By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3
On the precipice of a Final Four, UK went toe-to-toe with No. 1 seed Connecticut for the first 11 minutes. After an A’dia Mathies free throw put the Cats up, 23-22, the game looked like it was shaping up to be a battle.
Then whatever magic UConn head coach Geno Auriemma employs to dominate women’s basketball kicked in, and the Huskies effectively ended the game with a 26-3 run to end the first half.
The Cats lost, 83-53, falling short of a trip to vie for a national title for the third time in four years.
The game resembled UK’s only other blowout loss of the year, when it lost 85-51 at Baylor in the second game of the season. In that first half, the Bears ended the first half on a 25-4 run.
Also similar to the Baylor game, UK struggled to accomplish anything in the halfcourt, shooting just 30.6 percent from the field and committing 21 turnovers.
Any sort of offensive set was a misadventure for UK. Quality shot attempts were hard to come by, and good looks were often thwarted by UConn’s interior defense. The Huskies tallied 10 blocks on the night.
One the other end of the court, UK’s defense was almost as ineffective as its offense. UConn finished the game shooting 51.8 percent. Back doors were exploited. Players fronting the post were passed over. Layups were open and shots were falling.
The Cats needed a balanced effort, but support was hard to come by.
Mathies, who scored only 12 points in Waco, Texas, struggled to get going against UConn. The senior guard was limited by foul trouble in the first half and managed to score 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting in her last game as a Cat.
Sophomore guard Jennifer O’Neill finished with 13 points and four turnovers. No other Cat hit double figures; junior center DeNesha Stallworth was close with nine points and eight rebounds.
UK likely would have had to play perfect to pull off the upset. The losses by other No. 1 seeds Baylor and Stanford probably didn’t do the Cats any favors, perhaps alerting UConn to the possibility of stumbling on the way to contend for a championship.
UK didn’t put together a Louisville performance, or even a Georgia performance, who upended Baylor and Stanford, respectively. UK has wins over both of those teams this year, but those games mean little now.
The takeaway from Monday’s game is that UK is a very good team — average teams don’t win 30 games and extend their seasons this long — but the Cats aren’t a great team. Yet.
The Cats missed chances to bring home SEC regular-season and tournament titles.
Losing A’dia Mathies, the heart and soul of the program for the past four years, will undoubtedly hurt. But UK will return the rest of its roster, as well as add two McDonald’s All-Americans in Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell has set the foundation for the program to rival some of the top teams in the nation, but glory will have to wait at least one more year, and maybe more.
But the Cats won’t be left out of the Final Four for long. UK has been knocking on that door for years now. It’ll cross the threshold soon enough.