RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Once Maci Morris warmed up, she made sure her final NCAA Tournament appearance at Kentucky wouldn’t be a short one.
Morris had 19 points in her highest-scoring game in nearly two months, and the Wildcats beat Princeton 82-77 on Saturday in the first round.
“When I see them go in, it just gets me going,” Morris said. “It felt really good since I’d been struggling a bit the past few games.”
Taylor Murray scored 14 of her 19 points in the second half, freshman Rhyne Howard had 15 and Tatyana Wyatt finished with 12 to help sixth-seeded Kentucky (25-7) reach the second round of the Greensboro Region.
Kentucky, one of the nation’s leaders in turnover margin, turned Princeton’s 16 giveaways into 22 points and shot 50 percent but could never get comfortable against the 11th-seeded Tigers.
Ivy League player of the year Bella Alarie finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists for 11th-seeded Princeton (22-10). Gabrielle Rush added 22 points with six 3-pointers, while Sydney Jordan scored a career-high 17 points.
“What you saw right there was this team in a nutshell, and the resilience of this group was on display,” coach Courtney Banghart said.
Alarie pulled the Tigers within 73-68 with a three-point play with 3:29 remaining. Howard, the Southeastern Conference’s newcomer of the year, countered with a 3 and the Wildcats forced three straight defensive stops before Carlie Littlefield’s 3 made it 76-71 with 34.6 seconds to play.
Princeton had one last chance to make it a one-possession game, trailing 80-75 after Howard missed two free throws with 20.6 seconds left, but Littlefield missed a 3 with about 12 seconds left and Howard iced it with two foul shots with 11.9 seconds remaining.
Princeton: The Tigers have established themselves as the premier program in the Ivy League and an NCAA Tournament regular. The next step is to find a way to earn another win or two. Princeton was in position for its second tournament victory and first since beating Green Bay four years ago, leading late in the third quarter, but couldn’t close it out.
“This game really showed we can hang with some of the best teams in the country,” Alarie said.
Kentucky: Now that the Wildcats are back in the tournament, they want to stick around for a while. Kentucky, which missed the field last year after making it eight years in a row, has not lost its tournament opener since 1991 and improved to 9-0 in the first round under coach Matthew Mitchell.
“They wanted to stay positive and know that they can make some noise here in the tournament,” Mitchell said.
The difference in the game wound up being Kentucky’s 9-0 spurt over the final 90 seconds of the third quarter. That broke the game’s final tie and gave the Wildcats the first semblance of breathing room that they had all day. Morris capped it with a buzzer-beating 3 that made it 61-52 entering the fourth.
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This was Morris’ highest-scoring game since she had 21 in a home loss to South Carolina on Jan. 31. She had 14 points combined in her last two games, the regular-season finale at Georgia and the SEC Tournament opener against Missouri. The senior averages 13 for her career and 14.9 for the season.
Kentucky: Plays the Maine-North Carolina State winner on Monday in the second round.
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