The No. 16 ranked Kentucky Wildcats followed up their most impressive win of the season with a dud against an Ole Miss team sitting near the bottom of the SEC standings.
After beating No. 13 Tennesse and earning their first win in Knoxville since 2014, the Wildcats were outplayed from the opening tip by the Rebels as Maci Morris was forced to watch from the sideline as she dealt with knee pain.
Let’s take a quick dive into what we learned. Spoiler: Kentucky should just burn the tape and forget that this game ever happened.
No Maci Morris
While Taylor Murray’s status was up in the air coming into the game, she wasn’t the one who had to sit out with knee pain. Murray missed the entire second half against Tennessee after landing hard on her left knee and came off the bench before playing 35 minutes. She wore a padded compression sleeve around her leg.
Morris’ knee wasn’t as fortunate. Right before tip, she was ruled out with what would later be defined as “knee pain”.
“She practiced Friday and Saturday,” Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “She was warming up before the game before she didn’t feel like she could go. She’s so tough so you know it was really bothering her for her not to play. I think the timing of it maybe affected our energy.”
Her absence was felt immediately.
One of the main reasons Kentucky was able to jump out to a massive lead against Tennessee was because of Morris’ hot shooting coming out of the gate. Without her, Kentucky looked stunned. It was as if they were learning to run an offense for the very first time.
Morris’ teammates didn’t even know she was going to sit out until tipoff.
“She told us right before we did the starting lineup that she wouldn’t be participating.” freshman guard Rhyne Howard said.
Killed by the zone
The zone defense that Ole Miss employed is really what gave Kentucky fits.
Throughout the entire 40 minute game, Kentucky could never once establish a rhythm. Their quick passes around the top of the key were ineffective with no one to create a shot or penetrate the paint. The Rebels packed everything in and forced UK to hit their outside looks, which they did not. The Cats shot 6-23 from deep for the game.
Give credit where credit is due. Ole Miss did an excellent job of sticking to their zone and making Kentucky work for every bucket. There was hardly an uncontested shot at the rim for Kentucky and more open misses from long range than one can count. The Cats scored a season-low 21 first-half points.
“I thought we got the ball in the right places,” Mitchell said. “We just couldn’t make shots today.”
Kentucky ranks sixth in the SEC in field goal percentage with an average of 43.6 percent. Against Ole Miss, the Cats shot only 26.6 percent from the field and scored 30 points below their season average.
“It’s not typical of what we’ve been doing, we’ve shot the ball really well this year. I just think mentally we were clearly not at the standard we’ve set as a team,” Mitchell said. “We couldn’t get anything going for us because we just couldn’t get out of the gate and play with effort and energy, so everything as far as what we were lacking today, it really starts and ends there. I think we missed a lot of layups, and just lacking focus and energy. Clearly, we have to do a better job.”
Perhaps the adrenaline rush of the Tennessee win was an overhanging factor, but there was no excuse for some of the layups the Cats missed from point-blank range.
Murray went 0-8 from the field as the knee injury was an obvious factor in her poor offensive performance. But she was optimistic coming off the defeat.
“It stings,” Murray said, in reference to the loss. “but we as a team just have to stick together and stay positive. We just have to come up with better energy and better hustle and we can’t allow a team to just come in and disrupt us of what we’re supposed to do. We have to just be Wildcats and continue what we need to do.”
Rhyne Howard had to take over
Freshman guard Rhyne Howard – who is second on the team in scoring behind Morris – was forced to take over most of the scoring duties. She did her best to penetrate and create the offense, but against a stout defense, she could hardly even find a crevice to attack. And even if she did pop open, there were times where she missed open shots she normally hits.
Howard still finished with 20 points – although on 7-20 shooting – and 11 rebounds for her fourth double-double of the season.
With the game still hanging in the balance late and Kentucky losing the lead for the first time since the first quarter, Howard was pressured into taking contested shots, but it was hard to blame her. It was clear that the half-court offense wasn’t going to run a productive play and Howard trying to make something out of nothing was out of necessity more than anything.
Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin hopped on the Howard hype train, too, praising Howard as other opposing coaches have time and time again this season.
“Oh she’s a stud,” McPhee-McCuin said. “When I saw USA Basketball, I told everybody I thought that kid [Howard] had a chance to be freshman of the year. I mean she has my vote and we got a lot more basketball. She understands the game, but she’s a freshman.”
Blair Green and KeKe McKinney
Some praise deserves to be directed towards freshman Blair Green and sophomore KeKe McKinney.
Green was a breath of fresh air for moments of this game, hitting a couple of her open looks and playing solid defense. She finished with nine points on 4-9 shooting and played 26 minutes, her highest since late November.
McKinney was a beast on the block, standing tall like a brick wall in the paint and scrapping for every loose ball. She pulled down eight rebounds, one off her season high and the most for her since the game against Lousiville. She also produced a 6-0 run by herself late in the third quarter that gave Kentucky one of their only cushions of the game.
Without these two (and Howard), the score would not have been as close as it was.
Kentucky has a shot for redemption, however, as they’ll take on 11-4 LSU on Thursday.