LEXINGTON, KY. - The Belmont University women's basketbal team (27-6) dropped a 73-70 decision Friday afternoon to Kentucky (22-10) in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship.
It was an electrifying, high-drama affair befitting March, with the Bruins showcasing the resolve, toughness and togetherness that characterized their 21-game win streak.
"I'm just so proud of how we fought, stuck together, and just kept playing the next play. I'm proud of how we grew throughout the course of the game and tried to figure out some of the things that (Kentucky) was doing. It was a great atmosphere to be a part of. Obviously, wish we were on the winning end, but there's a reason they're a four seed. Playing them here at home is tough. The only way I could be more proud - I don't even know that I could be more proud because you're talking one possession changes it. A win or loss isn't what makes me proud," said Newbauer.
After falling behind double figures early, Belmont rode the remarkable play of junior Kylee Smith (Alpharetta, Ga.) who exploded for 16 second-quarter points to give the Bruins a 36-35 halftime lead.
Belmont endured a scoring drought to open the third quarter that enabled the host Wildcats to again build a double figure edge.
But resilient play from Smith, junior Sally McCabe (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.), sophomore Darby Maggard (Larwill, Ind.) - and timely bench contributions from junior Sierra Jones (Huntsville, Ala.) - enabled Belmont to storm back into the game.
Clutch free throws down the stretch from Maci Morris allowed Kentucky to maintain a slim one possession lead.
After Smith closed the margin to 71-70 with 3.2 seconds left - and two free from from Morris - Belmont advanced the basketball for one final possession.
Maggard received a pass and was heavily defended, but still wiggled free to launch a shot, but her potential game-tying 3-pointer at the horn rimmed off.
Smith led three players in double figures with 23 points. McCabe had 16 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots, while Maggard had 15 points.
3-time All-SEC guard Makayla Epps led Kentucky (22-10) with 30 points while teammate Evelyn Ahkhator added 22 points and 10 rebounds.
"Wow. That was fun. Unfortunately, it wasn't the outcome we wanted, but that was incredible to watch what our team just did. Kentucky is a great team. Evelyn Akhator - if you want to tell me that she's not first team All-SEC, then you're crazy. Epps - you know about her. I told her after the game, 'You've never shot 3s great. We were going to make you.' And she did it. She took what we gave her and hit five 3s that were big. Akhator had her 22 (points), then Maci (Morris) with her 15. Even then with what they did, we're still right there knocking at the door, and that's the resolve, resiliency, toughness that our kids have. If you didn't see that, then you're crazy because this group of young ladies fought through everything," added Newbauer.
Kentucky got off to a scorching hot start from the field, and led Belmont 23-13 after the first quarter. Kentucky made 9-of-13 attempts from the field including conversions on seven of their final eight shots. Epps had 10 at the quarter's end connecting on four of her five tries. Thompson led Belmont with six points. Belmont trailed 5-0 out of the gate but scored four-straight, only to see the Wildcats close on an 18-9 run. Belmont trailed by double digits after the first quarter for just the second time all season and its first time since trailing 26-16 at Louisville in November.
Belmont stormed back in the second to take a 36-35 heading into the half. After it was the Wildcats who had the hot hand in the first, the Bruins took their turn and came out energized from the onset in the second. BU outscored Kentucky 23-12 in the frame thanks to the strong contributions of the redshirt-junior Smith who scored 16 points in the second quarter alone. The Bruins scored on three-straight possessions to trim gap to just 26-19 and continued to chip away on the ensuing possessions with a serious sense of urgency. Belmont finished 9-of-15 from the floor in the second including a 4-of-9 performance from three-point range. The Bruins trailed for more than 18 minutes and by as many as 12 but stormed back to take their first lead with 31 seconds left in the half. The Bruins finished the stanza on an 11-2 run and their scoring frenzy brought the Bruin contingency in attendance to their feet. BU finished 15-of-30 from the field for the half at an even 50% shooting and held a 20-9 edge in rebounding.
"We talked about this all year. It can be anyone's quarter, minute or day. That's just a testimony to our team sharing the ball. They just got me the ball when I was open and down shots. Any other time, we have full faith in any of our players. In the second quarter, we played great defense. We wanted to fight back. It just so happens that I hit shots. It's about sharing the ball, and that's what has made us a great team all year," said Smith.
