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GAMEDAY: UK Hoops Travels to Oxford for Matchup With Ole Miss

We’ve got ourselves a trap game!

Coming off its biggest win of the season, the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats are down in Oxford where they’ll take on the Ole Miss Rebels Thursday night at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network+.

The ladies were able to dismantle the No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs this past Sunday, cruising to a 73-62 win in Memorial Coliseum. UK had just come off a disappointing 18-point loss to Arkansas down in Bud Walton Arena the week before and questions were swirling about they would respond. With Rhyne Howard back in the mix for the first time in three games against the Razorbacks, she had another seven days to rest up for the game against the Bulldogs.

The rest paid off, not just for Howard, but for the entire team. MSU jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead before Kentucky responded by going on a 19-3 run to end the first quarter. The Bulldogs chipped the lead back to three at halftime, but the ‘Cats came out looking for the kill, winning the third quarter 22-9 before sealing the game down the stretch with timely free throws.

It was Kentucky’s first win over a top-10 team this season (0-2 coming into that game) and easily the most impressive of the season. Before that game, it didn’t feel like the ‘Cats could actually contend for a top-4 seed in the SEC and the double-bye in the SEC Tournament that comes with it. The win over a very good MSU squad is proof they can make a deep run into March.

The one thing they can’t do now is fall victim to a trap game; the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks come to Lexington this Sunday.

Ole Miss has not won an SEC game thus far. They’re 0-12 in the conference and post an overall record of 7-18. The Rebels have not won a game since 2019, when they took down Alabama State 93-66 on Dec. 28. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s 12 consecutive losses. Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas A&M have ALL held the Rebels under 40 points for the ENTIRE GAME. Ole Miss’ “best” win of the season was a 75-69 win over Sam Houston State nearly three months ago.

To put it bluntly, Ole Miss is not a good basketball team right now. They’re in the midst of a program-changing rebuild under second-year head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin.

McPhee-McCuin finished her first season in Oxford with a 9-22 record (3-13 in the SEC). She joined the Rebels after five successful seasons at the helm with Jacksonville out of the Atlantic Sun Conference. During her time down in Florida, she completely turned the program around, going from two losing seasons to three consecutive winning years with three postseason tournament appearances to go with it.

Ole Miss has been in the cellar of the SEC ever since their legendary head coach Carol Ross moved on to the WNBA (where she was named WNBA Coach of the Year in 2012). Ross – who played for Ole Miss back in the late 1970s – led Ole Miss to four consecutive postseason appearances in all four of her seasons as head coach, highlighted by an Elite Eight trip in her final year. Since her departure following the end of the 2006-07 season, the Rebels have yielded just four winning seasons.

The program that McPhee-McCuin inherited was not in great shape and it could be a few more years before Ole Miss regains any of that fire Ross brought back in the mid-2000s.

With all of the backstory out of the way, let’s talk about what Ole Miss brings to the table.

Back in January, the Rebels parted ways with the team’s second-leading scorer and one of the top-rated junior college guards, Valerie Nesbitt, who McPhee-McCuin said displayed “actions that didn’t reflect the way I want to run a program.”, according to The Oxford Eagle.

Nesbitt lasted just 15 games with the team but was one of the most productive, averaging the second-most minutes on the team on top of her 11.3 points per outing. Since her departure, the Rebels have hit the 70-point mark just one time – a two-point loss to Florida.

But Ole Miss still trots out a dangerous scorer, 5-foot-8 guard Deja Cage, who leads the team at 12.8 points per game. The redshirt junior has over 100 more field goal attempts than the next-highest Rebel and is specially equipped to fire it from beyond the arc. While Cage shoots just 35.6 percent from the floor and slightly above 32 percent from three, she’s already racked up 16 double-digit scoring games and six outings of at least 20 points. If there’s anyone that can catch fire and put pressure on the Kentucky defense, it’s going to be Cage.

Much like Cage, the rest of the Ole Miss starting lineup is rather undersized. They’re expected to start four players all at 5-foot-8 with the only forward being 6-foot-2 Iyanla Kitchens.

Kitchens is coming off a 15-point game against Arkansas and is the team’s second-leading rebounder, snagging 3.8 boards per game. After 6-foot freshman guard Sarah Dumitrescu went down with a season-ending ACL injury just five games into the season – she was the team’s second-leading rebounder at the time – Kitchens had to fill in her role. She’s done a sound job, but is hardly a scoring threat and has been foul prone all season.

