The No. 16 Kentucky Wildcats made sure its seniors would be sent off with a win in Memorial Coliseum as they beat the LSU Tigers by a score of 57-52. Here are a few takeaways from the game.
Behind the two impact seniors, Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, the Wildcats managed to hold off a ferocious fourth-quarter comeback from the Tigers. Murray led the team with 18 points on 7-8 shooting with a clutch steal at the end of the game while Morris had moments of struggle – and didn’t even play in the second quarter – but still finished with 10 points, eight of them coming in the second half.
Senior LaShae Halsel was in the starting lineup for the first time this season and the Kentucky faithful made sure she knew just how important she is to the team. Halsel has only appeared in 10 games this season, but is a part of a feel-good story. After coming to Lexington as a walk-on, she earned a scholarship in the summer of 2018.
The fourth senior, Paige Poffenberger, (who is technically a junior) has been medically retired since the beginning of the season due to complications with her breathing that would not allow her to play Divison-I basketball. Despite her inability to play on the court, she – along with her three seniors – received a long standing ovation from a packed home crowd.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell had high praise for his two star seniors, Morris and Murray.
“It’s hard to describe in words adequately, I’m not sure I can put them into words, she’s meant a whole lot,” Mithcell said, in regards to what Morris has meant to Kentucky. “She’s just come in from day one and really worked. She doesn’t talk a lot, say a whole lot, she just lets her work ethic make a statement for her. She’s grown and developed as a player, she’s grown and developed her leadership and has been able to maintain a great attitude over the four years. Certainly has endeared herself to the fans. You heard in her comments after the game to recognize her folks back home. So just an incredible young woman and representative for our program and the University. So we’re real proud of Maci and happy she got a win on her senior day.”
He then spoke highly of Murray and her growth since arriving on campus.
“Really grown in so many ways, all four of the seniors have grown as people,” Mitchell said. “But, Taylor was very shy, very quiet coming in and is really running our team right now. She had it under control there in a strategic standpoint there in the fourth quarter. She and I were having great conversations. She was checking in with me and everything she was saying was right on point so she has a good grasp of what we’re trying to get done. She has grown so much with her ability to come out of her shell and just be a wonderful representative of our program. We’re real proud of her and she’s playing some awfully good ball right now.”
He’s damn right about that last line, too. It’s even gotten to the point where I’d rather Murray have the ball to ice/win a game over Morris and Howard. Which isn’t a knock against the team’s two top scorers, but man, Murray is just playing with incredible confidence right now. Just in time, too.
It’s been Kentucky’s “Achilles heel” all year long – they rank 13th in the SEC in rebounds per game – and the matchup against LSU was no different. The Tigers had two players who pulled in 11 and 13 rebounds, respectively, while Kentucky didn’t have any player grab more than six. Overall, the Cats were heavily outrebounded on both sides; 14-4 on the offensive glass and 29-23 on the defensive boards.
Typically, such a drastic difference in offensive rebounding numbers leads to a significant advantage in second-chance points, but that wasn’t the case. Kentucky didn’t have the size to deal with LSU’s bigs, but they had the next most important thing – discipline.
Despite 10 more offensive rebounds for LSU, the Wildcats held them to only six second-chance points. Whenever an LSU player got the ball off the glass, Kentucky didn’t panic. Instead, they stayed stiff and arms were shot straight into the air to avoid any possible whistle. And it worked. LSU could shoot over basically any Kentucky player, but having that hand right in-between the arms of the defender proved to be a beneficial tactic.
4th quarter drought
Kentucky maintained a 13-point lead throughout the majority of the game. The team defense was excellent – probably one of the better overall performances on that end of the court all year – and the offense was working through Murray just enough to keep the points flowing in.
But something happened in the fourth quarter that is going to have to be corrected as the SEC Tournament looms. The Cats shot just 2-11 from the field in the final period, scoring a game-low 12 points in the quarter. Kentucky missed its last nine field goal attempts, going without a made shot from the floor in over eight minutes. On the flip side, LSU played it’s best offensive quarter of the game.
The Tigers shot 8-14 in the fourth after shooting 7-12 in the third (the team as a whole shot 5-29 in the first two quarters). Luckily, Kentucky made seven of their eight free throw attempts to stay ahead, but the overall concerns are still alive. The defense definitely slipped up in transition, allowing more LSU made threes in the fourth quarter than in the first three combined, but they did force four turnovers.
Murray, Howard, and Morris did enough down the stretch to pull out the win, but blowing a 13-point lead and going over eight minutes without a field goal cannot happen against the top teams in the SEC. The first three quarters were great for UK, but they still need to learn to play a full 40 minutes if they want to make a run for the SEC Tournament Championship.
Morris and Murray reflected on what it’s meant to be a Kentucky Wildcat these past four years in the postgame press conference.
“I would just remember playing for my teammates while playing with each other,” Murray said. “You also have a great coaching staff that helps develop you both on and off the court. You work from June to now, but you also have the chance to develop great relationships.”
Morris agreed with the sentiment.
“Like Taylor said, you just meet so many people at Kentucky,” Morris said. “You build great relationships and you have both good times and bad times that you get to share with your peers. That’s how you build those strong relationships. Like Taylor said, your teammates, coaches, staff, other classmates, everybody has such a big impact on you and that is what I’m going to remember the most.”
When Howard was asked what she’s going to take away most from her two seniors, she answered pretty bluntly with “Do what the coaches say.”
But the seniors aren’t done quite yet with Memorial Coliseum. They still have one more home game against the Texas A&M Aggies this coming Thursday at 7 p.m.
If it hasn’t set in just yet that their Kentucky careers are coming to a close, Thursday surely will.