Coming into Thursday night’s game agaisnt No. 12 Texas A&M, Kentucky Wildcats center Nae Nae Cole had appeared in just 51 minutes through six outings overall. Against the Aggies, she played a season-high 22 minutes and provided a massive spark off the bench as the ‘Cats secured a 76-54 win inside Memorial Coliseum.
Cole’s impact was one of the last things anybody expected – not even her head coach thought she would come in and play defense at the level she did against an opposing big that had an inch or two of height on her.
While the stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story for the redshort senior (four points, two rebounds, one steal, one block, two fouls, and two turnovers), her presence in place of the injured KeKe McKinney and the foul-troubled Rhyne Howard and Tatyana Wyatt allowed Kentucky to rattle off an impressive scoring run in the second quarter.
Texas A&M was without its star guard, Chennedy Carter, who puts up over 20 points per game on average and is one of the nation’s most dangerous scorers. Without her, the Aggies force-fed the ball down low against a roughed up Kentucky frontline.
In the first quarter, they executed that plan to perfection, drawing seven free-throw attempts. Standing at 6-foot-4, center Ciera Johnson dropped in nine first-quarter points and was feasting in the paint against the ‘Cats. Her size was simply too much, especially once Wyatt and center Ogechi Anyagaligbo both picked up two fouls in the first 10 minutes. Once Howard was tagged with her second personal foul not even 35 seconds into the second quarter, an already thin front line was in serious trouble.
Enter Nae Nae Cole – who missed the last three games due to a suspension for what was described as not upholding the standards of the program.
In the second quarter, Cole had the task of guarding Johnson throughout the entire period. All she did was limit Johnson to zero points and two rebounds on a 0-2 clip from the field. Cole forced Johnson into four official turnovers and was the leading force behind Texas A&M’s six second-quarter turnovers. Kentucky outscored A&M by 13 in the second quarter.
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) January 18, 2020
“It was a pretty phenomenal turnaround for her,” head coach Matthew Mitchell in regards to Cole said following the big win. “A couple of weeks ago she was probably about as low as you can be. Just had not handled things well and had disciplinary action and a lot of times that will just deflate a player and they don’t bounce back from it. So you have to give her a ton of credit for coming back and working hard and learning from the situation instead of letting it be something that defined her. Tonight, there’s no way we win the game without her contribution.”
Cole spent her first three seasons with the NC State Wolfpack before transferring to Lexington and sitting out the 2018-19 season. Now a senior, she’s struggled to carve out a role in a deep Wildcat rotation, but she took full advantage of an opportunity that was thrown her way and likely earned herself extended minutes in the future, especially against other SEC teams with superior size over Kentucky.
“Nae Nae was a huge part,” Rhyne Howard said in the postgame press conference. “That’s basically what we’re looking for every time Nae Nae gets on the floor. She was a big presence down there, getting rebounds and doing everything we needed her to do.”
Depending on how long McKinney continues to sit on the sideline due to severe migraines, Cole might be squeezed into the rotation.
*Side note: I asked coach Mitchell after the game about McKinney’s status and he said he hopes to have her ready for the LSU game on Jan. 19. If she’s not ready to go by then, he expects her to be back when they face Auburn on Jan. 27 after the ladies take an eight-day break from games.*
But it wasn’t just Nae Nae Cole making a strong impact against the Aggies, Blair Green followed up what was arguably her worst performance since arriving at Kentucky with what was likely the best outing of her career.
The Harlan County native shot a miserable 1-11 in Kentucky’s win over Florida this past Sunday, finishing with two points and four rebounds. While Kentucky still secured the win, 65-45, her performance left a ton to be desired.
Green came to Kentucky with a record as a sharpshooter. She was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team a season ago and came into her sophomore campaign with hopes she would make a significant impact on the perimeter.
Thus far, her season has been rocky. She’s averaging 7.0 points per contest and has recorded double-figures in just four out of 16 games. Green is shooting 38 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from beyond the arc.
On Thursday, she came out shooting like the Florida game never happened. Once she got open for her first shot of the game early in the first quarter and knocked it down, she was already in a groove.
On the night, Green finished with 13 points – tying a career-high – on 5-8 shooting from the floor and a 3-5 clip from deep to go along with two rebounds and one steal in her third consecutive start with McKinney on the pine. It was probably her best defensive performance of the season, too, an aspect of her game that has slowly come along as the season has toiled on.
“I text messaged her [Blair] after the Florida game – and just wanted to make sure she was in a good spot,” Mitchell said after the win. “And telling her how proud I was of how hard she’s been working on the defensive end. Sunday night she was just so happy that the team had won and she was like ‘I already put it behind me’ and she came in with a lot of pep in her step in practice, so really happy for her.”
Green has never been afraid to shoot the ball – a key to any elite shooter, which the coaching staff believes she is. She has a bright green light to fire when open and will do so no matter if she’s 1-11 or 5-8. Her confidence doesn’t ever seem to wane.
“I think I’ve just been really letting the game come to me, just making that sure pass,” Green said following the game about her role on the team. “If I’m open, taking my shot when I feel it. He [Coach Mitchell] always gives me the green light to do what I need to do. I think he has confidence in me. Just, as a sophomore and playing into this role, just coming out and giving the team what it needs.”
Green’s role in the game on Thursday – along with Cole’s – gave the team exactly what they needed. Having Rhyne Howard as a safety valve that can score when nothing is going right is a blessing. But Kentucky can’t make a deep postseason run without those types of consistent efforts.
“She doesn’t try to do too much, too little, she does just enough,” Aggies head coach Gary Blair said about Green after the game. “And that’s what you’ve got to have when you’ve got a star player [like Rhyne Howard].”