Before Sunday’s matchup versus the Louisville Cardinals, my largest concern was free-throw shooting. The Cats had been shooting a poor 64.9% for the season and I had feared this inconsistency at the line would cost them this game. But the Cats, who were 100% from the line for most of the game, shot a healthy 80% in their 67-66 loss to the Cardinals. Looking at the stat sheet, it was clear Louisville’s 37-17 rebound average is what ultimately sunk the Cats.
Kentucky entered Sunday’s matchup ranked #3 in the nation for scoring defense having given up no more than 54 points in 10 straight games this season, which is a program record. Coach Matthew Mitchell’s team was also sporting a perfect 10-0 record and carried a #14 national ranking. The Cats also boast last season’s National Freshman Player of the Year, Rhyne Howard as well as senior Jaida Roper who was fresh off her career-high 30 point game on Wednesday.
Louisville was no slouch either, having been ranked as high as #2 with a chance to get to #1 after beating then top-ranked Oregon on November 30. But the Cards immediately lost their next game to unranked Ohio State and fell to their current ranking of #7. Still, they brought 3 players who average double-digit scoring (Dana Evans, Jazmine Jones, and Elizabeth Balogun) with Kylee Shock close to joining that club with a 9.6 ppg average. The Cards also topped the Cats in rebounds per game, points per game, and free throw shooting.
But it’s a rivalry game and historically we’ve seen the stats often don’t matter in games like this. It comes down to heart, hustle, desire, and focus.
The first quarter, however, went much like the first quarter in a number of the Cats’ previous games. The shooting was off, mental lapses were in abundance, and the energy wasn’t what you’d like to see. Louisville closed out the opening quarter with their biggest lead of the game, 21-15.
The 2nd quarter, thankfully, was much like a lot of the Cats’ previous games as well. They erased the 6-point deficit and outscored Louisville 24-10 to take a 40-31 lead to the locker room. Rhyne Howard was scoring seemingly at will and KeKe McKinney was making key plays at the right time. it looked like everything was in Kentucky’s favor: only 2 teams fouls, a 9-point lead, the home crowd advantage (in all fairness, you can’t call Rupp Arena the “home court”).
The first 3 minutes of the 3rd quarter went smoothly enough as the teams exchanged baskets, but then the wheels started to fall off for the Cats. Louisville outscored Kentucky 27-15 on the back of strong play by Kylee Shook and Dana Evans, both of whom finished the game with double-doubles. For Shook, it was 11 points and 13 rebounds, while Evans scored 18 and dished out 10 assists. Coach Mitchell said after the game they were concerned about Evans and her high 3-point shooting percentage and wanted to keep that in check, but Dana found other ways to hurt the Cats.
In the 4th, you couldn’t ask for more. The Cats would tie the game, then Louisville would take the lead. The entire quarter played out this way until the final 40 seconds when the Cats trailed and simply had to get a stop. They promptly did just that but failed to convert and the Cards got the rebound. The clock ticked down and once again, the Cats managed to force a turnover and had 8 seconds to run the court and get off a shot. Howard started a drive toward the basket but then pulled back out, then had an open look from long range, a shot she makes “all the time” according to Rhyne’s post-game remarks. Unfortunately, it clanked off the rim, the horn sounded, and for the 4th year in a row, the Cards took the win over the Cats.
There were some who questioned why Mitchell didn’t call a timeout prior to the last play and that is a fair question. The coach responded that Louisville, after the Cats forced the turnover, was disorganized and he truly thought UK had the advantage by playing through. He did “wish” Howard had driven the ball down the lane since UK was in the bonus, but stated the shot she took “was a good, open look” and one she makes frequently. “But Rhyne is only 40 games into her college career. She’ll learn from this.”
For the Cats, Howard led the way with 26 points while Haines and Wyatt each added 12 to the total. To have come within 2 points of a victory after such a poor rebounding effort should encourage the BBN. The free-throw shooting was improved and only 9 teams fouls were committed the entire game. They also dished 11 assists with only 9 turnovers, so many positives can be found.
The Cats have one more warmup before starting league play against South Carolina on January 2, and that will be at California on Saturday. The next home game for Kentucky is January 5 when Tennessee comes to Lexington.