Published March 25, 2012
KINGSTON, R.I. – Three straight trips to the round of 16. A total of 115 wins for the senior class, including eight in the NCAA tournament for a school that had never won even one before.
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves was having a hard time feeling down about the loss.
"I'm not too emotional right now, just because I'm so proud of this team," he said Sunday night after Kentucky beat the Bulldogs 79-62 to advance to the Kingston Regional final. "We did a lot this year. They came together and got us a couple of wins in the NCAA tournament, but Kentucky is a better basketball team right now."
Gonzaga's success in the men's basketball tournament long ago lifted it out of the realm of plucky upstart. But the women are proving to be just as formidable. With 115 wins in the past four years, the Bulldogs rank up there with powerhouses Baylor, Connecticut, Duke and Stanford.
"That's pretty good company to be in," Graves said. "And I'm proud of that."
Keyla Snowden made five 3-pointers, coming back off the bench to hit a pair that squelched Gonzaga's last charge and gave Kentucky a spot in the regional final against top-seeded Connecticut. The Huskies beat Penn State 77-59 earlier Sunday.
"Keyla has been playing with a sense of purpose that you like to see a senior playing with," Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She's a really talented shooter, but she has been competing at both ends of the floor like a person on a mission who wants to get to the Final Four."
Snowden scored 17 points, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range, and Samarie Walker scored 16 with 12 rebounds for No. 2 seed Kentucky (28-6). It's the second trip to the regional finals for the Wildcats in three years.
"I was just glad that I could be the spark for my team," said Snowden, who was 2 for 8 from the floor in the first half after going 1 for 6 from 3-point range in the second round against Wisconsin-Green Bay. "Just seeing one fall, I knew that the rest would."
Kayla Standish had 25 points, Kelly Bowen scored 11 with nine rebounds and Katelan Redmon had 10 and seven for No. 11 seed Gonzaga (28-6). The Bulldogs had beaten Rutgers and Miami to reach the round of 16 for the third consecutive year.
"I'm very proud of what we've done, the obstacles we've overcome," Standish said. "Our senior leadership stepped up this year. Our team is awesome, our coaches are awesome. I'm upset we lost, but more upset I won't put on a Gonzaga jersey again."
Snowden hit a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 58-37 lead with 14 minutes to play. But on Kentucky's next possession she turned over the ball, and Mitchell worried that the energy she was expending on defense might be hurting her at the other end.
Snowden went to the bench, and she rested for most of the next 4 minutes as the Bulldogs scored 14 out of 15 points to cut the deficit to eight.
Graves reminded his team that Kentucky blew a 17-point lead in the second round against Green Bay.
"We brought that up. We used anything we could to motivate us," Graves said. "We just wanted to cut into, cut into, cut into it. We had the chance down eight at the free throw line and we unfortunately didn't convert those. We got a stop, then we had another chance to cut it to six and it didn't happen. ... We just came up short."
Three times Gonzaga had the ball with a chance to further trim the deficit and couldn't do so. And when Snowden came back into the game, she was ready.
One 3-pointer made it an 11-point game. Another extended the lead to 14. She added a 2-pointer with 3:09 left to give the Wildcats a 19-point lead, and by that time it was over.
"It was a tough run to absorb," Mitchell said. "I was prepared to go the distance. I was prepared to grind it out and win by one if we had to. I thought we were OK. It wasn't the greatest; I wish we hadn't lost the lead. But it all worked out."
What had been a decent crowd for the early game between local favorite Connecticut and Penn State dwindled to just a few hundred when Kentucky took a 43-28 lead into the half. And just a few hundred fans remained when the Wildcats band played "My Old Kentucky Home" after the final buzzer.
Kentucky led the entire game to move within one of win placing both its men's and women's teams in the Final Four. A'dia Mathies, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, went 3 for 4 from 3-point range and added seven assists. Kastine Evans grabbed 10 rebounds for the Wildcats and Bria Goss had 10 points.
The Zags' trip to Rhode Island won't go to waste: The players — none of whom had ever been to the state — said they planned to dip their toes in the Atlantic Ocean before heading home.