The Kentucky Wildcats ran into their biggest challenge of the season early into their SEC schedule when they visited the seventh-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville.
After falling 86-71, Kentucky showed they aren’t quite ready to compete with the top teams in the country. The Wildcats were behind by 10-15 points for the majority of the game and never once cut the lead to under double-digits in the second-half.
Here’s what we learned about the team and how they can improve going forward. They better adapt quickly, too, as they’ll stay on the road to take on No. 10 Tennessee this Thursday.
Keeping up with the pace
Kentucky’s mantra this season – as with most Matthew Mitchell coached Kentucky teams – is an emphasis on applying the full-court press. Termed the “40 minutes of dread”, Kentucky has become known for constantly putting pressure on ball handlers and pushing the pace to control the game. Against Mississippi State, Kentucky was beaten at their own game.
The Bulldogs countered Kentucky’s pressure with their own and clearly controlled the game from the opening tip. Once they built an early, double-digit first-quarter lead, all they had to do was stop any potential Kentucky scoring run. And that’s exactly what they did.
Whenever the Cats cut the lead down to 12 or 14 points, MSU would drop in four quick points of their own. If MSU wanted to run, then the game was fast-paced. If they want to slow it down for a couple possessions, Kentucky couldn’t do anything but abide by their rules. Foul trouble from key players and several forced shots surely didn’t help the Cats get back into the game.
Kentucky forced 24 Mississippi State turnovers – a season-high for the Bulldogs – but turned the ball over 22 times themselves, which was a season-high, as well.
Taylor Murray’s off day
Senior guard Taylor Murray played one of her worst games of the season. She finished the game with four points on 1-6 shooting and was a non-factor for the majority of the first-half. Murray did contribute four rebounds, four assists, and four steals, but wasn’t her regular self as the ball pressure from MSU had her off her game.
Some routine passes were flung into the first row early in the game and she missed a couple of bunny shots that she normally converts 10 times out of 10.
Murray was a team-worst minus-16 in 30 minutes played.
Mississippi State dominated the paint
Perhaps the two most telling statistics of the game came from the same area of the court. Points in the paint and rebounding. Kentucky was dominated in both aspects by a devastating margin.
On the season, the Wildcats have averaged 35.7 rebounds per game while holding their opponents to just under 35. MSU pulled down 48 rebounds, doubling UK’s total of 24. Rhyne Howard was the only Kentucky player to register at least five rebounds. Four Bulldogs finished with six or more rebounds.
Even more telling were points in the paint. MSU poured in 48 paint points while holding Kentucky to only 22. It didn’t even matter that Kentucky made four more threes than MSU when they were outscored by 26 around the basket.
Foul trouble all around
If it hadn’t been for the infinite number of foul calls, Kentucky might have been able to establish some rhythm. To be fair, the officiating wasn’t great for either side, but the calls were mostly ticky-tack fouls and prevented either team from truly doing what they do best. Which is run, run, run.
Mississippi State’s leading scorer, Teaira McCowan, sat out most of the first half and a huge chunk of the second with foul trouble. Standing at 6-foot-8 and averaging close to 17 points through her first 14 games on over 70 percent shooting from the field (yes, she was shooting over SEVENTY percent from the field all season coming into this matchup), she finished the game with 13 points on 5-10 shooting and four fouls.
But even when she was on the bench, Kentucky couldn’t take advantage of a more level playing field. They had their own foul trouble to deal with.
With McCowan on the pine, Kentucky’s bigs had to deal with their fouling problems. Tatyana Wyatt ended up fouling out and KeKe McKinney finished with four fouls. The two of them combined for only five rebounds.
Senior guard and Kentucky’s best shooter, Maci Morris, picked up two quick fouls early in the first quarter which put the Cats in quite a hole in regards to the scoring department and immediate pressure on Rhyne Howard to fill the void. Morris finished the game with four fouls but still played 30 minutes. The issue was she was trying to force the issue too much once she came back in during the second quarter with her team facing a double-digit deficit. She turned it around in the second half, scoring 16 of her 20 points and keeping her team in the game, but that was one of the lone bright spots.
With two veteran guards controlling the backcourt, losing composure in a high-profile against a top-10 ranked team was disappointing. But if we’re looking at this with the glass half-full, it was only the second conference game of the season against the team that was projected to win the SEC. The loss stings, but it was a great learning experience for a team still learning how to play together for a full 40 minutes. How they respond on Thursday against Tennessee in Knoxville will tell us a lot about their potential going forward.
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