LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky had never opened NCAA tournament play as dominantly as it did against Wright State.
Then again, the Wildcats began this postseason at home for the first time and familiar surroundings yielded a lopsided result.
Jennifer O’Neill scored 21 points, Samarie Walker added 12 with 14 rebounds and third-seeded Kentucky crushed No. 14 Wright State 106-60 on Saturday.
Hosting their first NCAA women’s postseason game, the Wildcats (25-8) used home court and other advantages to overwhelm an undersized Raiders squad making their tournament debut. Kentucky shot 55 percent from the field, grabbed a school-record 67 rebounds (tying an NCAA postseason mark) and recorded a season-high 12 blocks.
“I thought we had a great chance to play well today,” Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Historically, we’ve kind of struggled in this game for whatever reason. I had to let them know they had clear advantages in this game in size, speed and depth.”
The Wildcats got the message and flexed those strengths throughout to move on and face No. 6 Syracuse, a 59-53 winner over No. 11 Chattanooga, in Monday night’s second round of the Notre Dame Regional.
Walker had her season’s ninth double-double (10-10) at halftime. The Wildcats achieved their season best in blocks early in the second half.
“Rebounding is always an emphasis for us, no matter who we are playing,” said Walker, who matched her season high. “Especially since we had a size advantage, we had to win the boards today.”
Janee Thompson added 14 points, Linnae Harper 12, DeNesha Stallworth and Bria Goss 11 each and Azia Bishop 10 for Kentucky. Stallworth added nine rebounds and five blocks, while Bishop had eight rebounds and four blocks.
Ivory James had 16 points to lead Wright State (26-9).
O’Neill was 8 of 11 from the field including two of her four 3-pointers as Kentucky shot 68 percent in the second half. The Wildcats made 44 of 80 overall while topping a rebounding mark (66) last matched in 1982.
All told, Kentucky set school records for points, margin, field goals, blocks and rebounds in an NCAA tournament game. The Wildcats’ only blemish was 22 turnovers.
Wright State meanwhile shot 23 percent (19 of 83) and never had a chance inside in being outscored 66-26 in the paint. Tay’ler Mingo added 14 points and Kim Demmings 12 for the Raiders, who had their six-game winning streak snapped.
“Well, clearly, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Wright State coach Mike Bradbury said. “Not how we envisioned. The pace was right, speed of the game was right. But we shot 23 percent. A lot of credit to Kentucky for that. They’re good, they’re always good. Missed some shots early in the game and it kind of snowballed.”
The Wildcats’ biggest adjustment was starting their NCAA title quest on their home floor after four previous trips away from home. Winning all four openers took work, including a big second half to beat Navy by 20 last year after leading by just one at halftime.
This one began with Memorial Coliseum filled in a sea of blue-clad Kentucky fans who came out early and cheered loud for the program’s first tournament home game.
“The crowd was charged up before the game and I think they were hungry for a game like this,” Mitchell said. “If we can get another crowd like that Monday night, it would be big.”
The noise increased as Kentucky poured it on Horizon League champion Wright State, which competed without career games-played leader KC Elkins because of a season-ending left knee injury sustained in the Raiders’ conference title victory.
Wright State missed its first seven shots before Mingo’s 3-pointer at the 15:53 mark, and nothing improved afterward. The Raiders found little inside as the Wildcats blocked seven shots — including a rejection by Stallworth from out of nowhere — while Kentucky’s pressure forced 5-second and shot clock violations.
Kentucky used a 14-3 run, capped by O’Neill’s basket off a steal, for a 16-5 lead after just 5 1/2 minutes. That burst was the first of several by Kentucky, which also ran off stretches of 10 and 14 unanswered points en route to a 51-25 halftime lead that grew in the second half.
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