A forgettable March Madness for Big Blue Nation: Kentucky women also eliminated in first round

It has been a March Madness to forget for Big Blue Nation. After Kentucky's men were stunned by St. Peter's in the first round on Thursday, the Kentucky Wildcats women were upset 69-62 in their NCAA tournament opener by the Princeton Tigers on Saturday.

The No. 6 seed Kentucky women came in on a high, having won the program's second SEC tournament title -- and first since 1982 -- by beating the South Carolina Gamecocks on March 6. The Wildcats, who weren't even projected to reach the NCAA tournament in mid-February, entered March Madness on a 10-game winning streak and seemed poised to make an NCAA tournament run behind star Rhyne Howard.

Instead, No. 11 seed Princeton moved its winning streak to 18 games. The Tigers got just the second NCAA tournament victory for their program and the third overall for the Ivy League; the other two were by Princeton in 2015 and by the Harvard Crimson in 1998, the only time a No. 16 seed has beat a No. 1 in the women's NCAA tournament.

Last season, Princeton and other Ivy League schools didn't play because the conference opted not to have sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Was this the biggest win in Princeton women's history?

"I think on this stage, with the seed we had and beating a Kentucky team, the SEC champion ... yeah," Tigers coach Carla Berube said. "It's definitely up there.

"It was certainly a challenging time when the Ivy League decided to not play. We were scattered all over the country watching the NCAA tournament [last season]. It was strange; it was tough. We stayed connected, and we came back really grateful to be together again and playing the game that we love. There's just so much joy that the players have."

In contrast, Kentucky seemed shocked that the season -- and also Howard's college career -- were over. Kentucky struggled for the first few months of the season and was 9-11 on Feb. 10. But the Wildcats then appeared to turn things around completely -- until Saturday.

Kentucky is the first school to have both its men's team and women's team lose opening NCAA tournament games against a double-digit seed in the same year since Florida in 2002.

Howard, a two-time SEC player of the year, finished with 17 points and eight rebounds but was just 4-of-14 from the field. Junior Dre'una Edwards, who hit the winning shot in the SEC title game, had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

"I'm gonna say it was just one of those days," Edwards said about what went wrong for Kentucky.

Asked about being the SEC tournament champions facing the Ivy League tournament champions, Howard said, "Credit to Princeton, but we've played better teams and come out on top."

As Edwards added, "I think SEC is the top conference in women's basketball, so that's pretty much all I got to say."

Perhaps, but that didn't matter in Saturday's final score for Kentucky. Of the SEC's eight teams in the tournament, four -- Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss -- lost in the first round. LSU was pushed to the limit by Jackson State before winning 83-77. South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee also advanced.

Princeton moves on to face No. 3 seed Indiana in the second round.

"We like to say this wasn't an upset in our minds," said Princeton senior Abby Meyers, who scored 29 points. "We were ready. We knew that we were going to be underestimated, just being a mid-major Ivy League team. We're just gonna set our sights on Indiana, prepare as best we can and be ready to shock the world again."

For Kentucky, it was the program's fourth consecutive early-round loss in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats fell in the second round to Iowa last season, to NC State in 2019 and to Ohio State in 2017. They didn't play in the 2018 tournament.

Howard is expected to be one of the top two picks in April's WNBA draft. She said she wasn't thinking about that just yet on Saturday.

"I know it's gonna come quickly," Howard said. "But I'm going to take some time to look back on everything we've accomplished here. And everything I've done over these past four years."