The No. 16 ranked Kentucky Wildcats fell to seventh-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in their first road SEC game on Sunday night in Starkville by a score of 86-71.
Senior Maci Morris led the Wildcats with 20 points and freshman Rhyne Howard was behind her with 15 points, but the Wildcats were down double-digits before the game could get going and were never able to recover.
Mississippi State came out of the gates looking to attack and put all the pressure they could on the Cats, opening up an early 19-6 lead through the first eight minutes. Anriel Howard – the Bulldogs second-leading scorer – knocked down five of her first six shots to bust out 11 quick points and a comfortable advantage.
As expected, the pace was high octane. Turnovers were the name of the game for both teams as they were constantly sprinting up and down the court, putting pressure on the ball no matter where it was. Both teams set season highs for turnovers (22 for UK and 24 for MSU).
After Morris picked up her second foul early in the first quarter, the Wildcats offense stalled. Kentucky would turn the ball over 12 total times in the first half – only one below their season average – and MSU converted those into 19 points.
While Kentucky did force 12 turnovers themselves, they shot only 9-27 from the field and were 3-8 from three. Morris played 12 minutes in the first half despite her early foul trouble, but it was out of necessity as the Cats offense was working with no rhythm. Unfortunately, she shot 1-7 in that frame for only four points and forced several shots with defenders right in her face. She was trying to find just an ounce of flow and Mississippi State’s defense did an excellent job of staying right on her.
To make matters worse, Taylor Murray was having one of “those” games where nothing was going right. If she wasn’t tossing the ball off the foot of her teammate, she was pushing the ball into a defensive brick wall with nowhere to go. It was one of her worst halves of basketball this season.
With little production from their two senior guards, Rhyne Howard was forced to take over. She failed to score in the first quarter, but played some great defense and added five points in the second to keep the Wildcats alive.
While the first quarter featured a lifeless Kentucky squad, the second quarter was much more intense. The defense picked up and they were able to actually set up some of their offense as a result, as opposed to early in the game where Kentucky was lucky to even run a play at all.
The Cats had a chance to cut the lead to 10 before halftime, but some late turnovers and poor recovery defense ballooned MSU’s lead to 41-27 at the intermission.
Teaira McCowan – the tallest player on the court at 6-foot-8 and MSU’s leading scorer – also dealt with early foul trouble that limited her to only six points.
The second half didn’t get much better for the blue and white.
Kentucky’s defense came alive early and caused a few quick turnovers as they controlled the pace for the first time in the game, but it was short-lived. There was even a point in the third quarter where Kentucky had hit six of seven shots, but could never trim the lead to under double-figures as they couldn’t prevent Mississippi State from scoring on the other end.
Despite McCowan being tagged with her fourth foul in the third quarter, Kentucky couldn’t take advantage. It also didn’t help that Kentucky had three of their own players with four fouls late in the game – one being Morris and the other two being the starting frontcourt of Tatyana Wyatt and KeKe McKinney. Murray had three fouls, as well. It was near impossible to establish any sort of rhythm. Wyatt would foul out before the game concluded.
Morris broke out of her first half shooting slump, scoring 16 of her 20 points after the midway mark. Rhyne Howard finished with 15 points on 6-14 shooting with five rebounds while Wyatt added nine points. Seven Kentucky players scored at least five points.
Kentucky was doubled up in the rebounding category, 48 to 24, and total points in the paint, 48 to 22. Those ended up being the two most important statistics of the game.
Mississippi State had two players finish with double-doubles as McCowan recorded 13 points and 10 rebounds while Anriel Howard led her team with 21 points and 12 rebounds. It was a dominant performance from one of the most dominant teams in the country. The Bulldogs thrived when the flow of the game got out of control.
The schedule doesn’t get any lighter for the Cats, as they’ll take on No. 10 Tennessee on the road this Thursday.