The other three guards that round out the rest of the starting five are Mimi Reid, Jayla Alexander, and Taylor Smith.

Reid is a redshirt sophomore who controls the Rebel offense, leading her team in assists with 92 helpers – 30 more than the second-highest.

Alexander is a freshman and likely Ole Miss’ next best option to put up points behind Cage. She averages 9.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, shooting 33 percent from deep on over 90 attempts. Alexander also leads the team in steals and was the No. 1 overall player out of high school in the state of Mississippi before making the jump to college.

The final guard is sophomore Taylor Smith, who has been in-and-out of the starting lineup this season. She puts up just 5.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game but does shoot over 40 percent from the floor – the only guard on the roster to do so.

Ole Miss is likely to deploy two role players off the bench, 6-foot-5 forward Dominique Banks and 5-foot-11 guard Torri Lewis.

Banks is who we’re going to highlight real quick because she possesses the size that could potentially give Kentucky fits in the post. The junior currently leads the team in rebounding, hauling in 6.1 per game and 49 more than the second-highest Rebel. Banks is also second on the team in field goal percentage, shooting nearly 45 percent from the field. The most notable stat about Banks is her 54 blocked shots (third-most in the SEC). Not because 54 blocks is a ton (and 18 more than KeKe McKinney, who leads UK in that category), but more so due to how one-sided Ole Miss’ shot-blocking truly is. Only Kitchens has recorded at least five blocks this season among the entire roster. Outside of Banks, Ole Miss AS A TEAM has just 19 blocks.

As for Lewis, the 5-foot-11 guard is another shooting threat from deep that can potentially stretch the Wildcat defense. Over 85 percent of the shots she’s attempted throughout her Ole Miss career have been from beyond the arc. However, she’s hitting just 29.1 percent of her 86 three-pointers this season.

Ole Miss did manage to knock off Kentucky a season ago, as the ‘Cats shot just 26.6 percent from the floor – their worst-shooting night of the whole year. Outside of Howard’s 20 points in the game, no Wildcat topped double-digits. UK was also without Maci Morris in that game, which was held inside Memorial Coliseum.

This year’s matchup should be much different. Howard is playing her third game back from the fractured pinky and the ‘Cats have a healthy, rotational roster otherwise.

The Rebels are one of the better outside shooting teams in the SEC and Kentucky will have to do everything they can to shut that down, first and foremost. Ole Miss has attempted the seventh-most triples of any SEC, although they rank ninth in percentage. They are not adept at taking the ball into the painted area and are even worse when it comes to earning trips to the charity stripe.

What the Rebels do effectively is drive teams off the three-point line on defense. According to Her Hoop Stats, Ole Miss allows just 20 percent of opponents shots to come from beyond the arc, one of the best marks in all of Division I. Whenever the opposition does get a three off, they shoot just 29 percent, ranking in the 80th percentile for Ole Miss’ defense. Going up against a Kentucky team that lives and breathes from the perimeter, outside shooting should be the key to the game for both teams.

If the Wildcats can shoot effectively from three – and they have struggled slightly over the last five games – this one might be over quick. But if Ole Miss can run UK off the line and force them into tough shots in the paint, they might have a fighting chance.

As I dive deeper into the advanced stats for Ole Miss, I continue to find reasons to not believe that the Rebels do not have a shot later on Thursday night. They are vastly undersized against a Kentucky team that is typically undersized. Ole Miss rebounds at a level that consistently ranks in the bottom 20th percentile on both ends of the floor. They don’t have anywhere near the caliber of talent that the ‘Cats produce and haven’t shown the ability to score enough points in order to pull off an upset like this. They post an assist/turnover percentage of .686 compared to Kentucky’s 1.13 ratio. There is not a single category that Ole Miss holds a considerable – if any – advantage over the ‘Cats in. 

With all of that being said, this is a very losable game. Kentucky is riding the high of its most dominating win of the season and is just a few days away from the rematch against the best team in the nation. There is a reason to look ahead. Ole Miss is the worst team in the SEC by a decent chunk. The first five minutes will likely set up the flow of the game for Kentucky. If they come out and knock Ole Miss in the teeth early, it could be too much to overcome. But if the first 10 minutes see minimal energy on the road for UK – as we’ve seen from them this season when they travel away from Lexington – we could be in for a long night in Oxford.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR