The 18th ranked Kentucky Wildcats (13-1) defeated the Sacred Heart Pioneers (4-7) by a score of 71-43 early on Saturday in a busy Memorial Coliseum.
After a rough start to the game, the backcourt combination of seniors Taylor Murray and Maci Morris along with junior Jaida Roper spurred the Wildcats to victory after a week off to celebrate Christmas.
Kentucky came out struggling in this one. Whether it was the week off, the holiday fever getting to them, or the early tipoff, something had the Cats looking flat and a bit off beat.
The Wildcats were constantly beat with backdoor cuts, long passes out of the fullcourt press, and at times were walking to rebounds. They shot only 12-39 from the field in the first half and forced only five Sacred Heart turnovers. Their deadly full-court press looked anything but as Sacred Heart had little issue pushing the ball across midcourt.
Kentucky’s leading scorer Rhyne Howard especially couldn’t find her rhythm. She started the game 0-8 before taking the ball to the rack for an easy lay-in with under four minutes left in the second quarter. She would finish the half shooting 1-10 and missed a few point-blank layups. Howard would only make one more shot throughout, finishing the game with seven points on 2-15 shooting. She did make up for her absent scoring, though, grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds.
Her teammates, however, helped pick up the slack on offense.
Maci Morris and Jaida Roper were the two bright spots in a dull first half of basketball. Morris hit three triples and drove for a layup to lead the team with 13 points at the break. Roper was demonstrating her excellent playmaking abilities, dishing out four assists in the first half to go along with her four points.
The one thing the team did well as a whole in the first half was demolish Sacred Heart on the offensive glass. Kentucky outrebounded SHU 13-4 on that end and held the overall rebounding edge 33-19. Kentucky won the rebounding battle at the final buzzer, pulling down 57 rebounds compared to 35 for Sacred Heart.
After holding only a four-point lead after the first frame, Kentucky broke free for a 13-point lead at halftime to give themselves some breathing room amid one of their poorest shooting halves of the season. They held SHU to seven points on 1-16 shooting from the field in the second quarter and 24.1 percent shooting for the entire half.
In the second half, the two senior guards began to assert themselves. Murray scored nine points including two assists in the third quarter while Morris added four points, two assists, and a block.
There was a bit more urgency from Kentucky to start the quarter and the defensive intensity finally picked up. I counted five separate occasions in the first two and a half quarters where the Wildcats full-court press were beaten because of a long pass to the opposite end of the court. Once the Cats adjusted and made sure someone was always spying the far end of the court, those passes ceased.
Kentucky improved their shooting clip, going 9-20 in the third while forcing four turnovers and holding SHU to only two points in the first five minutes. The Cats outscored the Pioneers 23-13 in the third quarter and did everything they needed to do to put this game out of reach.
Roper was ultra-aggressive, providing the most energy of any of her teammates. She also might have established herself as the best passer on this team. She finished the game with one of her best overall performances, contributing 12 points, three rebounds, and five assists. It was her third straight game with at least 12 points and five assists.
Kentucky won the fourth quarter 15-10 and finished off Sacred Heart for their fourth straight win.
The Wildcats play next on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum to kick off conference play as they take on Vanderbilt at 7 p.m.