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Diverse scoring, improving defense leads Cats to 29-point win

Photo via UK Athletics

Photo via UK Athletics

With a playmaker like Rhyne Howard on the Kentucky women’s basketball roster, it’s obvious teams are going to pinpoint her strengths and try to minimize them. Against Austin Peay, Howard was consistently double-teamed, and she had to fight for almost every basket. Sure, she still led all scorers with 14 points – that’s the kind of player she is. But that won’t work every game, especially when the highly-ranked Cardinals come to town in two weeks or during tough stretches of conference play.

“I thought Austin Peay – and we wondered when we might see this – were really trying to check Rhyne Howard today,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game. “I thought they were face guarding her and thought they were being very aggressive. I thought they were seeing if they could have our players read the situation correctly and I think it just shows tremendous growth on our part being able to make the extra pass.”

Against the Lady Governors, the Cats showed off a variety of weapons, led by diverse scoring and rebounding. Nine Wildcats earned playing time Sunday afternoon, and all nine scored. Five players hit the double-digit mark. Eight players grabbed at least one board, led by Sabrina Haines and Amanda Paschal with nine rebounds each. On the other side of the court, Austin Peay saw 12 players record at least one bucket, but only two reached double figures.

“I think it helped Rhyne not have to do so much. She’s a talented player. Everybody in the country should know that – if they don’t already, they should,” Jaida Roper told reporters in the post-game press conference. “But just to give [Howard] a hand, help her out, take some pressure off of her, I think everybody is capable. This team is really talented. We have a lot of weapons, so everybody is capable of having a big game or just doing what we do.”

In Kentucky’s 29-point victory, the Cats shot a season-high 56.7 percent from the floor. That’s the second week in a row UK was able to improve their season-high shooting percentage after hitting just under 50 percent last Tuesday.

“Offensively we had some improvement today,” Mitchell said. “We shot over 50 percent for the first time all year, and that was good. I feel like that’s the kind of team we can be.”

If that’s the kind of team the Cats can be, the BBN is in for a good season.

On the other end of the ball, Coach Mitchell says the team still has a lot to improve on, even though they held Austin Peay to 52 points less than a week after holding Grambling State to 35 points. Last Tuesday, Kentucky held their competition to 29.8 percent shooting; on Sunday, the Lady Govs connected on just 32.8 percent of their shots.

Austin Peay entered the game averaging 11 successful three-pointers per outing. Against Kentucky, they sank seven. That didn’t stop them from firing them off – they finished the night 7-for-26 for 26.9 percent.

“I thought early in the game we were able to chase them off the line a little bit,” Mitchell said of his team’s perimeter defense. “I thought our defense in the second half wasn’t quite as sharp and I thought we gave up a lot of open threes. Thankfully for us, and unfortunately for them, they didn’t go down.”

Austin Peay has been connecting on almost 34 percent of their treys through their first six games, and they currently lead the OVC in three-pointers made, three-point attempters and three-point percentage. But against the Cats, it’s clear they took a significant step back. Still, Matthew Mitchell knows his team can do more.

“I think we have to tighten that up. They were a really tough team to defend and if they would’ve had a better day from the line it would’ve been trouble for us,” Mitchell said. “We’ll take it as an opportunity to get better and to grow defensively, and that’s why I appreciate how hard Austin Peay played today.”

Both of these keys – diverse scoring and an improving defense – wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous effort displayed today by the Wildcats. On a Sunday afternoon, the Kentucky roster showed up ready to play, and they didn’t disappoint. Normal starter Tatyana Wyatt was sidelined with a “migraine-like headache,” according to Coach Mitchell (although I was told she could have played if the Cats needed her), which means Ogechi Anyagaligbo earned her second career start, her first one of this year.

For only a second-time starter, Anyagaligbo sure didn’t look like it. She played with confidence, finishing with 10 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes of action.

“It was a really debilitating headache for [Wyatt] today, so she was – as we all were – sad she couldn’t go, but an awesome opportunity to Ogechi,” Coach Mitchell said. “I thought she played with some great poise and some great toughness and that’s what we need from her. We need her to be a physical, tough interior presence for us and she was that today.”

(Photo via | UK Athletics)

Sabrina Haines also stepped up for Kentucky. The effort she exerts on the floor is unbelievable, and her motor has to be one of the highest on the team. Her performance was especially strong in the first half, and she finished just shy of a double-double: 10 points and nine rebounds. She also added three assists, three steals and just two turnovers in 28 minutes. She had a plus/minus of 34.

“She was real tough today. Sabrina keeps coming out with great games and doing a good job of being very productive,” Mitchell said. “She hustled a lot today to get some of those rebounds – really some tough, physical rebounds today – and showed a lot of poise out there, so I’m proud of her.”

KeKe McKinney was also a star in blue Sunday night, recording 12 points and four rebounds. She’s turning into a solid, well-rounded player for Kentucky, but her biggest contribution may come from her time on the bench. Along with Haines, she’s the one constantly cheering on her teammates, bringing the energy and being a vocal leader, on and off the court. Matthew Mitchell says she’s always having a lot fun when she’s out of the game, “just because she loves her teammates so much.”

“She has great enthusiasm. She’s making sure her lip gloss is [on] and her lips are staying hydrated, and she’s just full of energy,” Coach Mitchell laughed.  “She’s definitely one of the major, major favors for us emotionally, leadership wise.”

The Cats will be back in action this Wednesday for their annual “weekday, morning” game. Tip-off against the Charlotte 49ers is set for 11 a.m. on Dec. 4 inside Memorial Coliseum.

Article written by Maggie Davis

I love sports, podcasts, long walks on the beach and Twitter (@MaggieDavisKSR)