LEXINGTON, Ky. – After one of the best defensive performances in a NCAA Tournament game in program history, the No. 12 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team looks for more of the same when it faces sixth-seeded and No. 24 Oklahoma in a second-round matchup on Monday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. ET inside Memorial Coliseum.
The game will be televised regionally on ESPN2 with Cara Capuano and Carol Ross on the call. With several other NCAA Tournament second round games on at the same time, Kentucky will be a regional telecast available inside the states of Kentucky and Oklahoma and available on a whip-around basis nationally.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell (pictured) knows his team will have to be ready if the Wildcats are going to advance to Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena during the Easter Weekend. He said his team will need to play outstanding defense to survive.
“I think for us it’s all about our defense," said Mitchell in Sunday's press conference. "I think when we went back and looked at the game yesterday, we had so many physical advantages over Asheville where we did not pay for some of our mistakes that we will pay for tomorrow if we make the same mistakes.
"So it’s all about trying to sharpen our defense. I’m sure the Oklahoma coach has watched the game and I’m sure they’re thinking the same thing, is where they can attack us.
"And it’s really about our positioning. We still, as an inexperienced team, don’t always understand what position we should be in and we have to play defense as a team. So today’s practice will be what every practice has been about, is trying to find some improvement and that’ll be sharpening our defensive positioning the best that we can because Oklahoma does an outstanding job of spacing the floor to create matchup problems and to really allow their two outstanding post players to make plays in the lane. They do a great job of spacing, cutting, moving and so it will be a tall task for us and so our job today is just exactly what the players just told you: We have to do what Kentucky does well and we have to focus on our strengths and then we have to try to sharpen our defensive positioning so we can play as tough of team defense as we can play tomorrow."
In 2015 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was eliminated by Dayton in the second round at Memorial Coliseum. Mitchell was asked if the Wildcats can grow from last year’s early tournament loss.
“We have had really difficult second round games over the last six tournaments," Mitchell said. "Really, the only one that hasn’t been was our very first one that went to in 2010. We had a really close 4-13 matchup with Liberty that we almost lost and then we really had a big margin of victory over Michigan State two days later. But then since then second round has been really difficult games. So we’ve never breezed through to the Sweet 16. It’s always been a battle and so in mind I’ve been a part of all those so I understand how good Oklahoma is and so this is not going to be some shock if Oklahoma wins the game.
"It’s not going to be some huge upset. It’s going to be a really, really tough game and difficult game so I’m not preparing them for a letdown. We’re preparing for an absolute battle and fight to the finish in order to earn your way into the Sweet 16. So it’s not trouble here trying to guard against a letdown because Oklahoma is a top-level, Top 25 perennial tournament team that has great history and their coach (Sherri Coale) is absolutely one of the best in the country. So I’m not really worried about guarding against a letdown right now. I’m trying to get them ready to beat a very good team.”
The Wildcats are coming off an impressive performance against UNC Asheville on Saturday in the first round, taking down the Bulldogs 85-31. The performance was one of the best defensive performances for Kentucky in an NCAA Tournament game in program history, limiting UNCA to just 20.6% from the field and 12.0% from 3.
Offensively, Kentucky shot 50% from the field and 50% from 3, marking the seventh time this season UK has hit 50% or more from the field. It is the first time in the Matthew Mitchell era that the Cats have hit 50% or more from the field seven times in the same season.
Junior guard Makayla Epps paced UK in the game with a game-high 24 points, adding five assists, three rebounds and two steals. In four postseason games this season, Epps is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals. On the season, Epps is leading Kentucky with 16.8 points per game, adding 4.7 rebounds and sitting second on the team with 135 assists.
Senior guard Janee Thompson had 13 points against UNCA and is averaging 12.6 points and had a team-best 148 assists this season. Junior forward Evelyn Akhator is averaging 11.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, while sophomore post Alexis Jennings is averaging 9.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
This is Kentucky’s seventh straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament with the Wildcats holding a 18-12 overall record in the event, including a 14-6 mark under Mitchell. Kentucky has hosted the first and second rounds of the event each of the last three seasons, holding a 5-2 record overall in NCAA Tournament games played in Lexington.
Oklahoma enters Monday’s game with a 22-10 record, including an 11-3 mark at home, 7-5 mark in true road games and 4-2 record in neutral-site games. The Sooners are currently ranked in the top 25 of both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches Top 25. OU went 11-7 in Big 12 action this season.
Oklahoma is led by senior forward Kaylon Williams, who is averaging 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, hitting 53.9% from the field. Junior guard Peyton Little is averaging 10.9 points with 2.9 rebounds per game, while sophomore center Vionise Pierre-Louis has played in 32 games with zero starts but is averaging 9.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
As a team, the Sooners are scoring 70 points per game, allowing opponents to score 61.4 points per game. OU is hitting 41.8% from the field this season, including 31.6% from 3, while outrebounding opponents by 3.1 rebounds per game. OU put together an impressive performance against Purdue in the first round on Saturday, taking down the Boilermakers, 61-45.
Monday’s game marks the third all-time meeting between Kentucky and Oklahoma with the series tied 1-1. The Wildcats last faced the Sooners on Nov. 28, 2014 when they claimed a 92-88 overtime win over OU in the Virgin Islands. The first-ever meeting was on March 30, 2010 when the Sooners earned an 88-68 win over Kentucky to advance to the 2010 Final Four.
Tickets are available online at ukhoopstix.com or by calling the UK Ticket Office (open Monday at 9 a.m. ET) at 800-928-2287. Tickets are $22 for adults, $15 for youths (ages 0-18) and seniors (65+). Every person, regardless of age, must have a ticket to enter the facility.
All seating at Memorial Coliseum is reserved. Chairback seats are located on the west side (Sections A-J and AA-JJ). Bleacher seats are located on the east side (Sections R-Z and RR-ZZ). All seats in sections C-G rows 3-6 are chairbacks.
Individuals requiring special access (e.g., individuals who are disabled and/or need special seating) should contact the UK Ticket Office during regular business hours, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. ET on Monday. Tickets will be administered in accordance with ADA guidelines, based on availability. Tickets will not be refunded, exchanged or returned.
The UK Ticket Office and general public will call will open at 4:30 p.m. ET on Monday and is located at the Euclid Avenue entrance of Memorial Coliseum. Player guest entrance will open at 5:30 p.m. ET on Monday and is located at the Rose Street entrance of Memorial Coliseum.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught