BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell has his women’s basketball team one victory away from the school’s first Final Four. The Wildcats had to overcome an incredible effort by Elena Delle Donne to get there.
Jennifer O’Neill scored 19 points and A’dia Mathies added 16 to help Kentucky hold off the Delaware Blue Hens, 69-62, Saturday in the Bridgeport Regional semifinals, bringing to an end the stellar career of Delle Donne.
It’s the second straight season that Kentucky (30-5) has advanced to the regional final and will play UConn. The top-seeded Huskies beat Maryland, 76-50, Saturday in the second game. UConn beat Kentucky by 15 points last year.
‘‘When we were here last year and go back and watch those games, I think we’re more talented than the team last year,’’ Mitchell said. ‘‘If we play really hard and make shots, we can beat either team.’’
The Wildcats would love to advance to New Orleans, the site of the Final Four. It’s the same city where the Kentucky men’s team won the national championship last season.
‘‘That’s something, isn’t it,’’ Mitchell said. ‘‘We’d love the opportunity.’’
Kentucky withstood a Delaware rally led by Delle Donne, who had 33 points for Delaware (32-4). The Wildcats led by 14 in the second half before the Blue Hens cut it to 62-60.
But Kastine Evans calmly responded with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 65-60.
‘‘She’s unbelievable in those moments,’’ Mitchell said. ‘‘She’s made so many of those. I was not surprised and I was elated and very happy . . . we needed a bucket.’’
Jaquetta May had three chances at putbacks on the other end, but couldn’t convert and that ended any shot of the upset and finished off Delaware’s amazing season.
Delle Donne ended as the fifth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,039 points. She passed former stars Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Maya Moore on Saturday. Delle Donne finished short of Jackie Stiles’s all-time scoring mark of 3,393 set at Southwest Missouri State from 1998-2001.
Delle Donne said she had no idea she had passed those women’s basketball greats.
‘‘I wasn’t aware of anything of that nature,’’ Delle Donne said. ‘‘That’s incredible and it’s definitely humbling to be amongst those names.’’
There’s little doubt that Delle Donne might have broken the scoring record had she not missed 22 games in her career. The 6-foot-5-inch star who averaged 26.6 points in her career sat out six games this season because of a recurrence of the symptoms of Lyme disease that forced her to miss a dozen games two years ago.
She did all she could to take Delaware to the regional final. Trailing by 14 early in the second half, the Blue Hens cut the deficit to 62-60 with 2:47 left on a jumper by Delle Donne that touched nearly every part of the rim before dropping in.
That was as close as they could get as Evans answered with her 3-pointer.
‘‘Kastine hit the biggest shot of the game with that 3-pointer,’’ Delaware coach Tina Martin said. ‘‘That broke our back, giving them enough cushion at end of the game that they were able to sustain it and finish the game off.’’
With the game out of reach, Martin took Delle Donne out with 10 seconds left to a warm, long ovation from the crowd.
‘‘She’s so special to the University of Delaware and the state of Delaware,’’ Martin said. ‘‘I wanted them to have one last time to say thank you to her and the legacy she set for the program.’’
Delle Donne had little help in the first half as teammates struggled from the field. She scored 13 straight points as Delaware trailed, 17-15, midway through the first half.