- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
For the first time since 2007, top-seeded Connecticut will play a team from the SEC in a regional final when it meets No. 2 seed Kentucky (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Tuesday) in Kingston, R.I. Why does that season stand out? It's the last time Connecticut didn't go to the Final Four, losing 73-50 to LSU one game shy of that trip, and it's the last time the Huskies played in the Elite Eight without Maya Moore.
Aside from another chance for these Huskies to further separate themselves from the superstar who used to lead them, the game shapes up as another track meet between the Big East tournament champion and a regular-season champion in another power conference. Connecticut aced one such test against a Penn State team that is at its best pushing the pace on offense. Now it gets another against a Kentucky team that is at its best pushing the pace on defense.
Three keys to the game
1. Offensive rebounds: Both teams used offensive rebounds and second-chance points to their advantage in the Sweet 16. And yet with the exception of Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson, these aren't teams with a plethora of post players in the regular rotation. What they have are guards who go hard to the glass. Despite finishing sixth among SEC teams in rebound margin, Kentucky paced the league in offensive rebounds at better than 18 a game.
Connecticut came from the opposite direction, leading Big East teams in defensive rebounds and rebound margin while ranking in the middle of the pack on offensive rebounds (admittedly, harder to come by when a team shoots close to 48 percent to begin with). Especially coming in as the underdog, Kentucky needs those second chances against a defense likely to force it to miss quite a few first chances.
2. Bria Goss and A'dia Mathies: Goss hit the skids in a big way down the stretch, scoring in single digits in five consecutive games before Sunday and shooting just 9-of-38 from the floor in the process. She wasn't perfect against Gonzaga, hitting 3 of 9 shots, but she was aggressive and commanded attention. I'll let Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell explain the rest when it comes to his team's two best bets and creating their own offense.
"When A'dia and Bria play [well] at the same time, we are a very good team; we're tough," Mitchell said. "When one of them plays great and the other one's so-so, then we're a good team. And then when neither one of them plays, we're a terrible team. So if you can get both of those kids going at a high level, you're really tough."
3. Old school versus new school: Literally, as opposed to a clash of generations. While the focus in recent weeks was on another player who left Connecticut, Elena Delle Donne, Tuesday's game is a reunion of sorts for Kentucky forward Samarie Walker. Part of the freshman class at Connecticut that included Bria Hartley and Dolson, Walker transferred after one semester and now represents the best thing the guard-heavy Wildcats have going in the post. She put up 16 points and 12 rebounds against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, her second double-double in a row and her third double-digit rebound performance in her first three NCAA tournament games.
Will seeing so many familiar faces provide motivation, an unwanted distraction or none of the above? The undersized Wildcats need her contributions.
Defense, offensive rebounds and pace will determine whether Connecticut or Kentucky advances to the Final Four.