When you’re a 4 seed and open the NCAA Tournament against a 13 seed, it’s easy to assume the game will be little more than a warm-up for the tougher competition down the road. But if your opponent happens to be Belmont, the OVC champion riding a 16-game winning streak, you just might find yourself fighting for your tournament life. Such was the case Thursday as Matthew Mitchell’s Cats had to claw and scratch their way into round 2.
The first quarter went about as perfectly as any Cat fan would like. Mitchell’s team shot 69.2% from the field, 75% from 3-point range and was perfect from the free throw line, giving the Cats a 10 point lead. Defensively, Kentucky was solid as well allowing a single 3-point basket and forcing 4 turnovers while only committing one. It looked like the Cats were ready to steamroll Belmont.
Then the 2nd quarter happened. As good as the opening period was, the 2nd was equally bad for the girls in blue. Belmont’s Kylee Smith exploded for 16 points and added 5 rebounds to bring the Bruins back from the 10-point deficit and headed to the locker room with a 1 point lead over the Wildcats. As Coach Mitchell said after the game, the Wildcats needed a “gut check” at the half. “Our players got dejected and stopped hustling, and until get the hustle turned around, there’s nothing we can do to help (the players).”
His message was received and the Cats came out with guns blazing to start the 2nd half hitting every shot and playing smothering defense that kept Belmont scoreless for several minutes. With Epps pouring in 12 points and Akhator adding 6 more, Kentucky stretched their lead to 12 and seemed ready to put the game away. But the Bruins stormed back again, closing the gap to 6 points when the 3rd quarter came to an end.
The Cats continued their steady play and eventually opened their lead to 9 points, but Belmont never stopped fighting and kept the outcome of the game in doubt until the final seconds. Mitchell noted, “Belmont never stopped hustling, and we kind of watched the scoreboard, (feeling) the pressure of a 4 seed fighting 13.”
In the end, it came down to the Cats doing what they needed to and Maci Morris nailing 7 of 8 free throws in the final minutes. Coach Mitchell said, “We executed well down the stretch; made them take a 2 when they needed a 3.” For Belmont, it was a crushing loss. As Coach Cameron Newbauer said, “This burns. It really burns if you’re any kind of competitor.”
During the post-game press conference, Newbauer was very emotional and appeared to be fighting back tears. He had high praise for Epps (“is crafty…she can do it all”) and Akhator (“2nd team SEC?” he asked incredulously). Most of all, he talked about how proud he was of his team. And he absolutely should be proud of his Bruins who never gave up, never panicked, and never stopped believing they could win the game.
Next up for the Cats is the 5-seed Ohio State who defeated Western Kentucky 70-63 in the second game at Memorial. Mitchell hopes the Cats have shaken off the rust of not having played for nearly 2 weeks which led to his team being out of sync today. As for Belmont, their season may be over, but I guarantee they will be on everyone’s radar next season.
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