By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
KANSAS CITY — All anybody wanted to talk about Monday at Sprint Center was the Kentucky defense.
Actually, that’s not true.
It just seemed like it.
“We knew Nebraska hadn’t faced really any pressure, and so we knew that was going to be effective in the game,” Wildcat guard Amber Smith said. “I mean, that’s our game plan … It’s been working for us this far, so (we’re) just going to stay with it and work hard on it.”
One question later, it was whether or not Kentucky’s defense, as though it might be impossible, was still improving?
“I think it will never fail for us as long as we work hard,” Smith said. “And I think it has gotten better and I think it will get better.”
Kentucky and Oklahoma tip at 8:07 p.m. today in the NCAA Tournament’s Kansas City Regional final. Neither team, according to the seeds, was supposed to get this far, though OU’s No. 3 seed outranks UK’s No. 5 seed.
Seeds aside, the Wildcats’ narrative is now established.
What Kentucky lacks in size — the Wildcats run a four-guard set around 6-1 forward Victoria Dunlap — it makes up for in quickness, athleticism and unrelenting in-your-face defense.
Thus far in the tournament, the Wildcats have won three games by an average margin of 14.3 points while receiving an average 18.7 turnovers from opponents. Meanwhile, the Sooners have won their three games by an average 10 points despite turning the ball over 17.3 times per outing.
But if that sounds like a bad deal for the Sooners, coach Sherri Coale believes her team will be fully prepared for Kentucky’s defensive onslaught. In short, OU’s seen it before.
“I think we have a pretty good guess (what it will be like) because we play in the Big 12 South. If anything can prepare you for that, it is that,” Coale said. “We’ve played Texas A&M three times. We’ve played Baylor three times. We’ve learned some things about ourselves over the course of that … I think we’re probably just about as prepared as anybody could be.”
Most of handling that pressure will fall upon the shoulders of Sooner point guard Danielle Robinson. Sunday’s victory over Notre Dame was a mixed bag for Robinson, whose 15 points came on 6 of 21 shooting. She dished seven assists, but also committed six turnovers.
“We know we have to value every possession and not turn the ball over,” Robinson said.
Even Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell seems to get that OU won’t be intimidated by the pressure.
“I think they are equipped to handle what we do as anybody that we’ve played up to this point,” he said. “What I mean by that, they are a team that actually executes a backdoor pass.”
That is, it’s a regular feature of the Sooner offense, rather than a special feature, and it’s designed to turn opponent’s pressure against itself, like running a reverse on a football field.
So OU will handle it or it won’t.
The same goes for Kentucky in reference to the Sooners’ size advantage.
The Wildcats really don’t have anybody who sizes up with Sooner center Abi Olajuwon, who torched Notre Dame for 20 points and 14 rebounds. Olajuwon aside, nor do they have anybody who matches up with Amanda Thompson as a rebounder.
Kentucky’s outrebounded opponents by less than a rebound per game this season, but has made up for it with a huge turnover advantage getting an average 22.9 from its 36 opponents to date.
“We have a lot of big post players in the SEC, so we’ve had varying degrees of success with big players,” Mitchell said. “This will be as big a test as we’ve had.”
Both sides have strengths.
Both sides have weaknesses.
Somebody’s going to the Final Four.
Clay Horning 366-3526 firstname.lastname@example.org