The No. 15 Kentucky Wildcats wore out the No. 25 Missouri Tigers in the second half of an exciting Thursday night matchup in Memorial Coliseum. After a rough outing through the first 20 minutes for either team, Taylor Murray asserted her dominance after halftime to lead a comeback victory for the Wildcats. Let’s talk about what we learned from the battle between the two ranked teams.
Taylor Murray’s second-half performance
This is easily the most important takeaway of this post. Taylor Murray was trapped in a box in the first half but exploded for 13 points in the third quarter and 19 in the second half combined. After Kentucky’s embarrassingly slow start to the game – where they shot 7-25 for only 18 points, a season-low, through the first two quarters – Murray didn’t waste any time breaking the Wildcats out of their slump.
Murray quickly rattled off her own personal 6-0 scoring run, attacking defenders head on and refusing to be denied a lane to the rim. The difference from the first half to the second half was night-and-day but it started with Murray enforcing herself as the leader. She scored only two points in the first half and knew her team needed her intensity to reenergize them in the second.
“I was one of two [in the first half] and I needed to get my team some spark,” Murray said. “And I was able to do that.”
Murray recorded four steals for the game – all of them in the third quarter – and shot 5-6 from the free throw line, as well. She immediately came out of the intermission looking to attack on both ends of the floor. After she hit her first couple shots being aggressive attacking the basket, there was a feeling in the arena that she was about to take over. Every shot she attempted in the third quarter looked like it was going in (she shot 8-13 in the second half).
When asked if he gave Murray any extra motivation at halftime, head coach Matthew Mitchell said he didn’t need to. He just wanted her to be more aggressive.
“I didn’t say anything directly to her. I’m not taking credit for her spectacular play. She came out. We talked about how we had to get more disruptive and we had to make something happen with our defense,” Mitchell said. “You know, she’s been struggling with her knee and I just thought she just started rounding into some form that you all have seen from her this season. It was an outstanding performance and she really was a catalyst that sparked the entire team.”
The knee struggles Mitchell is referring to is a result of a hard fall during the Tennessee game which caused her to miss the matchup against LSU on Jan. 17. She’s been wearing a compression brace on her right knee to help but looked 110 percent against the Tigers.
Murray said she’s finally starting to feel like herself again and the week off in between the LSU and Missouri game really gave her the extra rest she so desperately needed.
“We needed this and it came at the right time,” Murray said. “As you can see, by having that rest, we were able to accomplish a lot of different things for each other.”
Rhyne Howard and the “rookie wall”
I’ve used the term “hitting the rookie wall” to describe Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and his first NBA season with the Los Angeles Clippers and I feel the terms suits the current stretch that star freshman Rhyne Howard is going through right now.
Howard has been struggling since the start of SEC play. In five conference games this season, Howard is averaging only 12.2 points per game on 35.4 percent shooting from the field and 29.4 percent from deep. Those numbers are virtually the exact opposite of what her first 14 games looked like. She sat out the LSU game due to an injury and failed to top double-digits against Tennessee or Missouri.
The injury could still be nagging at her, but that injury didn’t cause her to foul out against Tennessee in only 14 minutes or shoot 4-16 from three against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Her 20-point outing against Ole Miss in a game where the Wildcats snuck away with a six-point win against a seven-win Rebels team was arguably her best performance during SEC play. She shot 7-20 from the field in that game, but more so out of necessity, as both Murray and Maci Morris were sidelined with their own injuries.
So what we have now is a freshman still properly learning how to play in the rigors of Division I inner-conference basketball.
“Rhyne was in a difficult game for her tonight,” said coach Mitchell in regards to the win Thursday night. “The strength of her game is shooting 3s and the mid-range jumper. It’s tough for her around the basket right now. That’s what I told her, these are the games she grows up in. This is where you learn how tough the game is, how physical it is. Missouri’s a great, great team for Rhyne Howard to play against because they just aren’t going to give you anything.”
Howard will be fine, though. She is wayyy too good of a player to be bothered by a mini-slump. There are still over 10 games left just in the regular season, she has plenty of time to figure things out. We’re Kentucky fans, we should know how to deal with ultra-talented freshmen at this point.
A tale of two halves
As for the game itself, Kentucky was the victim of a slow start. Missouri couldn’t escape those clutches, either. At halftime, the score read 21-18 with the Tigers holding a slight edge.
The Wildcats shot a paltry 28 percent from the field in the first half and an even worse 1-8 from three. Missouri was hardly any better, although a bit more efficient, shooting 34.8 percent through the first two quarters while connecting on four of their 12 three-point attempts.
The game broke out with miss after miss, most of them coming from beyond the perimeter. Once the game began to settle in and the pace slowed to normal game speed, Kentucky began to search for shots inside and was successful for the most part, they just couldn’t hit the open looks.
It was a boring affair, to be quite honest, and Kentucky didn’t have a player with more than five points. They went into halftime with little momentum and plenty of nervous fans.
But as we know, Taylor Murray had other plans and her teammates followed the senior’s lead.
Tatyana Wyatt had one of her best quarters in a Kentucky uniform in the fourth and final period. She scored six of her 11 points in that frame and hit a big three to kick it all off. Her rebounding was spectacular and she played impenetrable defense. Her head coach agreed.
“She played one of her best and toughest games since she’s been at Kentucky,” said coach Mitchell. “She’s another one of these players that hasn’t felt great. She’s battling some nagging injuries and she toughed her way through it. She played huge tonight, she really battled… Huge night for Tot Wyatt.”
Kentucky matched their entire first half points total in the third period alone, scoring 18 but this time on 46.7 percent shooting.
For the entire second half, the Cats shot over 41 percent from the field and hit two of their six three-pointers while holding the Tigers to under 32 percent shooting. Once Kentucky shot out of the gate and broke open a lead, they never looked back. It was like watching two entirely different teams out there, but we’ll take the win regardless.
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