Ryan Center hosts NCAA women's regional
University of Connecticut junior Caroline Doty looks for an opening around the Penn State defense during Sunday's NCAA regional semifinal in the Thomas M. Ryan Center. Teresa Kelly | Cigar
There are big events and there are "big" events. Sunday night at the Thomas M. Ryan Center the biggest event in all of collegiate athletics, the women's NCAA basketball tournament, put Kingston in the national spotlight.
As the doors opened an hour before the tipoff of the first game, the fans, some more zealous than others, began to trickle in and fill the upper seating.
Though the Ryan Center has certainly been loud, nothing compared to the noise of the building when the Penn State versus University of Connecticut game tipped off.
The UConn fans, per tradition, rose up and cheered from the opening tip until the Huskies scored their first points. It took 13 seconds before junior Caroline Doty drove left and laid the ball up and in.
The ensuing cacophony of volume swept through the arena and enveloped everything in its path.
The Penn State fans could only sit idly by and watch the Huskies open up a quick 10-point lead and eventually defeat the Nittany Lions 77-59 in the first regional semifinal.
Doty scored another basket 18 seconds after her first and the Huskies were off to the races.
Sophomore guard Bria Hartley dropped in six of her game-high 20 points during the first five minutes of the game.
"We run a great offense," Hartley said. "People were able to set screens. [Sophomore] Stefanie [Dolson] was setting screens for me and [junior] Kelly [Faris]. I was able to knock down some shots tonight."
UConn extended the lead to 24-10 at the 9:52 mark before the Lions rallied. Senior Maggie Lucas netted five points as she keyed a 9-0 Nittany Lion run that closed the gap to five and quieted the pro-UConn crowd.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma took a timeout with 8:43 to go in the half to calm the team.
"That timeout was because we started becoming a pass twice and shoot team," Auriemma said. "If you keep them on defense a little bit longer it makes it harder for them to keep up that transition game. I think that changed the game no question."
Whatever Auriemma said worked as the Huskies ended the half on a 19-10 run to expand the gap to 14 points and never looked back.
Senior Tiffany Hayes and Dolson finished with 10 points apiece. Faris finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and a game-high three steals.
"I think I am playing better than I have been throughout the season," Faris said. "Sometimes your role changes depending on how your opponents play you and how they guard your teammates, but at the same time I have a whole team who can score pretty much anytime they want. We did a great job tonight of getting everyone open."
Penn State head coach Coquese Washington praised her team for a quality season and said that UConn's experience in big games helped them adapt to the environment.
"I thought UConn played relaxed because they've been here before," Washington said. "When we get into this situation next year we'll be better for it; we'll be a lot better for it. It's a great experience that we've had."
Upon returning to the arena for the second match, the vibe was completely different. Gone was the high-energy intensity of thousands of crazed UConn fans and in its place were a few thousand University of Kentucky and Gonzaga University fans cheering on their respective squads.
After a tentative first minute Kentucky's Bria Goss connected on a three-point field goal. That would be a recurring theme throughout the game as the Wildcats connected on 12 of 21 three-point shots as they ended Gonzaga's Cinderella run 79-62 in the nightcap. The win advanced Kentucky to its third Elite Eight in school history.
"We have always believed in our players and in our shooting," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Everyone who made one today has always been capable of making them."
The second-seeded Wildcats jumped out to a nine-point lead seven minutes into the game but were unable to shake the Bulldogs. Senior Kayla Standish nailed a jump shot with nine minutes left in the first half to cut the deficit to two points.
Aided by four three-pointers, Kentucky ended the half on a 22-9 run to quiet the Gonzaga contingent and open up some breathing room at halftime.
"We knew what was on the line today," Kentucky's Keyla Snowden said. "We all got mentally prepared and we knew that Gonzaga was going to be a tough team so knocking down shots was important today."
Snowden came off the bench to pump in a team-high 17 points including five three-point shots. Sophomore Samarie Walker also had a fine performance off the bench registering a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) in 20 minutes of action.
Walker, who transferred to Kentucky from Connecticut, said that UConn may be good, but they can be beaten.
"Like I said, they are a really good team, but all we have to do is do us," Walker said.
Gonzaga made a run midway through the second half and closed the deficit to eight, but eight Kentucky points in 83 seconds buried the Zags for good. For the 11th-seeded Bulldogs the seasons and the careers end for five seniors who had advanced to three Sweet 16s in their career.
Head coach Kelly Graves was quick to praise his team and especially his graduating class.
"I'm proud of this basketball team," Graves said. "I thought this was a great group. 115 wins and 12 tournament wins so I'm really proud of them."
Standish, with emotion in her eyes, reflected on her years as a Bulldog.
"It means everything," Standish said. "I'm proud of what we've done; the obstacles we've overcome. Our senior leadership really stepped up this year. Our team is awesome. Our coaches are awesome."
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