Matthew Mitchell reminded reporters on Sunday after the Cats’ win over Samford that Kentucky was in for a “tough December.” Now here it was, the 1st day of December and the Cats were facing their toughest opponent so far this season in #12 Oklahoma.
The Sooners came into Memorial having started their season with a perfect 5-0 record. Shot blocking and rebounding have been the strengths of this year’s Oklahoma team, as well as forcing turnovers at a pretty good clip. But would this be enough to defeat the Cats and get a small bit of revenge for being eliminated by UK in last year’s 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament?
As it turned out, revenge was not to be had by Oklahoma as they fell to Kentucky 82-68 in what was easily the best women’s game I’ve seen yet this season. Both teams played with a high level of energy, and the Sooners were scorching the nets from the 3-point line in the first half, while the Cats were struggling to score from beyond the arc. An additional challenge for Kentucky was early foul trouble for double-double machine, Evelyn Akhator.
In the end, it didn’t matter as Makayla Epps and Maci Morris took matters into their hands. Morris ended up with a career-high 19 points, while Epps was steady all game, tallying 30 points of her own. It didn’t hurt the Cats’ cause either that they were exceptional at the free throw line, sinking 17-20 for 85%. But the biggest surprise may have been UK’s leading rebounder for the game: Maci Morris (8 boards). She explained, “I just felt with our bigs out, I had to go and get the ball.”
After the game, Coach Mitchell said several times how proud he was of his team. And with good reason; with the foul trouble that plagued Akhator and Alyssa Rice, the Cats played long stretches with 5 guards on the floor. Mitchell said, “We’ve tried to work so hard to get our normal rotation down…it’s not left a lot of time to work on that 5-guard lineup.” He continued, “They just had to dig really deep, and it’s just awesome to see this team do that.”
And dig deep, they did. A game that was very close for most of 3 quarters, a game that saw the Cats briefly fall behind a couple of times, a game that was “really important to win” in Mitchell’s words, this team dug deep and found a way to win. True to this team’s motto of “ONE”, they played with one purpose and as one unit. While Epps and Morris were instrumental in securing the victory, it was clear from watching the game that every player was dedicated to playing with purpose.
It wasn’t just the Kentucky coaches and fans that recognized this purpose either. When Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale was asked to compare this UK team with the one her Sooners faced last spring in the NCAA Tournament, her reply was, “This team plays more purposeful.”
This purpose was shown by Makenzie Cann, who came off the bench to add 10 points, 4 rebounds and some solid defense. It was shown by Evelyn Akhator, who never gave up and even though she played with 3 fouls the entire fourth quarter, she was confident enough to step in and take a couple of charging fouls at key times. And this purpose was shown repeatedly by Taylor Murray.
Murray had 9 points and 6 rebounds, but her influence on the game went far beyond the stat sheet. Seemingly everywhere at the same time, Taylor provided a defensive spark that seemed to energize the rest of her teammates. When Mitchell was asked about Murray’s play, she got glowing reviews:
“She’s really taken on the role of being our defensive leader. I think for a few weeks, she kind of doubted herself, whether she had the stamina or ability to do this.”
As satisfying as this win was, the Cats can’t let up as they have another big game on Sunday when they travel to Louisville to play the #4 Cardinals. That means a lot more practice, a lot more “figuring out” of what this team needs to do, and continuing to fight through adversity.
Against Oklahoma, these Cats figured out several things, kind of like on the job training. Mitchell summed it up by saying “It’s great to win while you’re still trying to come together.”
The rest of December should be the best training ground the Cats could ask for.
Next week: At Louisville, Dec. 4; Middle Tennessee St, Dec. 9
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