The Tide couldn’t roll over Kentucky’s bigs today.
When Kentucky and Alabama met in January, the Tide had no answer for the Cats post game.
Today, Alabama lived and died by the three. Kentucky, on the other hand, used their advantage in the paint in the 65-55 win to advance to the SEC Tournament semi-finals tomorrow in Greenville, SC.
Alabama got off to a hot start with a 5-0 to begin the game, but the Cats would answer by hitting four of their next five while stopping the Tide. Kentucky then went cold, hitting only two of their next eight to end the quarter. However, they were able to stay in the game by hitting four of five free throws. Senior forward Evelyn Akhator’s eight points in the first period were huge in Kentucky’s 17-14 lead to the end first.
Both teams struggled offensively in the second, but the only thing that kept Kentucky moving was Akhator and junior center Rice working the paint. With six minutes left in the half, Rice had eight well needed points. The two bigs were working seamlessly together, recognizing when the other was open and being patient.
“We were just looking to be aggressive and dunk in on their post players because a lot of times they were playing behind. Just playing with poise. We worked on that a lot in our practice. Even when they sent the double-teams, looking for our opposite post player or guard, just being poised and patient,” Rice said.
The two were responsible for boosting the Cats lead in the first half and helping maintain it in the second half. Alabama went on a 6-0 run in 48 seconds to cut it to three with eight minutes left in the third period. Akhator finished with 23 points and nine rebounds while Rice finished with a career-hight 11 points and five rebounds.
“Alyssa is just blossoming in front of our eyes right here. Every day she gets a little bit better. Those were not poor players she was scoring against. Those are really good, tough post players in our league,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game.
Kentucky dominated in the paint, outscoring Alabama 24-16 and out rebounded them 39-33. The Cats also took advantage of the Tide’s 18 turnovers, scoring 16 points off of them.
Out of Alabama’s 72 shots, 21 of those were three-pointers, an attempt to beat Kentucky outside rather than inside. Of those 21, Alabama made just eight while making 20 of 51 field-goal attempts.
Senior guard Makayla Epps had a quiet 12 points and five rebounds. Freshman guard Taylor Murray had just eight points before exiting the game with about 12 seconds left after she ran full speed into an Alabama pick. Murray walked off the court on her own power and went straight to the team doctors.
“Taylor was hustling, and it is a bad break for us if it is anything that lingers. We don’t know right now. Doc is checking her out,” Mitchell said.
This win advances Kentucky to the semi-finals against No. 1 South Carolina who defeated No. 8 Georgia handily today, 72-48. Tomorrow will be the third time the Cats have played the Gamecocks this season. The first time in Lexington where South Carolina beat Kentucky 75-63. The Cats hung on a little closer the second time on Sunday in Columbia, losing just 95-87.
Tomorrow’s matchup will be a challenge but Alania Coates, South Carolina’s main big, did not play in the win against Georgia today and rode into the arena on a scooter on one leg. However, the Cats are taking it in stride.
“It will be a big, big test for us. We came down here with our goal to win the tournament. I think you have to go through the champion, whether it’s tomorrow or Sunday, you’re going to have to beat them to have a chance in it,” Mitchell said.
The game will be at 5 p.m. tomorrow inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, SC on ESPNU. Tune in and cheer on your Cats.