Bloomington to Bridgeport: Kentucky’s road to its first national championship


Kentucky guards Emma King (34) and Robyn Benton (1) cheer on their teammates during the UK vs. Vanderbilt womens basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 69-65. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Cole Parke

One week removed from its thrilling SEC Tournament win over No. 1 South Carolina to claim its first SEC Championship in 40 years, Kentucky’s spot in the womens NCAA Tournament has been set in stone.

Despite claiming the auto-bid out of the SEC, UK’s 1-8 skid to start the new year held it back, relegating the Wildcats to a No. 6 seed.

Despite the No. 6 seed being lower than expected entering the season, the seed was well received by fans, with projections prior to the SEC Tournament win putting UK on the bubble, at risk of missing the big dance entirely.

The Wildcats heard their name called in the Bridgeport region, first traveling to Bloomington, Indiana.

Being a No. 6 seed, Kentucky squares off with the No. 11 seeded Princeton Tigers, who claimed the auto-bid out of the Ivy League, defeating Columbia 77-59.

Princeton is no normal one-bid league winner despite the initial appearance, with the Tigers finishing the season ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 poll with a 24-4 record.

Despite the less than free Round of 64 draw, a team capable of beating the overall No. 1 seed in South Carolina should be capable of knocking off Princeton in Bloomington.

Things get less simple entering the second round, as the Wildcats will all but certainly be paired against the No. 3 seeded Indiana Hoosiers, which will be playing in its home gym.

It would not be the first meeting between the two teams this season, with the Hoosiers crushing the Wildcats 88-67 on Nov. 14 in Bloomington.

Assuming Kentucky is able to get over the hump and flip the script on Indiana, the bracket continues to look unfavorable for Kyra Elzy’s Wildcats.

In the Sweet 16, the Cats are likely destined to square off with No. 2 seeded UConn, who is still coached by the legendary Geno Auriemma and has claimed 10 national championships since 2000, including four straight from 2013-2017.

On the off chance that the Huskies are upset prior to the Sweet 16, Kentucky would likely be paired against one of UCF or Florida, with the latter having a game against the Wildcats to look back upon.

Kentucky faced off against the Gators inside Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 20, fresh off of two back-to-back blowout losses on the road, and the matchup did not favor the Wildcats.

Florida decimated Kentucky, who was without junior forward Dre’una Edwards due to a suspension, by 25 points, winning 77-52 over the then No. 23 Wildcats.

Though that paints a bleak picture for Kentucky entering a potential matchup, UK has already redeemed its 20-point losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, even beating the latter by nine points in the SEC Tournament on March 5.

UCF earned the auto-bid for the American Athletic Conference finishing the season ranked No. 25 with an overall record of 25-3.

While the Knights haven’t directly battled UK, they did battle two other SEC teams, with those games being potentially useful in gauging Kentucky’s chances.

The Knights dropped their second game of the season to then No. 15 Tennessee on Nov. 12, falling short by eight points at home, though the Vols would go on to remain undefeated until Dec. 18, losing to then No. 3 Stanford by 11.

UCF also battled Arkansas on Dec. 2, defeating the eventual No. 10 seed by a single point at home, with Kentucky eventually also defeating the Razorbacks by 23 points as part of its 10-game win streak to end the season.

If Kentucky were able to make it to the Elite Eight of its bracket, it would most likely find itself against the No. 1 seeded NC State.

The Wolf Pack earned its second ever one seed in the bracket, finishing the season ranked No. 2 in the NET rankings, second to only South Carolina.

NC State is undefeated in neutral site games, winning the ACC Tournament over Miami on March 6 by 13 points after blowing out No. 21 Virginia Tech by 15 the game prior.

On the positive side for Kentucky, the Wildcats have something no other team in the dance does: a win over the No. 1 overall seed and obvious favorite to go all the way.

Before all of that can come to be, Kentucky first has to face off with Princeton. Afterwards, the Cats look to have nothing but AP Top 25 teams on the schedule between Selection Sunday and a national championship.

The odds are stacked against Kyra Elzy’s Wildcats, but the same could have been said for the SEC Tournament before the Cats made their coach the second ever to win the award in Lexington.

Kentucky’s first round matchup against Princeton is currently scheduled to take place Saturday, March 19, inside Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, kicking off Kentucky’s hunt for its first ever national championship in program history. Airing location and tip-off time is TBD.