Navy Coach Stefanie Pemper said she was disappointed her team didn’t perform better against Kentucky. Then again, the Midshipmen had not 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, in Queens on Sunday in the opening round of the NCAA women’s tournament.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said he was honored to play Navy (21-12). 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 (28-5). 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.
O’Neill hit a quick three-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 Midshipmen led most of the first half buoyed by strong three-point shooting. They hit five threes 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.
“We knew they were going to come out strong,” said Jade Geif, who led Navy with nine points.
●DAYTON 96, ST. JOHN’S 90: The Flyers (28-2) needed two overtimes to stop St. John’s in Queens. Andrea Hoover scored a career-high 24 points for seventh-seeded Dayton against the Red Storm (18-13).
The Flyers will face Kentucky in the second round Tuesday night.
Brittany Wilson hit a three-pointer and Kelley Austria had a three-point play to make it 90-86 with 2 minutes 11 seconds left in the second extra period. After St. John’s failed to score, Olivia Applewhite added a basket with 47 seconds left to seal it.
The Red Storm trailed by 13 with 5:30 left in regulation before rallying.
●DELAWARE 66, WEST VIRGINIA 53: The first NCAA tournament game in the state of Delaware had a perfect ending for the Blue Hens and their boisterous fans. Elena Delle Donne scored 33 points and led a second-half surge against the Mountaineers (17-14).
Playing on their home floor before a sellout crowd, the sixth-seeded Blue Hens trailed 33-26 at halftime before bouncing back to extend their school-record winning streak to 26 games.
There were 4,532 fans in attendance, most of them clad in blue or yellow and cheering for Delaware. Not only were the parking lots jammed, but several people were pleading to purchase tickets from those waiting to enter the arena.
The Blue Hens (31-3) did not disappoint.
“To win a game like this in front of our home crowd, which was electric, there’s no other way to describe it other than I’m just totally thrilled for my players, this program, for the state of Delaware,” Coach Tina Martin said.
Delaware will face North Carolina in the second round.
●NORTH CAROLINA 59, ALBANY 54: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt scored a career-high 30 points as the third-seeded Tar Heels (29-6) squeezed past the Great Danes (27-4).
North Carolina trailed 28-23 at halftime and 48-44 with just under 10 minutes left before rallying behind Ruffin-Pratt; she scored 17 of the Tar Heels’ final 21 points against 14th-seeded Albany.
Waltiea Rolle had 14 points and 14 rebounds for North Carolina (29-6), which will next face sixth-seeded Delaware on Tuesday night.
North Carolina trailed 42-36 before Ruffin-Pratt scored six points in an 8-2 spree that tied it at 44 with just over 10 minutes left.