An unseasonably bitter cold morning in November with a noon tipoff time. The first game after a super impressive performance at the Paradise Jam last week (the Cats won 3 straight games to capture the Island Division Championship). Taylor Murray being named National Player of the Week as well as SEC Player of the Week and Rhyne Howard claiming SEC Freshman of the Week honors. An opponent over whom the Cats hold a 30-4 all-time record, and a current streak of 13 consecutive wins. As Coach Mitchell said earlier this week, he just hoped his team would remain focused and not get “beat like a steel drum” (a reference to the trophy they won at the Paradise Jam).
It certainly seemed that the Kentucky-Morehead State matchup had all the ingredients for a “hangover” or “trap” game for Coach Matthew Mitchell’s team. While the Cats were assumed to be a big favorite, the Eagles had scored over 100 points in each of the previous 4 games. Whatever the outcome, it promised to be a high-scoring affair.
The Cats quickly eased any fears about this being a “hangover” game and within 4 minutes, had opened a 15-5 lead. Howard led the Cats early with 8 points in the 1st quarter and eventually finished the game with a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds). But it was Maci Morris and her 19-point explosion in the 2nd quarter that blew the game wide open for Kentucky. By the time the 3rd quarter had ended, UK had 4 players in double-digits (Morris, Howard, Taylor Murray, and Jaida Roper) while the Eagles still hadn’t had a single player score that many points.
It was by no means a perfect game for the ladies. The 3rd quarter included a sudden cold-shooting streak for several minutes. There were the 18 turnovers by the Cats, a much higher number than Mitchell would like to see. But Kentucky did hold Morehead to only 57 points which is pretty impressive considering Morehead entered the game as one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation. Recording 4 blocks and 18 steals was a nice stat as well.
After the game, Mitchell was very pleased with the energy his team started the game with and managed to maintain, at least for the majority of the time. He noted they might not be the best team in the country, nor the most talented, but he knows his players truly care for one another and the sum is far greater than the total of the individual parts. The famous full-court press has shown a lot of improvement over the first of the season, but as Coach noted, they have a long way to go to make the press as effective as it needs to be.
“We went from not knowing what we were doing, to creating a pace. A lot of the turnovers that are happening now are because people are in a hurry – it’s not so much trapping and rotating. We had one good trap and rotation today, that’s an improvement over zero. It can get better and with the press you just have to start seeing it. Our first pressing team that went to the Elite 8 in 2010, we weren’t very good until January and that’s when it really started to come together. What this team is doing is they’re playing hard enough that you may look at it on film as in she’s open, she’s wide open, I need to make those plays. However, people are still making mistakes because we have to have the right pace. Next, we are denying enough for the entry pass right now that’s causing some difficulty. As we are trying to get better, teams will get better throughout the season. We got to search, fight and hunt for improvement every day. The commitment to playing that hard has been really good so far, but what we told them going into this game was we really got to sell out and commit to it and see if we can round ourselves into a really good defensive team.”
As for the explosion of points by Maci Morris in the first half, the obvious question is, was that a record? Yes, it was. Maybe. Her 25 first-half points were the most points scored by one player in a half since at least 1982-83. Prior to the 82-83 season, box scores for each half were not recorded so it’s impossible to call this an official school record. For reference, however, the last time a player came close to that production was Valerie Still in 1982 who scored 24 points in one half.
For now, Mitchell’s team gets a well-deserved rest after having played 4 games in 7 days. They will be in action again next Thursday (either 7 pm or 9 pm) against Rhode Island. For tickets, visit www.UKAthletics.com.
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