If they had set this pregame press conference to music, you’d have heard the haunting theme song of Jaws.
Playing the part of the skinny-dipping party girl swimming obliviously in the lagoon would be University of Dayton point guard Sam MacKay.
As for that toothy great white shark rising up from the depths beneath her, that would be the No. 7-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, a team that has five McDonald’s All Americans and features a swarming, pressuring defense that bills itself as “40 Minutes of Dread.”
“They are going to be after us from the jump,” said UD coach Jim Jabir. “They’re going to smell blood from the beginning.”
That pretty much sums up the story line for tonight’s second round NCAA women’s tournament game between the seventh-seeded, 28-2 Dayton Flyers and second-seeded, 28-5 Kentucky at fabled Carnesecca Arena on the St. John’s University campus.
And that Kentucky defense doesn’t just have a catchy motto, it has teeth.
The Wildcats force opponents into an average of 24 turnovers a game. They lead the nation in the turnover margin and lead the Southeastern Conference in steals and blocked shots.
And after watching UD in its harrowing 96-90 double overtime victory over St. John’s in the NCAA tournament opener here Sunday, Kentucky has to feel that swarming defense is the way to gobble up the Flyers.
Trailing by 13 points with under five minutes left, St. Johns threw on the press, denied the inbounds pass, trapped, harassed and quickly rattled the Flyers, who didn’t just lose the lead, but fell behind in the first over time before mounting a final rally to win.
“It would be stupid if you didn’t understand that we didn’t handle the pressure real well that St. John’s threw at us,” said Jabir. ‘And that’s all Kentucky does.”
In the middle of that toothy swirl will be MacKay, the senior point to whom UD looks whenever the opposition’s defense gets especially intense.
“It’s gonna be a bloodbath tomorrow,” MacKay said before her team practiced Monday. “The team that survives is gonna be the one who is mentally tough enough to take a hit and get back up.”
And she knows she will be targeted.
“Obviously I’m slower than every single person on that Kentucky bench and they probably see that as a weakness and want to come at me,” she said. “In the past, people would press me and not press Patrice (last year’s starting point guard Patrice Lalor). I take that personally and do my best to make them pay for those kind of actions.”
In fact, that’s just what happened at the end of regulation against St. John’s. The Red Storm had tied the game 73-73 with 14 seconds left.
MacKay – who would finish with 14 points – ended up with ball after the inbounds pass and St. John’s swarming attack was led by its superb guard and future pro, Shenneika Smith, who was both quicker than her UD counterpart and had five inches on her.
But refusing to yield, MacKay barreled down the court and when Smith went for a ball fake, she made what should have been the winning layup with 5.8 seconds left. The play was so impressive it made ESPN SportsCenter.
But then a complete breakdown by the UD defense allowed St. John’s Nadirah McKenith to drive the length of the court and score at the buzzer to set up the wrenching, two-overtime marathon.
Other teams besides St. John’s have tried to melt UD with intense pressure. St. Joseph’s did it in the final minutes of a game at UD Arena and had some luck, though the Hawks lost. And Arizona State tried it too and led by double digits at halftime before UD clawed its way back to victory.
“Arizona State pressed us the entire game,” MacKay said. “They had two point guards keep switching in and out on me all game. But we won that one and I’m pretty sure we’re 5-0 against BCS schools now. That’s not easy to do.”
And the Flyers are not coming into the Kentucky game blindly. They’ve faced the Wildcats in closed-door preseason scrimmages the past two seasons — a year ago at UD Arena and this past October in Lexington.
By all accounts they held their own with the ‘Cats this preseason, but both Jabir and Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell warn not to read too much into that.
“I think it would be a mistake to take very much from that,” Mitchell said. “That was real, real early and we didn’t have a lot of things in and I’m sure Dayton didn’t either.”
Jabir said the one good thing from that scrum was that it gives the Flyers “a certain familiarity” with Kentucky.
“I don’t feel like we’re intimidated by them. I don’t think there will be any awe or , ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’ on Tuesday. They do certain things well. We do certain things well. It’s going to come down to who executes on the court.”
Mitchell praised the Flyers Monday, especially for the way they came back after falling behind St. John’s: “A lot of times when you have control of a game and then lose it, you don’t have the strength to come back. They did. I was totally impressed by that.”
Now the Flyers will have to show their backbone again against a team that has been to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight two of the past three seasons.
“We have to be able to walk onto the court and say, ‘We’re just as good as you and today whatever happens is going to happen,’” said Jabir. “’Whatever you did last year or the year before doesn’t matter.’ We just have to think about right now.
“Sure we’re going to see a lot of pressure and if we can handle it then we have a shot at being victorious. If we can’t we’ll be flying home Tuesday still having a great rear.”
The Flyer certainly believe the former can happen.
After all, in Jaws, remember the shark gets blown to smithereens in the end.
No. 7 Dayton vs. No. 2 Kentucky, 7:15 p.m., ESPN2