You can forgive Kentucky Hoops coach Matthew Mitchell if he isn’t sleeping very well this week.
Mitchell may be having nightmares about the ability of his Wildcats to keep Baylor Bears’ star Odyssey Sims in check when Kentucky and Baylor hook up in the semifinals of the Notre Dame Regional at noon Saturday in South Bend, Ind.
Undefeated and top seed Notre Dame plays No. 5 seed Oklahoma State in the other semifinal, Saturday at 2:30 p.m., with the winners moving on to the regional final Monday night.
Sims was recently named Player of the Year in women’s college basketball by Sports Illustrated, averaging 28.5 points and 4.5 assists per game.
She dropped in a cool 47 points in Baylor’s 133-130, four-overtime loss to Kentucky Dec. 6 in Dallas.
Baylor is 31-4 and the second seed in this region, while Kentucky is 26-8 and the No. 3 seed.
The 10th-ranked Wildcats advanced to the round of 16 with a 64-59 home win over Syracuse Monday night, the same night that the Bears pulled away from California, 75-56.
“Baylor really gets the ball in Sims’ hands a lot, and she’s just so explosive and so tough to guard,” Mitchell said Thursday. “You need to play as well off the ball as you can to try and limit her getting the ball in her hands.
“She’s really, really hard to defend once she has the ball in her hands because not only can she score, but she can find her teammates really well and set them up so they can score. It’s really five players’ responsibility, working in unison, trying to defend her. She can shoot the 3, she has a mid-range game, and she clearly has the ability to get to the basket. I have so much admiration for her because she’s so tough. She plays 35 minutes a game, and the ball is in her hands almost every play.”
Mitchell hopes his team’s depth pays off against a Baylor team that may not be as deep as his Wildcats.
Freshman Nina Davis, a 5-foot-11 forward, is the only other Baylor Bear scoring in double figures. Davis tallies 15.1 points each time out, and leads the Bears in rebounding at 8.9 boards per game.
“We did a lot of defensive work yesterday (Wednesday),” said Mitchell, who gave his team Tuesday off. “At this time of year, we’re still actually trying to get a little better. I think this team still has a chance from yesterday of getting better today through good practice, and I think it’s probably going to take that to win on Saturday.”
Mitchell’s team is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year. The last two seasons Kentucky has made it all the way to the Elite 8, losing big to powerful Connecticut on each occasion.
“I think the players seem to be a little bit hungrier,” Mitchell said of this post-season, coming on the heels of a regular season that hasn’t been as consistent as the UK coach had hoped it would be.
“I have always been excited to make the tournament and grateful that we were in the tournament, but I’m more grateful this year because there was a time when I wasn’t sure we were going to be in the tournament.
“Last year we won like 17 of 18 games in a row, and it was pretty clear that we were going to the tournament pretty early in the season. So this tournament run has been really fun because all the players have done so much work over the last few weeks to really become a team. This one is different and special. We’d love to try to win on Saturday and keep marching forward.”
Mitchell makes no bones about it: Kentucky is determined to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history. The Final Four will be held in Nashville next weekend.
“What’s so exciting about marching forward is you get one game closer to your goal of being able to compete for a national championship,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been really close the last couple of years by getting to the Elite Eight. I know this team really wants to go to the Final Four, so it’s an opportunity that’s in front of us. You have to play well to go there. You have to beat good teams to get there. Baylor will be a huge test.
“We’re just going to have to do everything we can to prepare well to beat Baylor, and then we’ll see how the season stacks up when the last game is played and we go back and reflect on it. But I’m real proud of the team for competing at a high level. The program is on a high level now. We are among the nation’s best, and have been now for the past four, five years.”