Gonzaga prepares for Kentucky’s pressure defense
Gonzaga hasn’t had to make many travel plans in recent NCAA tournaments.
The Zags advanced to the regional semifinals as an 11th seed this season playing at home, and played last year into the regional finals without leaving the state of Washington.
But that changes on Sunday when Gonzaga (28-5) takes the court against No. 2 seed Kentucky (27-6) at the University of Rhode Island’s Ryan Center, a 2,718 -mile trip from Gonzaga’s campus.
The team has never played this far east.
“Nobody on our team, except for myself, including our coaches have ever even been to Rhode Island before,” said coach Kelly Graves. “So this is a new experience for us. I think if we make that a big deal, it becomes a big deal. I certainly don’t talk about it with my team.”Gonzaga prepares for Kentucky’s pressure defense
This is the third consecutive trip for Gonzaga to the Regional semifinals and the second in three seasons for Kentucky, which tied its 1982 squad for the highest seed in program history.
While the Bulldogs cruised through the first two rounds beating No. 6 seed Rutgers and third-seeded Miami, the Wildcats struggled to advance.
The Wildcats eeked out a 65-62 second-round win over seventh-seeded Green Bay, which followed a six-point victory in the opening round over 15th seed McNeese State.
Coach Matthew Mitchell, said he’s not concerned that the games were close, because in each of them his team found a way to win.
“I feel really good about being here, because of how hard our players had to play and all the adversity they had to fight through,” said Mitchell, who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Pat Summitt at Tennessee. “I don’t think the statistics matter; I don’t think you can get caught up in a lot of that stuff.”
Both teams like to run, and Kentucky plays a full-court defense that forced an NCAA-record 911 turnovers this season, just under 28 per game. The team has now forced 800 turnovers in three straight seasons.
“Our biggest thing is just trying to make the other team as uncomfortable as they can be, not to let them get into sets how they want to, where they want to,” said guard A’dia Mathies. “When we do that, it just maybe scares them a little bit and they make turnovers.”
Mathies has struggled in the NCAA tournament averaging just 8 points in the two wins. The SEC player of the year averaged over 15 points in the regular season.
Kentucky will try to keep the ball away from Gonzaga senior Kayla Standish, who averages over 16 points while pulling down almost eight rebounds per contest.
“Just don’t let her get the ball so easy,” said Kentucky guard Bria Goss. “Make it hard to get that extra pass in to her or make her work for every pass that she gets and she might wear down.”
Kentucky has won six of its last seven games after a three-game losing skid in February. Gonzaga has won seven of eight.
The Bulldogs seniors are playing in their 12th NCAA Tournament game. They are 8-3 in the first 11, and said they now expect to win in tournament games.
“I think that it does add confidence, that we know how to get to the tournament, we know how to win once we’ve been in the tournament as well,” said senior Kelly Bowen. “I think it helps us be confident going into games like against Kentucky when we face a lot of different opponents.”
Bowen said the team doesn’t expect the location of the game to change their mindset, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t excited about the cross-country travel.
“I think we’re going to the beach after practice today and we’re all going to put our feet in the Atlantic? Ocean, did I get that right?” said the Australian native. “We’re all going to give our toes a bit of an ice bath.”