NEW YORK – Navy coach Stefanie Pemper was disappointed her team didn't perform better against Kentucky.
Then again the Midshipmen had never faced a team as talented as the second-seeded Wildcats.
"They're taller, more athletic, deeper," Pemper said. "I think really well coached. In pregame warmups they have 10 additional people on the court helping between assistant coaches, managers, staff."
Pemper's 15th-seeded team gave Kentucky a scare for the first 20 minutes before falling 61-41 to the Wildcats on Sunday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
"It feels weird playing an SEC team," she said. "They are different than anyone we saw in any point of the season. I can't emphasize enough it's an extremely different team than we've played."
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell was honored to play Navy. His team stood behind the Mids after the game ended and the Navy band played its school song.
"They invited us to do that," Mitchell said. "I respect those young women and what they decided to do with their life. It was so impressive to me. Anything we can do to be a part of their tradition we were happy to do that."
Trailing by one at the half, DeNesha Stallworth and Jennifer O'Neill took over for Kentucky. Stallworth finished with 18 points and O'Neill added nine of her 12 points in the second half. The Wildcats hadn't played in 14 days since losing to Texas A&M in the final of the SEC tournament.
"We were a little rusty not playing in a couple weeks," said Stallworth. "We played hard and stayed focus and not let the start bring us down."
O'Neill hit a quick 3-pointer to start a 12-2 run. She had seven points, a steal and an assist during the burst.
Kentucky has made the NCAA tournament four straight seasons and matched its best seeding. Each time Kentucky has struggled in the first round. The Wildcats had won by six, four (in overtime) and six in their previous three NCAA openers.
"You can't start examining margin of victory or how you play," Mitchell said. "This time of year you need to be happy to win and move forward and get focused on whoever we have next."
On Sunday, for 30 minutes it seemed like more of the same. The Mids (21-12) led most of the first half buoyed by strong 3-point shooting. They hit five 3s and led 26-25 at the break.
Then O'Neill got the Wildcats going, much to the delight of the huge cheering section that came to support her.
"Coming in to the locker room at halftime, (assistant coach Rick) Insell was talking to me about not being passive and set the tempo. The second half that's what I tried to do."
Stallworth capped the game-changing run with a three-point play that made it 37-28 with 16:50 left.
"We knew they were going to come out strong," said Jade Geif, who led Navy with nine points. "O'Neill was going to come out in her home state. She hit some key shots. The just were hitting and we weren't."
The Wildcats led 41-35 with 10 minutes left before they finally got some breathing room with an 8-0 run. A'dia Mathies, who missed all five of her shots and finished with five points, hit two free throws to start the spurt. Stallworth followed with consecutive layups to give the Wildcats their first double-digit lead of the game with 7:18 left.
Navy could only get within nine the rest of the way.
The Midshipmen were making their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament after winning the Patriot League tournament. Navy lost to Maryland last season and DePaul the year before. With the Mids' loss, 15 seeds remained winless in the NCAA tournament at 0-76.
"We expected more. It was the first time we've been up at half," Pemper said. "We were close with DePaul and Maryland but we weren't up. We're frustrated how we ended the game."
The Midshipmen were also trying to buck a losing trend by the Patriot League, which has now dropped its past 21 games in the tournament since Holy Cross knocked off Maryland in 1991.
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