NEWARK, DE. (AP) — Kentucky’s primary goal against Delaware will be like all Blue Hens’ opponents: try to keep All-American Elena Delle Donne from taking control of the game.
It’s not the first time this season the Wildcats have faced one of the sport’s best players.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell believes his team learned from their experience against the game’s most imposing player — 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner — in an 85-51 loss to Baylor. The 6-5 Delle Donne presents a different challenge; she rebounds, is a willing passer and averages 25.8 points — but she can dominate from the perimeter.
Delaware’s supporting cast also makes it difficult to focus solely on Delle Donne, but having faced Griner and an even more balanced Baylor team, the Wildcats feel prepared for the round of 16 showdown in Bridgeport, Conn.
“We believe we’re ready,” said Wildcats senior guard A’dia Mathies, coming off a 34-point performance in Tuesday’s 84-70 win over Dayton. “We believe we can beat anybody in the nation if we come with our best effort and play how we can play at the top of our level.
“We’re not really worried about anybody else, we’re just focused on ourselves. If we play like Kentucky should play, we should have a great outcome.”
Still, Kentucky (29-5) enters the Bridgeport Regional respectful of how Delle Donne makes things go for sixth-seeded Delaware (32-3), winners of 27 straight.
Delle Donne originally signed with UConn before abruptly leaving after a short stay to return home to Delaware. She scored 11 of her 33 points from the foul line to rally the Blue Hens past North Carolina 78-69 on Tuesday. She has scored more than 3,000 points in her Delaware career. She didn’t have to carry the load by herself — Trumae Lucas (20 points) and Danielle Parker (14 points, 13 rebounds) had big games against the Tar Heels.
Delle Donne also averages 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. The versatility that allows her to play anywhere on the court makes her a difficult matchup. But the Wildcats can’t just focus on Delle Donne, they have to account for the other Blue Hens as well.
“She’s only a part of what they do because they have team chemistry,” Mitchell said of Delle Donne. “You make a big mistake if you put it solely on one player. She’s very important obviously to what they want to do because she’s so talented, but we’ll be really trying to make this more about our team and how we do what we do well. I think that’ll be very important to make our tempo a factor, our defensive pressure a factor.”
The Wildcats’ execution in those areas in their tournament wins should give the Blue Hens something to think about.
Kentucky forced 48 turnovers while rolling past Navy 61-41 and Dayton in Queens, N.Y., to earn its way into the round of 16 for the second straight year. Another win puts the Wildcats in the regional finals for the third time in four years, where either Connecticut or Maryland will be waiting.
The Wildcats say it’s not who they play, it’s about how they play.
A red-hot Mathies hit 6 of 7 from 3-point range and 13 of 17 overall in Kentucky’s win over Dayton to advance to the round of 16. DeNesha Stallworth added 14 points, while Jennifer O’Neill and reserve Bria Goss each added 11 for Kentucky, which shot 47 percent.
Nearly everyone contributed for the Wildcats, who needed a team effort considering how a stomach virus hit the team during their win against the Flyers. Even Mitchell was affected, jokingly using words such as “gutty” and “gutsy” to describe how the Wildcats fought through illness.
They’ll need another “gutsy” performance against the Blue Hens.
“We’ve prepared very well throughout the season and knowing we have to use our preparation now,” said guard Kastine Evans, a Salem, Conn., native. “We’ve had a lot of big games, we’ve played against great players and just need to understand that all the games we’ve played, we can pull from that and use our potential.”
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