Backcourt leads Wildcats in opener
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Even a certain fruit-branded technology company's map app wouldn't send you through the Hudson Valley on a trip from Lexington, Ky., to Nashville, Tenn., but that's where Kentucky found itself for the first stop of a journey it hopes concludes at the Final Four in the Music City.
And make no mistake, this would have been an easy place for the Wildcats to at least momentarily lose their way.
It took all of 20 seconds for Friday's season opener in front of a capacity crowd at the McCann Center to feel like a game played as winter recedes rather than approaches. All it took was a quick lead for the home team for the wall of students that packed the bleachers at one end of the court to erupt and make a very small gym feel very loud.
Game on. No free bacon required.
"You start to get chills," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "It's a big-time atmosphere at a mid-major school."
And that was from the guy on the wrong end of No. 7 Kentucky's 75-61 win.
This was not the kind of game Kentucky will have to win to reach a Final Four after regional final losses in each of the past two seasons. As good as Marist is and has been in more than a decade under Giorgis, the program is not a national championship contender in the best of times. And with Casey Dulin and Tori Jarosz, two of arguably its three best players, among a longer list sidelined by injuries, these are very much not the best of times.
Beating Connecticut, Duke or Stanford is for another day.
But this game was a challenge for the visiting team, certainly a stiffer one than opening at home against Delaware State, as Kentucky did a season ago, or even the home-and-home series against Morehead State the two seasons before that. This was a game Kentucky was supposed to win, but it was a game it could have lost.
That was all the more true considering that it needed poise and plays from a backcourt that didn't include A'dia Mathies for the first time since the 2009-10 season (almost literally for the first time, as the former All-American missed one game during her career). The center of gravity for these WIldcats now rests in the post with DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker. For the first time in a long time, certainly since Victoria Dunlap was around and Mathies was still in high school, there is no corresponding individual presence on the perimeter.
What showed up instead Friday night was a collective presence on the perimeter, starters Kastine Evans, Bria Goss, Janee Thompson and sixth woman Jennifer O'Neill interchanging with relief stints from Bernisha Pickett and Linnae Harper.
"A'dia was a great player for us, but now we have so many scoring opportunities, so many scoring threats from the outside and inside," Goss said. "It leaves open doors for everyone, especially the perimeter. Even if we're not hitting shots, we still got big rebounders on the boards."
Marist understandably turned its focus to taking away Stallworth and Walker. On some nights, against some guards, the crowd that showed up might have taken away the rest. Instead, Evans, Goss, O'Neill and Thompson combined for 49 points and 17 rebounds. And just six turnovers in 111 combined minutes.
"It was so difficult, from the jump, to get the ball inside," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It was obvious that they had a lot of respect for DeNesha and Samarie, and the backcourt had to perform. I thought they were dynamite. Kastine had a big, big night, played really smart. Jen and Jenee had big nights from the point guard position. Bria was really, really active. I just thought our backcourt -- you see a lot of depth there, a lot of ability, a lot of prospects for us this season to be a very good team."
Dynamite or not, it wasn't even that Kentucky's guards were sensational. They were steady on a night when that was itself an accomplishment. As Giorgis said, they just kept coming and coming.
The Wildcats were whistled for 25 fouls as they adjusted to the new officiating emphasis on contact. They forced 19 turnovers, modest by their standards, and never really threatened to turn the new 10-second backcourt rule into a sixth defender. They instead wore down the Red Foxes, making each of their offensive possessions a chore and then pushing the ball relentlessly back the other way -- sometimes to good effect, sometimes less so, but always relentlessly.
With a little more than eight minutes gone by in the first half, Marist had an 18-12 lead, the crowd dreaming of the kind of upset the Red Foxes are more famous for in March.
Barely three minutes later, Kentucky had its first lead.
A few minutes after that, it had its first double-digit lead.
In the blink of an eye, a 17-1 run fueled by the backcourt changed the narrative.
"I think we have a lot of people on our team that have potential to blossom into something special," O'Neill said.
Nights like this will help. And if you doubt that, you haven't watched Marist pick apart supposedly superior teams in the NCAA tournament. Nor did you feel the energy in the building Friday night.
Marist made one final surge midway through the second half and cut the deficit to 50-44 with a little more than 10 minutes to play. As his players made their way to the bench for a timeout, Giorgis, who is more familiar during games with his arms crossed in staid reflection or his face red with consternation, didn't attempt to contain a grin. It was a game to enjoy.
It didn't last, just as the run fell short when Goss, Thompson, Evans and O'Neill combined to score the next eight points and push the lead into double digits for good at 58-46.
"It doesn't get much better than this for atmosphere and competition and intensity," Giorgis said. "It was just a wonderful night for women's basketball."
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