BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Matthew Mitchell is trying to build Kentucky into a women's basketball power. Getting to the Final Four for the first time will be a huge step in reaching that goal.
Mitchell's team is one victory away, and Connecticut stands in the way for the second straight season. The two teams played last year and UConn came away with a 15-point victory. They'll meet again Monday night in the Bridgeport regional final.
"This program's come a long way and made a tremendous amount of progress in last four years," Mitchell said. "We want to be the best team in the country and that doesn't happen by making one Final Four. One Final Four is an outstanding achievement and something we're working hard to get to. It's a huge step we're 40 minutes away from."
The Wildcats have made the NCAA tournament in each of the past four seasons and reached the regional finals in three of those years.
The run has impressed UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
"Kentucky was one of those places where if they get the right coach they'll be really good," he said. "Any place that's good in men's basketball should be good in women's basketball. (Matt's) carved out his own style and I don't know if anybody's gotten that far that quickly and done a better job in the country than they have."
Now they just need to take that next step. The Wildcats have been focused on the Final Four since they started practice. Hanging in front of their locker room in Kentucky is a picture of the Final Four logo with a clock next to it.
Ever since the first day of practice back in early October, that clock has been counting down the days and minutes until the Final Four in New Orleans. The second-seeded Wildcats hope to be in Louisiana when the clock reaches zero.
Whether they advance or not, it's already been a record year for the Wildcats (30-5). Kentucky has the most victories in school history. Not bad for a school rich in basketball tradition on the men's side, winning its eighth national championship last season in New Orleans.
While the Wildcats are hoping for their first national semifinals appearance, the Huskies are trying to make the Final Four for a record sixth consecutive year.
It's been an unusual season for UConn, which for the first time in 19 years didn't win either the Big East regular season or tournament title. Now the Huskies have a chance at another title — an eighth national championship.
"I'm hoping everybody realizes that this is literally the last opportunity," UConn senior Kelly Faris said. "And I'm hoping everybody's getting the sick feeling in their stomach from losing every time. We've just got to come together and play Connecticut basketball and listen to every single thing coach says because, obviously, he knows what he's talking about. And if we listen to him, we'll be all right."
The key to UConn's success may come from its freshmen. The trio of Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson combined for 35 on Saturday — the fourth highest total for a first-year class in school history.
Stewart, who was the national high school player of the year last season, has really raised her game lately. She had 17 points in the Huskies' 76-50 victory over Maryland in the regional semifinals on Saturday.
"It's been talked about and documented that Stewie's struggles have been a big story for our team this year," Auriemma said. "She started off the year doing everything she did everywhere else she played. Then all of a sudden when she couldn't do it anymore, it became more of a mental thing. Right after the Big East tournament, I saw a change in her. Practice was different for her. She was just more worried about failing than being focused on succeeding. Now she's in a good place. She's in a really good place right now."
The Huskies (32-4) have won 42 of their past 43 NCAA games in the state of Connecticut, including going 8-1 in Bridgeport. The lone blemish came against Duke in 2006 in the regional final.
The loss to Connecticut last season is still fresh in the Wildcats' minds.
"We saw it as a missed opportunity," SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies said. "We were there in the first half and had a mental lapse for a couple four-minute segments. If we did a better job staying focused we would have gone to the Final Four. We know it could happen this year."
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