Kentucky fancies its harassing, teeming women's basketball defense to be 40 Minutes of Dread -- an alarming peril to confront. For Dayton in Tuesday night's second-round NCAA Tournament game at St. John's, it was more like 40 Minutes of Claustrophobia.
By any name, that defense made all the difference in Kentucky's 84-70 victory. Though Dayton never gave in to fear, clawing back from a 16-point first-half deficit to creep within two early in the second half, there persisted a sense that Dayton was outnumbered.
By forcing 23 Dayton turnovers -- and many other bad decisions -- Kentucky clearly demonstrated that possession is 9/10th of the law in this kind of court. Dayton's field-goal percentage remained superior to Kentucky's for three-quarters of the game, but Dayton simply wasn't able to keep the ball long enough to try enough shots.
And, eventually, the marksmanship of Kentucky senior A'dia Mathies, one game after the worst offensive performance of her life, was more than enough to suffocate Dayton (28-3) and send Kentucky (29-5) to Saturday's Bridgeport regional against Delaware.
Mathies finished with 34 points, after having missed all five of her field goals in Sunday's victory over Navy, an 0-for game that had not happened to her dating to her first high school varsity game -- as a sixth grader -- in Louisville.
"She's a great player," said Dayton sophomore Andrea Hoover, assigned to Mathies most of the night. "I love playing against a great player, but she did go off on us. She hit a couple of shots where I was, like, 'Pretty amazing.' And the whole Kentucky team is so long and athletic, and so quick."
Mathies made 13 of 17 field goals -- 6 of 7 from three-point range -- and was ably assisted by DeNesha Stallworth's 14 points, as well as 11 apiece from Jennifer O'Neill and Bria Goss. But it was Kentucky's relentless, swarming press that took Dayton apart, bit by bit.
From a tie at 14, Kentucky raced to a 34-20 lead as it began to accumulate its 12 steals, and was up 38-22 with 3:12 to play in the half. Dayton, led by Hoover (22 points), Cassie Sant (13), Samantha Mackay (12) and Ally Malott (10), whittled the lead down to 46-44 with 15:58 to go and had the ball for a possible tie.
But, at that point, Kentucky summarized the night, double-teaming freshman Kelley Austria on Austria's drive to the basket, wrestling the ball away and sending Mathies on her way to two quick baskets. Kentucky's lead was never smaller than eight points the rest of the way.
"We fought," Mackay said. "We didn't want to go home. But they were really fast. And physical."
The dread settled in.