It had been weeks, maybe even months, since the Kentucky women’s basketball team played as good of a game as they did Friday night against Tennessee. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
The second and third quarter of the quarterfinals matchup between the Lady Volunteers and Wildcats in the 2020 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament showcased just how dangerous this Kentucky squad can when they put it all together.
Unfortunately, we don’t see these types of stretches for the ‘Cats on a regular basis. In a recent loss to Vanderbilt this past Sunday, Kentucky showed maybe a *tiny* glimpse into what they brought down to Greenville. The difference from that game to Friday night’s impressive victory is astounding. This was a completely different basketball team than what they were just six days ago. Now they have to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
We already know one aspect not to be a fluke: Rhyne Howard’s star power. The SEC’s Player of the Year popped off for 24 points, 22 of them coming in the first three quarters as she stuffed her stat sheet to the brim. Her outside shot was unconscious. Everyone in the building knew she was heating up when she busted out a crossover against a UT big that immediately transitioned into a stepback triple from at least 25-feet out.
The shot was wet. Nothing but net. Kentucky had a 20-point lead in the third quarter that they would never even think about letting wilt away.
But how did they get to that point? Howard doesn’t just open the game trying to embarrass defenders. Typically, she tries to establish herself as a penetrator before moving to her preferred outside shots. She got to the free-throw line a couple of times in the first quarter, but it was the presence of Ogechi Anyagaligbo that set the pace from the jump.
Anyagaligbo was going right at the Tennessee bigs without any fear. Even though the redshirt seniors stands at 6-foot-1, she was still vastly undersized against one of the tallest teams in the nation. Anyagaligbo fought amongst the trees and came away with two points, two offensive rebounds, and one stealthy block in the opening three minutes. It was her energy that quickly became contagious *insert coronavirus pun*.
Watching Anyagaligbo strike first must have charged up her squad. She’s been a regular rotation starter for some time now, but there’s just a different type of reaction from everyone else on the court when someone not expected to produce starts to do so right at the tip. She set the tone and her teammates followed.
As we know, Kentucky didn’t start shooting lights out until the second quarter. They were just 5-18 from the floor after the first 10 minutes but still held a 17-13 lead. It wasn’t necessarily what the ‘Cats were doing right more so than it was what the Vols were doing wrong. Tennessee turned the ball over six times in the opening quarter, with four of five of them completely unforced. Credit the pressure defense from Kentucky, but there a few situations where a simple miscommunication saw a UT guard throw the ball right into the first row. UK did an effective job of turning those Tennessee miscues into points, too.
The confidence going into that second quarter was what gave Kentucky the edge for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t just Anyagaligbo or Howard that were playing extra motivated, but it trickled all the way down to the bigs, especially KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt, who had monster games.
Even players that didn’t start the game looking all that confident – Jaida Roper and Blair Green – eventually found it as the game went on. Roper missed an easy fastbreak layup in the first quarter but ended up leading the team in assists with five, including a beautiful no-look late in the game. Green’s first shot of the game was an airball from midrange only for her to come back and hit two big shots in the third quarter.
What was so special about the second and third quarters was how Kentucky scored the ball. Typically a guard dominant team in terms of production, they received 25 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks combined from McKinney, Wyatt, and Anyagaligbo.
“You have to come out there and match that [tenacity] and try to be really aggressive,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game. “That’s what we try to talk about before the game, that hustle is so important for this version of the Kentucky Wildcats. We just have to have that kind of effort to be the team we can be. I thought tonight was as good of an example of that as we’ve had this season, just the way we established ourselves in the game.”
When you mix in 25 points and 13 rebounds from those three PLUS the scoring we regularly see from Howard and company, Kentuck is incredibly hard to beat. Saturday’s semifinals matchup against Mississippi State will be another opponent with a considerable size advantage.
UK’s offense was clearly in exploding nuclear reactor mode for the second and third periods. Shooting a combined 22-32 (68.8 percent) in that span is bound to devastate any opponent. However, Kentucky broke down Tennessee with pure fundamentals and sticking to the gameplan.
The Vols attempted 20 triples for just the sixth time all season. They have been highly regarded as one of the toughest teams to score on in the paint, specifically in the SEC. Instead, they went away from their strength early. I briefly mentioned this aspect of the game in the full recap from Friday night, but it’s still on my mind. Tennessee made three of its first four shots from deep – all in the first quarter. They’ve played in several games this season where they’ve made three triples for the entire 40 minutes.
Tennessee isn’t an outside shooting team and hasn’t been all season. They rank in the bottom half of the SEC in both three-pointers made and three-point percentage. Kentucky happily let them fire off those shots early on Friday. A few makes early gave UT confidence, but they rapidly came back down to earth to the detriment of their rhythm. Tennessee has only been outrebounded six times this season, with a few of those games coming against powerhouse programs such as UConn, South Carolina, and Stanford. Kentucky managed to match them in rebounds (36) and points in the paint (24). UT is 2-4 this season when they are outrebounded. The Vols avoided the glass in favor of outside shots and it ultimately cost them several possessions.
This is what Kentucky has done all season, though. They know they’re undersized and they find other ways to make up for it. One of those is controlling the pace. If Kentucky scored quickly, Tennessee would try to counter right back, oftentimes chucking up ill-advised jumpers. If the Vols broke out a full-court press, the ‘Cats would calmly break it and set up their offense to their desire.
Tennessee even tried to bust out the high-pressure zone they utilized in the first meeting between these two back in January. Kentucky broke that, too – and with relative ease.
It came down to Kentucky playing their brand of basketball while Tennessee oddly strayed away from theirs. Sabrina Haines has harped on postseason basketball being a different brand of basketball and Kentucky’s was a far better product in game one.
“The key now is to keep it going,” Haines said in the locker room after Friday’s win. “And keep improving every single game. We’ve finally clicked into that postseason mindset, but now it’s time to keep improving every single game and understand that everyone is playing their best basketball right now.”
It’s a whole new season once again. Survive and advance.