and things like that, that's what attracted me to that. I always want to find out what makes people do that."
When Mathies finally committed to Kentucky, the coaches let loose with all the whooping and hollering commensurate with landing a recruit they felt could be a cornerstone of the program, someone who could help them build on the initial success achieved with Dunlap and maintain the Wildcats as a program on the rise. To them, she was the kind of player Final Four teams signed.
For Kentucky to take that final step, Mathies will need to play like it.
"I have a lot of faith in A'dia, a lot of confidence she'll make the big plays," Smith said. "I want the ball in her hands [for a] last-second shot. I have confidence in her."
Someone will rise to the occasion. Just don't expect Mathies to say a lot about it if she does.