Noon tipoffs are always weird, especially on the road.
Routines are changed or rushed and strange environments can be distracting. Going into an opponent’s arena and trying to prepare for a game before most people have even eaten breakfast can throw regular systems out of wack. The No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball team didn’t even have a morning shootaround in their 20-point win on Sunday against the Florida Gators.
A 20-point win sure makes it sound like the quick turn around following a Thursday night game in Tuscaloosa didn’t bother the lady ‘Cats one bit. But then the box score lights up…
- 22-70 shooting from the field (31.2 percent).
- 6-24 shooting from three (25.0 percent).
- Seven total assists.
- A combined 1-20 shooting clip from Blair Green and Tatyana Wyatt.
Those numbers are typically a recipe for disaster no matter who you’re playing. It was the second-worst shooting performance this season from the Wildcats. The only outing that saw them miss more shots was a narrow three-point win on the road against Virginia, 50-47. But Kentucky didn’t turn the ball over 23 times as they did against the Cavaliers. There were only six miscues on Sunday – which tied a season-low.
Making fewer than one-third of your shot attempts can only be mended by stellar play on the other end of the floor. You know the phrase “Live by the three, die by the three”, right? Well, Kentucky was shot dead by the three and still came out breathing. The only thing that resuscitated them was an elite defensive showing – A theme that was more common in October and November than in December and January.
Kentucky forced Florida into 25 turnovers on Sunday, which tied their third-best figure of the season (the Wildcats somehow caused 35 Winthrop turnovers back in the middle of December). Coming into the game, the Gators hadn’t turned the ball over more than 21 times in any game all season. Kentucky came out and put more pressure on Florida than they had seen up to this point in the year. 15 steals for the ‘Cats was a season-high.
Florida actually shot quite well from the field (42.9 percent on the day), but that number alone is misleading. The Gators were lucky to even get off a good look. Outside of the first quarter that saw UF shoot 6-10, they didn’t shoot better than 45 percent in any of the remaining three periods. Kentucky held Florida to just 42 shot attempts, which is tied with the Virginia game for fewest allowed by an opponent.
Those 42 shots came tough too. Florida shot just 12 free-throw attempts, below their average of nearly 15 per game. The Gators were one of the nation’s leading shot takes from beyond the arc, attempting roughly 19 shots from deep per game. They were a mere 2-10 against the ‘Cats.
42 shot attempts and 45 points from Florida were both season-lows. Reminder, this is a team that was beaten 93-47 by the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Gators still managed 59 shot attempts in the loss to MSU.
Even without KeKe McKinney – who missed her second consecutive game with a severe migraine – the rest of the squad stepped up, specifically Sabrina Haines.
Haines recorded three steals and played the best on-ball defense she has all season long. There was not one time that a Florida ball-handler was able to beat her off the dribble. Her hands were incredibly active and she did an excellent job of sizing up some of Florida’s taller players. Haines is 5-foot-10 but played like she was over 6-feet tall on Sunday.
Chasity Patterson had to one-up her, though, ripping off four steals of her own. Typically the smallest player on the floor, she has an innate ability to slip into a ball handlers dribble and smack the ball up ahead. Her, Jaida Roper, and Amanda Paschal were defensive-minded beasts against an inexperienced Florida backcourt.
The tallest active player on the Kentucky roster, Wyatt, played the fewest minutes out of any of her teammates (other than Emma King’s two minutes with the game already decided). Seven Wildcats topped the 20-minute mark; Wyatt finished with 15. She did haul in seven boards but had a forgettable afternoon all-around.
This really isn’t anything new for the ‘Cats, though. Defense has been the team’s calling card all season. Even when Kentucky struggled to hit shots early in the season (and they really struggled), the defense saved them against clearly inferior talent. In the SEC, the talent is never more than a notch or two below the level that Kentucky plays at. Often times it’s a few notches above. So far, the defense has played up to – and sometimes exceeded – expectations.
The luxury of having a nationally elite defense is being able to overcome long droughts and cold streaks. Opponents are going to continue to craft clever ways to guard Howard and sometimes it’s going to take time throughout the process of an entire game to figure it out and break it down. That’s when being able to rely on a steady defense separates the good teams from the great teams. And Kentucky has all the tools necessary to be a great team.
A noon game on Sunday that is roughly 700 miles away isn’t going to be a regular thing. Kentucky can chalk up the bad shooting to outside factors and head back to Lexington knowing their defense doesn’t care about random tip times.
Kentucky has lived by the three all season, but they’ll never die as long as the defense is doing what it did on Sunday in Gainesville.