LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats gave far from their best performance against an inspired Syracuse Orange Monday night in the second round of the women’s NCAA Tournament, but coach Matthew Mitchell’s team managed to escape with a 64-59 win at Memorial Coliseum.
The win puts Kentucky into the round of 16 for the fourth consecutive year — the first time in program history for that honor. The Wildcats take a No. 3 seed and 26-8 record into a clash with No. 2 seed Baylor Saturday at Notre Dame.
The regional final will be Monday night in South Bend, Ind.
Kentucky beat Baylor, 133-130, in four overtimes Dec. 6 in Dallas. But to win the rematch, the Wildcats will have to play considerably better than they did vs. No. 6 seed Syracuse (23-10).
The Orange were playing without sophomore guard Brittney Sykes, the team’s leading scorer, after she injured a knee in a 59-53 win over 11 seed Chattanooga Saturday.
But Sykes’ absence only seemed to make Syracuse play harder.
“Clearly it was a very difficult situation for them losing Brittany Sykes, and I thought their kids were unbelievable,” Mitchell said. “They competed just like you want a team to compete.”
“Their teammate (Sykes) did get hurt, and they were going to come out and play hard for her,” said UK senior guard Kastine Evans. “I think that’s what any team would do.”
“I definitely think under the circumstances, without our best scorer and one of our key rebounders, I think we picked up our intensity level,” said sophomore swing player Brianna Butler, who led the Orange with 15 points.
Kentucky led this game by as much as 40-29, four minutes into the second half.
But Mitchell’s team never could seem to solve the Orange’s 2-3 zone. Syracuse got as close as 46-44, making the loud crowd of 4,661 restless.
But then junior swing player Bria Goss of Kentucky hit two free throws and blocked a shot, and the Wildcats were able to keep the Orange at bay down the stretch.
Goss led the winners with 17 points and six rebounds.
“She obviously plays hard,” said UK senior forward Samari Walker of Goss. “She’s up for any role we ask. She’s a hustle player.”
Walker got in early foul trouble and finished with one point and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
Senior center DeNesha Stallworth added 13 points and six rebounds, and Evans had 11 points.
The Wildcats forced 23 Syracuse turnovers, including 15 steals.
Syracuse out-rebounded Kentucky, 41-38.
Mitchell took the high road afterward, noting his joy at another Sweet Sixteen berth for his team. But Mitchell also suggested his team needs to play a lot better to reach the Final Four in Nashville in two weeks.
“It was just very, very difficult to make it happen,” said Mitchell, whose team has lost to Connecticut in the Elite 8 each of the past two seasons. “I’m so proud of the players on a night where clearly the ball didn’t go in the basket for us, and we didn’t make the best decisions.”
How bad was Kentucky’s decision making?
“There were times where I wanted to run out to half-court and scream and go nuts,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes I wanted to leave the building with some of the decisions we were making. But what we had to do tonight was keep our wits about us and stay poised.”
Mission accomplished on that front.
“Every time we pushed at them, they made an incredible play to kind of stabilize the game,” said Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman of the Wildcats.