Two straight top 10 opponents exposed the Kentucky defense down the stretch.
The No. 12 Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team (9-3) is coming off a 2-2 record to begin its slate of intra-conference games. The first two outings came in the form of big victories over Arkansas and Mississippi State–both ranked among the top 12 teams in the country at the time–before back-to-back losses against Texas A&M and South Carolina, two teams ranked among the top eight.
From that alone, we can gauge that Kentucky is good enough to contend among the top 15 teams in Divison I hoops, however, not necessarily a program that should be included in the upper echelon of women’s basketball just yet. But there was plenty to learn from four games against arguably the four best teams in the SEC not named Kentucky. It was, without a doubt, the toughest stretch of games the ‘Cats face will the rest of the regular season. Only in the NCAA Tournament will one team go up against four top 12 squads in a row–and even then it can be a rare sight. To say that Kentucky can’t compete with the Texas A&M’s or South Carolina’s of the SEC would be to ignore all of the context that surrounds the last two weeks.
In reality, Kentucky still beat two incredibly talented programs in Arkansas and Mississippi State (currently ranked No. 17 and No. 14, respectively). Losing to the Aggies by 17 down in College Station was disappointing, especially when the game was tied at halftime, but falling at home to the Gamecocks in the closing minutes is nothing to overreact about. Kentucky isn’t even halfway through its season yet. We’ve learned a lot about this team over the last four games and they’ll only look better against weaker SEC competition in the coming weeks.
Upcoming matchups against the likes of Auburn (5-6), Vanderbilt (4-2), and Missouri (4-3) in three of the next four outings will allow head coach Kyra Elzy to learn from the mistakes that plagued her team over the last few games. Because while Kentucky looked spectacular on both ends against Arkansas and Mississippi State for the majority of the games, that was hardly the case against Texas A&M and South Carolina.
If you happened to watch the two most recent games for Kentucky, you’d know that the second half has been where the train tends to derail. After outscoring the Aggies and Gamecocks 72-63 throughout the first and second quarters combined, Kentucky was steamrolled 89-58 in the third and fourth quarters for a total differential of minus-23.
It’s no secret that Kentucky’s offense runs through Rhyne Howard from start to finish. She’s averaging nearly 28 points over the last four outings and draws more attention than any player in college basketball. That being said, there are times when she’s more involved with the offense than usual and times where she is not. With capable scorers such as Chasity Patterson and DreUna Edwards around her, the need to put the ball in Howard’s hands during every single possession minimizes.
Against Mississippi State, Howard poured in 25 points during just the fourth quarter and overtime period, helping her squad pull out the overtime win. She had 10 points in the second half against A&M and Kentucky as a team shot over 46 percent from the floor in those two quarters. Elzy elects to go to Howard more often than not when the game is close, and up until the fourth quarter against South Carolina, it had mostly worked.
Coach Elzy has drawn some minor criticism for her handling of the second half against South Carolina on the offensive end, although most of it not necessarily warranted. Yes, she’s a first-year coach who is still trying to learn how to make adjustments on the fly, and Kentucky’s 5-22 mark from the field in the final 10 minutes against Carolina did her no favors in that regard. However, at that point in the game, it was the Wildcat defense that slipped them into a hole that the offense could never climb back out of. The margin of error for Kentucky right now is almost too thin against teams like South Carolina.
“Our margin of error is just so small,” Elzy said following the game. “So, for three-and-a-half quarters against South Carolina tonight, against A&M, we played high caliber basketball. However, the small mental lapses cost us, and great teams expose you, so in order for us to take that next level, we have to be able to play for 40 minutes.”
It wasn’t the lack of a defensive gameplan, rather a lack in overall effort on defense that cost Kentucky in the final 14-or-so minutes against South Carolina. Despite holding an eight-point lead with a little over two minutes left in the third period, Kentucky proceeded to look disinterested when it came to stopping the ball in transition.
Below are six different possessions for South Carolina that led to points, all of them coming in transition. You’ll notice that Gamecocks guard Destanni Henderson is the perpetrator in five of these clips, and not a single time did a UK defender step in front of her to stop the ball or take a charge. Even Aliyah Boston was outrunning the Kentucky defense on the break.
These all occurred in the span of roughly nine in-game minutes throughout the second half.
Run it back and count in your head how many times you see a Kentucky player swipe aimlessly at the ball as they watch Henderson whiz right by them. Howard does this more than any of her teammates. It’s quickly becoming a bad habit for everyone. Henderson finished with a team-high 22 points on 8-17 shooting from the floor and a 6-7 mark from the charity stripe. 14 of her points came in the second half. The Kentucky defense vanished once she put her head down.
“They definitely just outplayed us,” Howard said after the loss. “You know, we stopped playing defense, we stopped playing Kentucky defense like we did in the first half, and they just kept driving it down our throats, and we couldn’t stop it.”
Patterson, who is known as a tenacious on-ball defender at 5-foot-5, was no match for Henderson’s speed and physicality once she began to sprint with a noggin of steam. But even when Henderson was flying down the floor, none of Patterson’s teammates stepped in front to help stop the ball.
On offense, Kentucky was still getting the exact same looks it had in the first half and Howard was still the focal point of the offense. But when things like this are happening during the most important moments of the game, the chances of beating elite-level teams all but disappears.
KeKe McKinney is a four-year senior and arguably the team’s best overall defender, yet she forgets to box out South Carolina’s best player with her team down one and under 90 seconds on the clock. This play came shortly after Kentucky had a chance to take a two-point lead with under two minutes left, but a wide-open missed 3-pointer from Howard led to even more absent-minded defense from McKinney on the very next possession.
South Carolina has an unmarked player in the corner who catches the ball and waltzes past McKinney for a wide-open reverse layup. Edwards and Howard were there under the basket, but did not try to alter the shot. The offense can only do so much when the defense won’t give you a chance.
South Carolina outrebounded Kentucky by 13 in the second half, scored 16 more points in the paint, six more fastbreak points, and four more second-chance points. Sure, a few more made 3s from the Wildcat bench might have helped, as they shot a combined 24-48 (50.0 percent) from deep against Arkansas and Mississippi State, but went just 7-37 (19 percent) against Texas A&M and South Carolina. But when the shots aren’t falling, the defense can always be relied upon to keep a team in the game–those players just have to buy into putting in the effort.
Over the last two games, Kentucky has not shown the will to dig deep on defense. Texas A&M shot 8-11 in the fourth quarter against UK while South Carolina went 6-12. Until the ‘Cats can play defense for an entire 40 minutes, pulling off these type of program-altering wins will continue to be few-and-far-between.