AMES, Iowa — The tools needed to complete a job are often at the bottom of the toolbox, or as UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell found out — at the end of the bench.
A seemingly-forgotten trio of post players powered the Cats to a 68-62 win over the McNeese State Cowgirls in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament in Ames, Iowa, Saturday afternoon.
Interior players Samantha Drake, Samarie Walker and Azia Bishop combined for 26 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocked shots. Their play helped the Cats dominate the Cowgirls on the boards, outrebounding them 58-40.
“Our post players really looked like high-level players today. I was really happy to see some kids that haven’t shown much or haven’t had any confidence go to work for a couple weeks in practice and show up and play well today,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They are talented players. “
Sophomore center Samantha Drake earned her first start since Dec. 28, and produced eight points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in her 22 minutes of play. Drake played just once in the SEC Tournament, getting just eight minutes of playing time.
Sophomore forward Samarie Walker played 21 minutes, scoring eight points and grabbing 13 boards. Walker averages 6.5 rebounds per game.
“Coach really pushes us to rebound the ball, and that’s something I focus on more than anything,” Walker said.
Freshman center Azia Bishop came off the bench to score 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the field. She also grabbed three rebounds and blocked three shots.
“Headed into the tournament, I was so disappointed in myself as a coach that those kids weren’t playing better. As a staff we have been trying to search and watch film and work with the kids to find ways to get them going,” Mitchell said. “Today they looked more like what I expect from them. Hopefully our efforts over the last couple of weeks have worked. Hopefully they leave the arena with some more confidence.”
Mitchell went to the lineup featuring two post players after SEC Player of the Year A’dia Mathies was whistled for her second foul early in the game.
“Our hand was sort of forced with A’dia going out, but it was good,” Mitchell said. “It got them going and that could help us as we go along in the tournament if those kids get going “
Mathies played most of the second half, but never found her rhythm, scoring just six points on 2-for-10 shooting from the field.
“It’s very hard and frustrating because I just wanted to be out there, especially when McNeese would go on a run,” Mathies said. “But I cheered from the bench – which is about all I could do.”
Senior guard Amber Smith provided a spark for the Cats, leading them in the first half with eight points and five rebounds.
“She plays with more pop and explosiveness than a couple of weeks ago,” Mitchell said. “She did a good job with that today. I know she is feeling better physically.
Senior guard Keyla Snowden hit some key shots in the second half, scoring 11 points and dishing three assists.
“Fortunately, we were able to settle down and settle into the pressure. Snowden was a big part of that,” Mitchell said. “She stepped up and made some big shots for us – when we needed her most.”
The Cats played twelve players in the game, nine of them for double-digit minutes. Conversely, the Cowgirls went with essentially a six-player rotation.
“I thought our lack of depth hurt us. When they made their runs I felt that we were really fatigued,” McNeese State head coach Brooks Donald Williams said. “That’s the difference between the bigger and smaller schools like us. Our depth is so different, and I felt like it really hurt us tonight.”
The first half saw the teams trade runs. Drake hit a layup with 8:36 left in the first half to cap a 13-2 UK run to give them a 21-12 lead.
McNeese State answered with a 15-2 run of their own to gain a 27-23 advantage.
“We would make a run and they would battle back, every time,” Mitchell said. “I’m just grateful that we came away with the win.”
The Cats ended the half on a 8-1 run, however, to go into the locker room with a 31-28 lead.
That three point lead was with a combined three points from their top three leading scorers (Snowden, Goss and Mathies).
“If our top scorers come out firing on Monday, we’ll be tough to stop,” Mitchell said. “We’ll be clicking on all cylinders.”
The Cats ran out to a 13-5 run over the first eight minutes of the second half to take control with a 44-33 lead.
“Coach told us we basically had to get back on the floor, work hard, and just keep doing what we were doing,” Bishop said. “That’s pretty much what we did and we came out with a win.”
The pesky Cowgirls never folded, however cutting the lead to four at one point and staying within striking distance the rest of the game.
“I think the score was just too close for us to be comfortable,” Smith said. “With four minutes left, coach told us to just really focus on the defense and not to worry about the offense. I think that really helped us settle down.”
The Cats closed out the 68-62 win despite poor shooting and a negative turnover margin.
“Nobody’s going to remember this score at the end of the tournament,” Mitchell said. “I was proud we won.”
Kentucky turned the ball over 20 times, while forcing a season-low 13.
“That was an awfully good team we played today. With the way we guard, and the way they play offense, if you can’t get Caityln Bagget to pick the dribble up, it is a real tough matchup the way we play,” Mitchell said. “We had too many turnovers, and many of those were unforced.”
McNeese State felt that a practice drill in which they played five-against-eight prepared them for the UK pressure defense.
“Practice prepared us. They’re a fast, very physical team,” McNeese State junior guard Ashlyn Baggett said. “You have to give Kentucky credit.”
“We got a taste in practice of what it was like to be chased for 40 minutes, but then it was more like two hours,” McNeese State junior guard Caitlyn Baggett said. “It wasn’t as bad this game, being only 40 minutes.”
The Cats shot 2-for-17 behind the arc, for 11.8 percent and 16-for-28 from the free-throw line for 57.1 percent.
The poor shooting may have contributed to McNeese State forward Kendra Wells feeling the Cats are a bit over-ranked.
“It wasn’t as tough as we thought it would be, being that it was number two Kentucky,” Wells said.
With the win, the Cats (26-6) move on to the NCAA 2nd round to face the Green Bay Phoenix (31-1) Monday at 9:30 p.m. The Phoenix defeated Iowa State Saturday 71-57 to advance to Monday’s match-up.