- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- On Monday afternoon, Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell decided to answer a question that wasn't even directed at him.
The query had been for guard A'dia Mathies, wondering if she was at all concerned after failing to score a basket in Kentucky's first-round win against Navy. Mathies responded in her usual quiet manner, saying something about not letting one game define her. Then Mitchell leaned into his microphone and said, "I have no doubt that A'dia Mathies will play an outstanding game on Tuesday."
Mitchell didn't need a crystal ball to predict such an outcome. He needed only to know Mathies, his smooth senior guard who recently was named SEC Co-Player of the Year. And so, not surprisingly, Mitchell didn't look particularly shocked Tuesday when Mathies made her final shot of the night, a step-back 3-pointer from deep in the left corner that boosted her point total to 34, more than twice her season average. Mitchell just clapped softly and urged his team back on defense.
But it was that shot, Mathies' 13th field goal of the night, that finally closed the door on a pesky Dayton team and earned the second-seeded Wildcats a trip to the Sweet 16. Sparked by Mathies' ridiculously efficient performance (13-for-17 from the floor, no turnovers), Kentucky defeated No. 7 seed Dayton 84-70 in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament.
The second-seeded Wildcats advance to the Bridgeport regional, where they will play No. 6 Delaware, which defeated third-seeded North Carolina 78-69.
Making her performance even more impressive is the fact Mathies was battling a stomach bug -- as were some of her teammates. A number of Kentucky players awoke Tuesday morning feeling nauseated and weak. Some didn't even attend the morning shootaround. And at one point during the second half, one of Kentucky's players actually became sick on the bench.
"It was a really long, hard day," Mitchell said. "The timing could not have been worse. I was worried."
Mitchell said he had no idea what to expect from his players. "I believe on the very first possession, I thought, 'I don't know how I'm going to make it through this,'" Mathies said afterward, looking like she needed to curl up for a nap. "Everybody was telling me that I was going to have a big game, though, because of how poorly I had played the game before."
So, yeah, the night didn't seem to have the makings of an all-timer for Mathies. By all accounts she looked wiped in the locker room beforehand, and she made only one shot through the first 11 minutes of the game. Mitchell said that he and his coaching staff even referenced Michael Jordan, but only to say that Mathies seemed to be in no danger of imitating MJ's now-famous performance, when he scored 38 points while battling the flu during the 1997 NBA Finals.
"She's not the most talkative kid in the world in the first place," Mitchell said. "She's usually hard to read, but she clearly looked low energy before the game. She did not look like she was going to have one of her better games."
Instead, Mathies had her best game, tying her career high in points. And even though the final score would indicate otherwise, the Wildcats needed everything Mathies gave them -- all of the pull-up jumpers in the lane, each of the six 3-pointers (she attempted only seven), all three steals. Because Dayton kept coming back.
Down as many as 16 points in the first half, the Flyers cut the lead to one basket with 15:58 remaining. In the end, Kentucky's relentless defensive pressure, even if it was made less potent by sickness, wore down the Flyers. Dayton finished with 23 turnovers and took 21 fewer shots than the Wildcats. "Not one time did we back down," Dayton coach Jim Jabir said. "We took a hit and then came back and made a run and gave them a hit. And that's a hell of a team we played. It was just a little more than we could handle today."
Dayton sophomore guard Andrea Hoover, who was often defending Mathies, seemed impressed by the Kentucky senior. "She had a couple of shots that were amazing, I was just like, 'Wow,'" said Hoover, who led Dayton with 22 points. "I don't think there was anything I could have done." Jabir, sitting next to her after the game, assured Hoover she was correct. "The things A'dia can do with the basketball -- nope, there was nothing more we could have done."
When the game was over, Mathies walked slowly back to Kentucky's locker room. Her head was down. If you didn't know better, you would have thought she had just played poorly in a loss.
Then again, maybe she just wanted to lie down and get some rest.
The 34-point performance by Kentucky senior A'dia Mathies, who had a stomach ailment, was reminiscent of Michael Jordan's famous "flu game" in the 1997 NBA Finals.