AMES, Iowa – For about 18 minutes, Green Bay played as well as it could possibly play against Kentucky.
It was the first 20 minutes and the last two that ultimately doomed the Phoenix to an agonizing defeat Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Keyla Snowden hit a jumper and two free throws in the final 18 seconds, and the second-seeded Wildcats rallied for a 65-62 victory.
Julie Wojta and Sarah Eichler each scored 16 points for Green Bay (31-2), which forced a staggering 34 turnovers — including 20 in the final 20 minutes. The Phoenix dominated the second half, but in the end it wasn't enough.
"If we could have a half of basketball back, we'd take that first half back," Green Bay's Hannah Quilling said. "You can't make excuses. The second half was what Green Bay was all about. That's what we'll take from it."
Samarie Walker had 15 points and 13 rebounds and Snowden added 13 points for the Wildcats (27-6), who will face 11th-seeded Gonzaga in the regional semifinals in Kingston, R.I.
"That was an incredible basketball game. Two really tough teams competing. I'm just so proud of the toughness our players showed tonight," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
The Wildcats were tough alright — but they were also rather sloppy.
Kentucky opened the game with a 21-6 run, then rallied after Green Bay erased a 17-point deficit and took a 62-61 lead with 1:57 left. Snowden responded with a short jumper that rolled in after sitting on the rim, and Adrian Ritchie air-balled a 3-pointer with a second left.
"I was praying the whole time it was bouncing around. We were really fortunate to get this win," Snowden said.
After barely getting past 15th-seeded McNeese State 68-62 in Saturday's tourney opener, the Wildcats spent the first half blowing past a Green Bay team many thought was much stronger than a No. 7 seed.
Then things got real ugly for Kentucky.
The Wildcats turned the ball over 12 times in next 10 minutes against the nation's second-best team in turnover margin — ironically, just behind Kentucky. Green Bay used all those miscues to fuel a 24-9 run that trimmed the margin to 55-54 with 6:15 left.
Wojta had 10 steals and a jumper that tied it at 61 with 3:06 left in her final game with Green Bay. She was part of four NCAA tournament victories — twice what the school had earned before she arrived.
"So proud of Julie, the way she played that second half," Bollant said. "I told her, 'We have no chance to get back into the game if you don't have 10 steals and are flying around the court the way she did in the second half.'"
Kentucky jumped all over Green Bay in the first half.
Snowden and Amber Smith each drained 3s and Bria Goss swooped in for a putback to help the faster, more athletic Wildcats take a 15-point lead against the Phoenix, who never trailed in beating host Iowa State 71-57 in the first round.
During a stoppage in play, Bollant yelled to his shell-shocked team that it was just the break it needed. That rest didn't help much though, because at the time Green Bay had few answers for the Wildcats.
Kentucky held Wojta, who came in averaging nearly 20 points a game, without a point for nearly 13 minutes. A'dia Mathies also picked Wojta clean at midcourt late in the first half and blew past her for a layup to help the Wildcats push their lead to 17 by the break.
It was by far the biggest halftime deficit of the year for the Phoenix. Wojta helped make sure it didn't last, but Snowden's strong play ensured the Wildcats will have a chance to reach their second regional final in three years — and a possible showdown with powerhouse Connecticut.
When it was over, Wojta gathered with her teammates on the court for one last huddle.
"That was hard," she said. "It will be the last time doing that with these girls. It's not the game, the stats, those things. It's the people you spend four or five years with every single day."