- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Kentucky says it isn't scared of Connecticut -- not at all.
On Monday night, we'll discover whether that's empty rhetoric or reality, but the Wildcats were emphatic Sunday afternoon about how unafraid they are to face top-seeded UConn, arguably the greatest program in women's college basketball history. In this way, Kentucky is borrowing a page from Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins, who told reporters earlier this year, "I think a lot of people are afraid of the name on the front of the jersey, and I don't think we are anymore."
Of course, the Irish have defeated the Huskies in seven of their past eight meetings, including twice in the Final Four, so that is earned confidence. Meanwhile, Kentucky is looking for its first postseason win against the Huskies, and only its second overall. The Wildcats are 1-3 all-time against Connecticut, which includes an 80-65 loss in the regional final of last season's NCAA tournament, a game played almost exactly one year ago.
The two programs, seeded 1-2 in the Bridgeport Regional, will play for a Final Four berth on Monday night (ESPN, 7:30 ET) in front of a sold-out, pro-UConn crowd at Webster Bank Arena.
None of that fazes the Wildcats -- they say. Standing in the team's small, white-walled locker room before Sunday's practice, Kentucky junior forward Samarie Walker, who transferred from UConn as a freshman, shook her head when asked if playing Connecticut scared her or her teammates. "None of us are fearing UConn," she told espnW. "We can go player for player with them."
UConn senior guard Caroline Doty called Walker's words "bulletin-board material," and said stuff like that just adds fuel to Connecticut's fire. "We'll just prepare as much as we usually do and go out there and try to one-up them," Doty said.
Walker wasn't the only Kentucky player feeling confident. Just a few minutes before the team's off-day practice, seated on the elevated platform in the news conference area, Kentucky sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill addressed a question about Connecticut's ability to pressure opposing guards.
"Because of the way we play, that's something we face every day in practice," said O'Neill, referring to the Wildcats' own propensity for pressing full-court. "I don't really think it's going to be a challenge because that's how we practice every day."
One of the keys to Kentucky's success is O'Neill herself. The redshirt sophomore missed last season with a stress fracture in her left foot and watched from the sidelines as her team fell apart in the second half of the regional final against UConn. In fact, Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell didn't even know what kind of player he would have at the start of this season, as O'Neill had played mostly shooting guard as a freshman.
But O'Neill has been one of the biggest reasons for the Wildcats' continued success in 2012-13. Last summer, she lost 15 pounds by changing her diet -- no more fried foods -- and dedicating herself to running. The result is a much quicker player who can now do more than just shoot from the outside. O'Neill averages 10.8 points per game, but led Kentucky with 19 points in its regional semifinal win against Delaware.
"I didn't feel comfortable in my own body," O'Neill said. "Now I feel like a new player."
O'Neill also seems to be among the Wildcats' most confident players when it comes to discussing their chances Monday night. "I think we're under the radar," she said. "I don't think a lot of people expect us to beat UConn."
Obviously, the skeptics have history on their side. In last season's regional final, Kentucky played a strong first half only to fold after Connecticut made a quick burst in the second. Before this NCAA tournament even started, Mitchell showed his team video of that game, focusing on the segments in which his team failed to bounce back after Connecticut made one of its runs. Kentucky struggled on the boards and seemed to give up too easily when the Huskies turned up their aggressiveness.
"We watched it as a team, and it was a missed opportunity," said Kentucky guard A'dia Mathies, the SEC's co-player of the year. "We believe that if we stay focused, it can happen for us this year."
Walker said she believes Kentucky is a better team this season, that the Wildcats are doing a better job of ignoring mistakes and continuing to play hard -- a trait lacking in last season's regional final. "We're a better team this year, we're closer and we have better chemistry," Walker said.
Sitting next to her was starting center DeNesha Stallworth, who said, "Our team is doing a great job of letting things go and just continuing to play hard."
Mitchell said his reasoning for showing the UConn video was to remove doubt from the minds of his players. The video shows a team capable of playing with Connecticut, but also one that failed to battle through adversity. He told his players that when they returned to this moment, they couldn't let one bad play deflate them.
"If being scared is on our team's mind, it's not happening for us on Monday," Mitchell said. "If our team is lacking confidence, that's a failure on my part."
Mitchell does not seem to have failed, but we won't know for sure until the ball is tossed.
20dBonnie D. Ford