The UK Hoops squad won its season-opener 67-44 on Tuesday night against Mount St. Mary’s. Here are a few takeaways from what we learned.
Rhyne Howard’s shot was off, but her game wasn’t
Rhyne Howard didn’t have a great sophomore season debut in the scoring department. While she still managed to lead the Wildcats with 14 points, her touch wasn’t what it normally is. She finished the night with a shooting clip of 4-16 from the field and 2-8 from beyond the arc. At one point, she missed four straight shots and several looks she hit hundreds of times last season simply weren’t finding the bottom of the net.
Despite missing 12 field goal attempts, she still showcased why she’s one of the best players in the entire country. Howard added 11 rebounds, five assists, five blocks, and two steals in a team-high 31 minutes. It was the sixth double-double of her still-young career. Her passing abilities, in particular, were vital in keeping a stagnant Kentucky offense moving. Seriously, the ease with which she can fling cross-court passes with one hand and deliver them right on the money is unparalleled.
“She had a big night on the board, big night with assists and steals, incredibly productive night,” Head coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game. “Again I said this earlier, we’re trying to get Rhyne to be her best, we aren’t measuring her against anyone else.”
Jaida Roper kept things flowing with Howard on the bench
In situations where Howard has a poor shooting night, another player in a Kentucky uniform is going to have to step up and make up for that lost production. Through one game, we know that person to be senior guard Jaida Roper.
Roper was second on the team in scoring against Mount St. Mary’s, posting 13 points, two assists, and two steals coming off the bench. She was the exact spark plug that Kentucky needed once Howard went to the bench in the third quarter with foul trouble. The game was still close at the time and the offense had been struggling to find open looks. Roper made sure to switch up the intensity.
“In the huddle, we all said our shots weren’t falling like we wished,” Roper said. “So just shoot more high-percentage shots and get to the free-throw line. Those are a couple things that I know could happen, so I just try to make an emphasis on when we attack they can’t guard us one-on-one, so when I attacked, or when we attacked, they either sent a second person and somebody was open, or they fouled. So, when we picked up on that I feel like we were successful.”
Roper led the Wildcats with eight free throw attempts, knocking down six of them. Her penetration in the third period kept the Mountaineers on their toes and forced them to protect the paint. The inside-out approach helped spread out Kentucky’s offense for a dominant 23-point fourth quarter.
Poor shooting night from three
As previously mentioned, the shooting night from Kentucky was mediocre at best. An overall clip of 33 percent from the field was made worse by a 27 percent mark from deep. Overall, the ‘Cats shot 6-22 from three.
The looks were open and with plenty of time, but nothing would fall. Sophomore guard Blair Green missed a few shots that she’ll absolutely make ten times out ten the next time she gets the chance. Howard was hardly herself in that department. Only freshman Emma King added some production from deep, finishing her college debut with seven points on 2-5 shooting from three.
It wasn’t just looks from deep, either. Mid-range jumpers were clanking off the side. A few easy shots at the basket rimmed out, too. Chalk it up to first-game jitters, though, because these girls are way too good for this to become a regular thing. We saw last season what players like Howard and Green can do when given open looks. They’ll start to fall sooner rather than later and that’s when we’ll be discussing 40-point wins instead of 20-point ones.
Defensive pressure was relentless
One area this Kentucky team is always going to be able to rely on throughout the year is on the defensive end. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Wildcats applied nonstop pressure to Mount St. Mary’s. It didn’t matter if they had the ball 90-feet away from the basket or in a half-court setting, Kentucky hardly allowed any room to breathe for opposing ball handlers.
The ‘Cats forced 28 total turnovers from the Mountaineers and converted those into 29 points – 11 of them coming on the fast break. Roper and Amanda Paschal made sure to take some tips from the ‘Taylor Murray school of annoying the hell out of anyone with the ball’ before she graduated, getting right up next to the ball with a waving hand constantly up in the face of the dribbler.
There were some areas for improvement, though. 10 of Mount St. Mary’s 15 made field goals came from long range due to slow rotations on the perimeter or in the press.
“Our players really tried to get better defensively, and it showed up in some areas tonight,” Mitchell said. “Still letting the ball get to the middle of the floor too easily tonight, gave up too many 3-pointers and that was because our on-ball defense was breaking down. We weren’t rotating correctly, but a lot of those things are early in the season that you just have to keep working, getting the repetition and players start making plays, a lot more positive than negative tonight, real pleased with the steps tonight.”
Mount St. Mary’s went through several stretches during this game where they couldn’t even get the ball past half-court. There were multiple stints of three or four minutes where the Mountaineers would have been lucky just to get a shot off. It was a 40-minute affair of suffocating defense that was executed to perfection. It’s not every day a team shoots 33 percent from the field and still wins by 23. The defense did exactly that on Tuesday night.
Kentucky’s next opponent will be on the road against Middle Tennessee this Sunday at 3 p.m.