Coach Calipari spoke some confidence into Matthew Mitchell’s squad after learning about Rhyne Howard’s injury. The men’s basketball coach knows a thing or two about teaching young superstars, and he also knows how to respond when one of them goes down.
“We knew Rhyne [Howard] went out at the beginning of the week,” Amanda Paschal said following Kentucky’s 17-point win over Missouri on Thursday. “So we decided that everybody else had to step up. I was watching the boys practice and something Coach Cal said to me really stuck out. He said, now that Rhyne is out, this gives everybody a chance to get better and develop their game so everybody decided to step up. And when Rhyne comes back, it’s gonna be crazy.”
Thursday night’s win for the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball team was impressive for a few different reasons. Obviously, not having star sophomore Rhyne Howard was the storyline. While no one outside of the team knew that Howard would sit out until a couple of hours before the 7 p.m. tip in Columbia, MO, Paschal said the team had known for a few days. Running on roughly three days of practice without the nation’s third-leading scorer was the setup for a disastrous road trip. Instead, the ladies earned an impressive 62-47 win.
Paschal and company responded to the words of Coach Cal. The redshirt senior poured in a career-high 18 points against the Tigers, shooting 8-14 from the field to go along with five rebounds. Nine of her points came in the fourth quarter, when the ‘Cats were able to bury Mizzou down the stretch with several timely buckets. Paschal’s pull-up jumper was flawless and she had no problem getting to the rim.
She had plenty of help from her backcourt friends, too. Chasity Patterson‘s 12 points came on 5-9 shooting while Jaida Roper added seven points, four rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Redshirt senior guard Sabrina Haines contributed another nine points, two assists, and a season-high four steals.
“I thought the practices were very good, I thought the attitudes were very great, I thought they embraced the opportunity.” Matthew Mitchell said earlier on Friday.
Those four ladies combined for 36 of Kentucky’s 62 points, or 58 percent of the team’s overall scoring. If Missouri ever popped off for a quick 4-0 run in the second half, one of those four would come right down the court and find a way to score. Ball movement was the key, which might be one of the few bright sides to losing Howard. If the Kentucky offense ever stalled when they had Howard, they could rely on her to save the day. That is no longer an option.
Coach Mitchell has called Howard a “safety valve” because of her ability to make fine art out of garbage. Sometimes that reliability and dependability on one player can inadvertently affect how others play. If there never is a safety valve option, you have to make sure you never need to use it. Kentucky made sure they never needed to use the safety valve and it was mainly due to constant ball movement.
They generated open shot after open shot, mostly from the mid-range areas, just by keeping the defense moving and out of position. They were making that extra pass. Once they found the open space, the shots were flying with confidence.
On the other side of the court, the defense didn’t lose a single step. Howard is a premier defender across all positions and arguably the best one-on-one defender Kentucky has, but she is hardly the reason the ‘Cats boast one of the nation’s most dangerous defenses.
Kentucky forced Missouri into 20 total turnovers, a 30.6 percent shooting mark from the floor, and just an 11 percent clip from three. Four Tiger players finished with at least three turnovers while none of them connected on more than 50 percent of their shots. It was a collective team effort on the defensive end that started with the guards and ended with forwards, especially Blair Green.
The sophomore has undergone her fair share of growing pains this season, but continues to improve with every game. On Thursday, she played what was, in my opinion, her best outing in a Kentucky uniform. Green added 11 points, seven rebounds, one block, and three steals. She shot 4-6 from the field, including 2-3 from three, but it was her defense that stood out to me.
Green had a habit early in the year of picking up ticky-tack fouls that would force her into foul trouble and disrupt her rhythm. She seemingly had a tough time staying disciplined enough to defend without fouling, but that hardly appears to be an issue anymore. Over the last few games – and especially agaisnt Mizzou – Green has been a fantastic defender.
She doesn’t reach over the top in the paint, can slide quick enough to stay in front of the ball handler, and is always in the right position when playing off the ball. Her impact on that side of the court has done a complete 180 from the beginning of the season. An added bonus? She’s 7-13 from three over her last four games. This is the version of Blair Green the coaching staff envisioned at the start of the year. She couldn’t be coming along at a better time, either.
The initial reaction to Kentucky’s first game without Howard is one of optimism, but Missouri is hardly the Wildcats’ biggest worry. Taking on the third-worst team in the SEC definitely helped “tune-up” the team for the rest of the time Howard is absent, but a trio of ranked opponents loom in the coming weeks. There is still work to be done and improvements to be made.
The loss of Howard is going to force others to pick up the production, or else Kentucky’s season will suffer. They clearly have the talent to do so and now have one game of proof that they can pull it off. The opponents will get tougher, but so will Kentucky. The ladies will learn about themselves as a team, as individual players, and as leaders. These next few weeks will be the toughest challenge they’ve faced on the court this year.