The Kentucky Wildcats defeated in-state foe Murray State 88-49 on Friday in Memorial Coliseum, here are a few takeaways from what impressed me the most.
Rhyne Howard is unreal
The freshman from Cleveland, Tennessee is one of the best pure scorers in the country. Howard leads the team in scoring 18.5 points per game and on Friday against Murray State, she put up 17 points in the third quarter alone.
Howard was 6-9 from the field in that quarter after she scored only five points in the first half.
She’s never one to demand the ball, but once her teammates began to realize that Howard was cooking, they were more than happy to give her the ball any opportunity they could. Howard was especially deadly coming off screens and curling up from the baseline where she would pop open for shots from the corner.
She finished with 25 points on 9-13 shooting, including 5-8 from three. It was the fifth time this season she has scored at least 20 points. With the conclusion of this game, Howard is now shooting 48.5 percent from three this season on 70 attempts (which translates to over five three-point attempts per game). She’s an elite-level shooter.
Senior guard Maci Morris praised Howard after the game.
“It’s just fun,” Morris said, referring to watching Howard take over. “Jaida and I were actually just joking about how we think Rhyne shoots better when she’s tired. It just seems like she’s trying her hardest to run up and down the floor and when she gets the ball, she always finds a way to score. It’s very fun to watch and I’ve enjoyed playing with her this season.”
Get familiar with hearing her name repeated over the coming months, she makes getting buckets look so effortless that it’s actually unfair for the defender.
Jaida Roper is the key off the bench
The junior continues to be a force when she comes off the pine. Roper recorded a season-high 15 points on 5-8 shooting and dished out six dimes against Murray State.
She now has back-to-back games with at least 12 points and six assists and has been an excellent on-ball defender when she replaces lockdown defender Taylor Murray.
She may not be a starter, but she’s played the fifth most minutes of anyone on the team and is second in steals (Murray has a healthy lead in that category). She’s a player that gets better every time she steps on the floor and it’s beginning to be a noticeable trend.
After the game, I asked Roper how she has been able to build her confidence with every passing game leading up to this one.
“Credit to my teammates because they help my confidence every game,” Roper said. “They tell me to either take the shot, or if I’m open, make the play that I know I can make. A lot of credit goes to them because they boost my confidence and I’m just trying to put in the extra work that builds my confidence.”
First quarter adjustments
The Wildcats came out sluggish on the defensive end to start the game. Through the first seven/eight minutes, the Racers were pushing the pace and doing everything they could to make sure their best player – Evelyn Adebayo – got as many touches in the paint as possible. It resulted in her scoring 12 first-quarter points and at one point helping Murray State to a surprising 20-14 lead.
Kentucky would finish the quarter on a strong note, tieing the game up at 20, but not before Murray State shot 8-12 from the field.
In the second quarter, the intensity picked up and the Wildcats took over. Adebayo didn’t make another shot until the very last second of the third quarter and hit only a couple of free throws between that time.
Tatyana Wyatt and KeKe McKinney did an outstanding job keeping her off the block and putting her out of position which was clearly frustrating Adebayo.
“We were just not matching her intensity. That’s what we talked about,” said head coach Matthew Mitchell. “I think she (Adebayo) came out really intense and played with a lot of hustle and a lot of fire, and I thought her confidence was really growing as she played well. We were a step slow, and we’re not a very good team when we’re a step slow. We have to commit to max effort, and we just weren’t able to match her intensity early on. So, I was really proud of the team for getting a handle on that and not letting them just run away from us. We were able to kind of reel them back in and get our feet back underneath us. I think she just had a terrific start, and you have to credit her for that. She’s a good player.”
Taylor Murray also provided some much-needed energy, ripping apart the Murray State backcourt multiple times while applying a full-court press. Murray finished with four steals.
The Racers would shoot 11-36 as a team after their hot start and failed to score double-digits in both the second and third quarter.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan