I think we can all agree that the Kentucky’s women’s basketball team won’t have another game where they shoot 0-16 from three. You know how the old saying goes: “live by the three, die by the three”. And while the current meaning of that saying has undergone reconstructive surgery since the three-point boom that has captivated the NBA, it still holds value for this UK Hoops team specifically.
But the Missouri Tigers didn’t live by the three its win over the Cats in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. Missouri did hit six of its 15 attempts from deep, but also scored 24 points in the paint and hit 24 of 29 free-throw attempts. A much more balanced offensive attack than what Kentucky was going for. But that’s been Kentucky’s strategy for most of the season. If they can create enough looks from the outside, it opens up space for a driving Taylor Murray or a paint-posting Tatyana Wyatt.
In theory, the Cats did create those looks. It wasn’t like Missouri had both hands in the eyes of every three-point attempt by Kentucky. Kentucky just missed the shots. Rhyne Howard was 0-6 from three. Amanda Paschal was 0-4 from three despite playing an all-around solid game. Maci Morris only got off two attempts from deep. Kentucky is fourth in the SEC in made threes per game at 7.0. They rank 29th in the entire country in three-point percentage. They don’t take nearly as many of shots from the perimeter as you might think, actually (the team’s three-point rate ranks in the bottom half of the nation), but it’s a shot they rely on to get other looks. If the three isn’t falling, Kentucky struggles, and that could be an issue come tournament time. But we need to establish that there is no chance this team shoots 0-16 again from three. That just isn’t going to happen.
But there is a bad trend forming…
The three-point shooting struggles do indicate a trend, however. Kentucky went 11-6 in the SEC this year – including the tournament game against Missouri – and in the 11 wins, the team shot 35.6 percent from deep. In the six losses? They averaged 21.3 percent shooting from deep.
What’s somewhat frustrating is that Kentucky shot only 21.4 percent from three in the first matchup against Missouri back in late January. A game the Cats won rather handily.
Kentucky doesn’t need to make threes to win. While they went 4-2 in SEC play when they converted on more than 35 percent of its threes, they were 7-2 when they shot under 35 percent from three. They won three of those games despite shooting in the very low 20s. Its the mere threat of the three-point shot that makes the Cats so dangerous. Howard, Morris, Jaida Roper, and Blair Green all shoot over 35 percent from three and have to be defended along the perimeter. Howard, Green, and Morris are big enough that they typically draw the opposing teams better defenders/rebounders outside of the paint. It’s why Kentucky posts above-average offensive rebounding numbers despite being one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the entire country. Kentucky knows how to exploits holes in opposing defenses.
*Side Note: Kentucky pulled in 17 offensive rebounds against Mizzou in the SEC Tourney compared to only six for the Tigers, but were dominated on the defensive glass, 34-17.*
When the shots are falling from deep – even if it’s only a few of them – it draws those players out even further away from their preferred positioning. It makes the defenses uncomfortable. It’s one of the few things that can make up for the Wildcats lack of size in the frontcourt.
The defense appears to have a “switch”
Kentucky is well-known for its relentless full-court press. Its what kept Kentucky in the game against Missouri, as the Cats forced 26 turnovers, six of them courtesy of the Tigers best player, Sophie Cunningham.
But in the first quarter, the defense came out flat. And this isn’t the first time I’ve said this to myself. The offense has had issues with coming out flat this year – and scored only seven points in the first period against Missouri before posting 12, 21, and 19 in the following three. But the defense is what drives this team. Creating havoc in the backcourt and burning teams with fast break points is a staple of how this team generates points. If the defense isn’t making an impact, the offense can get stuck in halfcourt offensive sets.
Through the first five minutes against Mizzou, Kentucky’s defense was not engaged, and it allowed the Tigers to build an early lead off 15 first-quarter points (the second-most points by them in one period during this game). They actually had 12 points through the first seven minutes before Kentucky’s defense woke up and held them to only three points the rest of that period. But the damage had already been done. Kentucky didn’t get its first lead of the game until it was 51-50 in the fourth quarter.
I don’t think we’ve seen a full 40-minute defensive effort from this team in some time now. Obviously, it’s an incredibly difficult task to accomplish considering they have to play the other end of the floor as well. And there are times when the offense slows down to a pace that is less than ideal probably due to some tired legs.
Kentucky has recorded 335 steals this season, ranking 6th out of a possible 351 teams. Murray on her own has accounted for 30 percent of them. And while Murray is basically one giant ball of nonstop energy, even she can’t consistently go all out on both sides of the floor for an entire game. She sure has tried – and sometimes succeeded – to do so, but against the top squads in the NCAA Tournament, the team has to bring the defensive energy from the jump to help spark the offense (especially if the outside shots aren’t falling).
For what it’s worth, if Kentucky hits just one of its outside looks, they win this game. It’s not often you force the opposing team into 26 turnovers while shooting 18-19 from the charity stripe and lose a game. But when you shoot 6-32 in the first half (18.8 percent) and miss every three, that drastically reduces the odds to win. Let this team play Missouri in a seven-game series and the Cats win in five or six games, but that isn’t how things work. Missouri shot incredibly well (48.8 percent for the game) and Cunningham did just enough at the end to squeak out a win.
Rhyne Howard wants the big moment
She may have missed two potential game-winning shots – one at the end of regulation and another in overtime – but she is the primary player I want with the ball in her hands to end the game. She’s hit several big shots this year (look no further than the Arkansas game-winner from Feb. 17) and was itching to do it once more. Unfortunately, the shots didn’t go in against Missouri (although to be fair, no one else was hitting shots), but the confidence she displayed as a freshman, to be the go-to scorer on a team with perhaps one of the all-time greatest shooters to play for the blue and white in Morris, was telling.
As great as Morris and Murray have been all season, I’d guess they have no issue with Howard taking the big shots. You don’t find the confidence in freshmen that Howard possesses very often. Just her willingness to take these shots is insane for a first-year player. Don’t be surprised if she sends Kentucky into the Sweet 16 off of a fadeaway three from the top of the key. You know she’s dreaming of it. She won’t forget what happened in Greenville.
Now the Wildcats just have to sit and wait. The team won’t find out where the Selection Committee seeds them until Monday, March 18. I’ll have more in-depth breakdowns of the team and individual players throughout the week to try and give everyone a better idea of who this team is as they head into the final postseason schedule.
(Stats via Her Hoop Stats)