I admit it. I fully expected Sunday’s game against South Carolina to be a bloodbath. That Matthew Mitchell’s Cats have been struggling mightily isn’t a secret. Having to face the #10 ranked and defending National Champion Gamecocks was probably not what I would have chosen as a “feel good” game to regain some confidence. And while the final score showed a 17-point South Carolina win, it certainly felt like a much closer game.
The second of 3 scheduled games in Rupp Arena this season, Sunday’s contest was Kentucky’s designated “We Back Pat” game. This is to remember and honor the late great Pat Summitt and to help raise awareness about and to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. (for more details on Pat Summitt’s foundation, you can read more here). With an announced attendance of 6,521 and a national television audience with the game being broadcast on ESPNU, this game had the potential to be either hugely embarrassing or very inspiring. I had feared it would be the former.
After the first quarter, however, I thought I might be eating some serious crow. To be fair, I wasn’t expecting Maci Morris to be recovered from her knee bone bruise that kept her from playing against Vanderbilt last week. I was unsure if Taylor Murray would maintain her recent resurgence. But both players asserted themselves in the contest (Morris 19 points, 1 rebound, 4 assists and Murray with 17 points, 2 boards, and 2 assists).
Despite numerous shot clock issues and the scoreboard showing “Washington” as the opponent, the Cats were very focused from the beginning. Holding the Gamecocks to 25% shooting, UK kept it close, trailing by only 1 point, 13-12. The 2nd quarter started solidly as well, but then a couple of no-calls on South Carolina followed by a foul called on Kentucky at the other end in what appeared to be a very clean play got Coach Mitchell a bit heated. The ref wasted no time in slapping a technical on Mitchell and what was a 6-point game at the time turned into a 14-point deficit for the Cats at the half.
While the Cats continued to battle in the 3rd quarter, they could never overcome South Carolina’s 81% field goal shooting for the quarter which allowed them to keep the game out of reach. While A’ja Wilson led the Gamecocks with 26 points, the real subplot for many was the return of Alexis Jennings to Lexington after her departure 2 years ago when the Cats had a mass exodus of players. Jennings scored 17 points and grabbed 7 rebounds but insists there are no bad feelings for her former coach or teammates.
For Coach Mitchell, it was an encouraging day, especially when he reviewed the work done by his young post players. Even Coach Staley praised the young Cats for great play but noted “they just ran into players with more experience. I’m just glad we got them at the early part of our SEC season.”
Besides Murray and Morris, Dorie Harrison and KeKe McKinney were also in double figures for the game. Harrison had 11 points and 7 rebounds, while McKinney had 12 points and also pulled down 7 boards. The Cats also made a better showing on the glass after having a sub-par 1st quarter, at least in terms of offensive rebounding. “We aim for 4-5 offensive rebounds per quarter but we only had 5 the entire 1st half” noted Mitchell. That the Cats pulled down 10 more offensive boards in the 2nd half showed Mitchell his players are listening and willing to learn and improve.
How quickly they can improve remains to be seen as the loss brought Kentucky’s record to 9-11 on the season (1-5 SEC). For now, we have to be content with any forward progress no matter how small.
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