The tables turned in the third quarter as Kentucky opened the half on a 13-0 run to lead, stretching its lead to 48-36. The Bruins missed their first eight shot attempts. Facing a 12-point deficit for the second time in the game, the Bruins then focused in and knocked down three-pointers on three-straight possessions to minimize the deficit back to just eight at 53-45 with 2:05 remaining. The center McCabe accounted for two of the three-pointers, helping keep Belmont within striking distance during Kentucky's surge. UK would outscore Belmont 20-13 in the frame, but the Bruins played admirably to weather the storm in front of a rawkus crowd. The Bruins would bend but not break. Thanks to a three from Maggard and layins from Sierra Jones (Huntsville, Ala.) and Frankie Joubran (Goodrich, Mich.), Belmont concluded the quarter on a 7-0 run to trail just 55-49 heading into the final stanza.
"I think they learned that we have a lot of heart and fight. No matter what the circumstances are, we are never going to give up. That stems from our love for one another. That stems from willingness to put in the work every single day in practice. I think that no matter what, people learn that we're fighters and going to keep coming," said Maggard after the game.
To begin the fourth, McCabe connected on a jumper to draw Belmont to 55-51. The Bruins and Wildcats exchanged baskets, before Kentucky's Epps scored a three-pointer to push the UK lead to seven with 5:27 remaining. Smith then knocked down a free throw at the 2:30 mark to bring Belmont within five at 64-59. Again Kentucky would grow its lead back to seven after a pair of Epps' free throws with 1:25 on the clock. Against the ropes, Belmont responded when Jones scored on a tough baseline drive, the Bruins were back within five. With under a minute left, Belmont fouled Epps and the senior All-SEC talent went to the line. Epps missed both tries to give Belmont a shot at making it a one possession game. Smith would score on the ensuing possession to make it 66-63. Then Belmont elected to foul Morris on the following in bounds, to send her to the charity stripe with 25 seconds left. Morris would make both putting UK back up five. Maggard showed why she is considered one of the nation's best shooters as she knocked down a three to bring Belmont within two at 68-66.
Morris was fouled again, but this time she split the two attempts leaving the door open for the Bruins. With an in bounds play under their own hoop, Belmont lobbed it into McCabe who was fouled and proceeded to hit two clutch free throws to make tt 69-68 with 13 seconds left. The Bruins elected to foul Morris, but this time she was true on both attempts to give UK a 71-68 lead. Belmont elected to go for the quick two-pointer and it was Smith who would score on a crucial layin from the left side to again shrink the UK lead to just a point. With just three seconds remaining Belmont sent Morris to the line. Making her fourth-straight trip to the line in the final four possessions for the Wildcats, Morris made both. Belmont would have one final crack at it with a sideline out of bounds. The Bruins drew up a play for the sharpshooter Maggard. Maggard received the pass but was immediately crowded by two Kentucky post players. After some maneuvering the sophomore managed to get a enough space to get a look, only to see her attempt at the buzzer just miss the mark.
"I think a big testament to our team is how we bounce back. We don't let things like that keep us down. During our second game of the OVC Tournament, the same thing happened. We were down 12, come back and ended up winning the game. It's just what we do. We don't focus on mistakes. We focus on the next play and getting the job done on defense or offense," remarked McCabe.
Belmont came oh so close to becoming just the seventh team in the history of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament to win a No. 13 vs. No. 4 matchup and made a galliant effort to become the conference's sixth team to win a Tournament matchup.
Maggard's five 3-pointers hit against Kentucky today were the most 3-point field goals hit by one player in an NCAA Tournament game against Kentucky in program history.
"Kentucky is a great defensive team. That's where they make their money is getting up in people and being able to force you into tough shots. They switched the last possession. (Makenzie Cann) was out on me, and when I turned, she was right there so I had to pivot to find some space to get the ball up in the air. That's a testament to their defense. The next one's going down," Maggard said.
The Bruins finished shooting 27-of-59 (45.8%) from the floor and 9-of-20 (45.0%) from three-point range while outrebounding UK, 33-28. The Wildcats scored 19 points off Belmont's 13 turnovers. Kentucky, not known as a three-point shooting team, shot 7-of-15 from distance and Epps, who averaged just over one three-pointer a game, cashed in on five.
McCabe finished with her 19th career double double and her seventh this season. She became just the second player to tally a double double in Belmont's postseason history.
Belmont finishes its historic 2016-17 season 27-6 and qualified for back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history. Belmont's 27 wins were the second most in OVC history.
Game Highlights & Postgame Interviews
Women's Basketball battles to the very end with No. 4 Kentucky in opening round of NCAA Tournament