It’s no secret that Kentucky was coming off one of its worst losses of the last several seasons. No. 4 South Carolina pummeled the Wildcats with a 27-point victory in Columbia and the mood surrounding the team went from optimistic to severe skepticism.
Just a few days later, the ladies bounced back in a massive way. Hosting the No. 22 Tennessee Volunteers inside Memorial Colisuem on Sunday afternoon, the No. 13 Wildcats secured its first SEC win of the season, 80-76.
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) January 5, 2020
Star sophomore Rhyne Howard was her usual brilliant self, but put on a special showcase for a packed house, pouring in a new career-high of 37 points on 12-27 shooting from the floor and an impressive 7-13 clip from beyond the arc. In addition to her excellent scoring numbers, the Tennessee native added nine boards, five dimes, two blocks, and three steals in over 35 minutes of playing time. Her seven made-threes ties a program record.
Senior Sabrina Haines added 11 points, five rebounds, and four assists while Amanda Paschal and KeKe McKinney both contributed eight points apiece. Ogechi Anyagaligbo posted six points and five rebounds.
As a team, the ‘Cats shot 40 percent from the field (28-70) and 48 percent from three (13-27) while dishing out 16 assists in the process. Despite coming into the game with a significant height disadvantage, Kentucky actually corralled more first-half rebounds than the Vols and finished the game with just a minus-five in that category. After being doubled up by South Carolina (40-20) on Thursday, 36 rebounds for Kentucky is a win on its own and the most glaring reason why they were able to hold on to the win.
Tennessee shot nearly 46 percent from the field but was a mere 3-11 from distance and turned the ball over 21 times.
Against South Carolina, the key to the Gamecocks’ blowout win was the first few minutes of the game. Carolina secured a quick 11-2 lead and never looked back. Despite an early 4-0 lead for the Vols, Kentucky quickly struck back, tying the game up at 6-6 less than three minutes into the game. Tennessee came out attacking the offensive glass early but the ‘Cats responded with their own advantage: outside shooting.
All three of Kentucky’s first three baskets were triples. But it wasn’t just the outside shots that were working. Anyagaligbo came off the bench for one of the best performances of her career. She scored a pretty layup in the post, drew a charge, and grabbed three rebounds all in the first five minutes she played.
Howard and Chasity Patterson would both knock down a three and Blair Green added a beautiful mid-range jumper before the first buzzer sounded. Shooting 8-16 after the first quarter, Kentucky led 21-14 with both teams totaling eight rebounds apiece.
Right out of the gate in the second quarter, Kentucky continued its barrage from deep. McKinney and Haines both ripped off three-pointers in the first three minutes to take a 27-14 lead – the largest of the game for either team. Tennessee would call a necessary timeout to regroup and they came back with a purpose.
The Vols employed a twist on the typical zone defense. With all their length at the guard position, they positioned two backcourt players in between the three-point line and halfcourt, trying to funnel the Kentucky ball handlers into the middle of the zone. The ‘Cats struggled for the rest of the quarter to get good looks and were generally confused against the odd-looking defense. With how high up the UT guards were playing defense, it’s almost like they wanted Kentucky to attack the middle and the ‘Cats couldn’t work the ball inside.
Kentucky turned the ball over four times in that frame and was outscored 21-6 to finish the half. Howard fell into a cold shooting slump right before the half, at one point missing eight consecutive shots. She was on the bench for about a two-minute period towards the end of the half in which the ‘Cats failed to score a point. In fact, over the roughly five minutes Howard was on the bench, Kentucky did not score one point.
Heading into the intermission, Tennessee’s late run pushed them to a 35-33 halftime lead.
Much like the second quarter, Kentucky kicked things off with two big shots from deep – one from Haines and another followed by Howard. The ‘Cats began the quarter on an 11-0 run, breaking down the same Volunteer zone that gave them fits in the first half. Kentucky did a much better job of penetrating and finding the weak spots in UT’s defense. Instead of forcing the issue, they slowed the game down and let Howard work the offense at her speed.
Howard would hit back-to-back threes halfway through the third quarter, pushing the lead back to 13 points for the second time on the day. Tatyana Wyatt picked up her third foul early in the period, which forced Anyagaligbo back into the game where she continued to impress. She showcased some excellent defense that immediately led to one of Howard’s triples.
After Howard made her sixth three, she let her emotions show. Normally she calmly walks down the court after a big shot, but against Tennessee, she was feeding off the energy from the crowd. She was pumping up the crowd and they were returning the favor. Even head coach Matthew Mitchell was doing his best to rev up the Big Blue Nation.
Decent game for @howard_rhyne.
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) January 5, 2020
When Howard’s emotions are let loose, you know Kentucky is in a groove. Heading into the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats held a minor 51-46 lead.
The final 10 minutes would prove to be a barn burner. Both teams combined for 59 points in the fourth, shooting 21-35 from the field. Kentucky never saw their lead dip below four points, but it was a nail-biter down the stretch that required clutch free throws to ice the game courtesy of Howard. Her 14 fourth-quarter points accounted for nearly half of UK’s total and she was getting it done on the defensive end, too.
Haines and Paschal hit some big shots, as well, keeping Tennessee’s defense honest across the court. If it weren’t for the scoring efforts from her teammates, Howard might have had to do more than she already did.
Both teams were trading baskets late, but the Vols couldn’t muster up enough stops to fight their way back into the game. Howard made 5-7 free-throws in the fourth quarter to put the game away for good and give the ‘Cats their first SEC win.
Green registered five points while Patterson and Jaida Roper combined for five points. Wyatt was the only Kentucky player who did not score.
Tennessee’s leading scorer, Rennia Davis, finished with 27 points and six rebounds on 12-20 shooting. Jordan Horston and Rae Burell added 13 and 16 points, respectively for the Vols.
Kentucky’s next game will be on the road when they take on the Alabama Crimson Tide this Thursday at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network+.