Matthew Mitchell’s Cats entered Sunday’s game riding a 5-game losing streak. Opening SEC play against the Tennessee Volunteers was probably not the ideal way to end that streak. There was hope that playing in Rupp Arena and being broadcast live on the SEC Network would be enough to inspire the Cats to pull off the unlikely and open conference play with a win.
That didn’t happen.
Tennessee got off to a blistering start and had the Cats down 26-7 at the end of the first quarter. While the Cats steadied themselves somewhat after that, they could never overcome that large deficit. What led to the Vols getting such a big lead so early? Coach Mitchell offered this explanation:
I didn’t think we started the game with a lot of focus and we clearly have a confidence issue right now. We’ve got to work hard to battle through that. The only way to build confidence is through achievement.
Maci Morris was the leading scorer for Kentucky and the only Wildcat to hit double figures (18 points) in spite of being Tennessee’s main defensive target. Vols’ coach, Holly Warlick stated after the game, “We were extremely concerned about Maci Morris. Our zone wasn’t a traditional zone. We just said wherever she is, you better be near her and Taylor Murray, too.” The Vols answered their coach’s challenge, almost too well as Maci ended up taking a blow to the head that required 2 stitches over her left eye.
Morris returned to the game shortly thereafter, but her 6-14 shooting was not enough to get the Cats back into the game. When asked about UT’s quick start, Maci said, “We’ve struggled coming out and matching other teams’ intensity and we need to work on that. Early on (UT’s defense), they were keying in on me, but later we got a lot of open shots and then didn’t make any.”
One thing the Cats did well was protecting the basketball, giving up on 12 turnovers while causing Tennessee to commit 21. But that advantage was negated by UK only scoring 8 points off of those turnovers. Meanwhile, the Vols outshot and outrebounded the Cats by healthy margins. Coach Warlick was very pleased with her team’s effort:
It’s been a while since we’ve been up here and gotten a win. We focused on a couple of things, taking away their transition baskets and rebounding. Only thing we didn’t understand tonight was what a charge was. Our players will learn you just can’t run over people that are in front of you.
Tennessee was led in scoring by Evina Westbrook who dropped 17 points and added 3 assists and 3 blocks to help balance out her 7 turnovers. Mercedes Russell finished with 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Jaime Nared also reached double figures with 11 points.
So where do the Cats go from here? Mitchell puts a lot of the onus for improvement on himself.
We’ve got to fight our way out of this. Good news is between now and the 11th of January, we have time to work on this. Right now, what we have to do is understand that everything that’s happening, that we are participating in, we are a much better collection of players than what we’re showing. We’ve not done a good job as coaches of making everyone understand exactly what we need from them. (This has led to players feeling) uneasy and off-balance. There is a way forward here. It’s not magic. They’ve got to know they can play winning basketball and I have to create an atmosphere in practice (that will allow that to happen).
Before leaving, Mitchell offered praise for the crowd in Rupp Arena today. “We didn’t give them much to cheer about but we really appreciated them.”
Now, we can only wait to see if the Cats can regain the confidence and return to winning basketball games. The talent is there but only time will tell.
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