Well, that sure wasn’t pretty. It’s not quite time to press the “we need Rhyne Howard back” button, but we’re now two games into her injury with two vastly different results.
Kentucky played three great halves of basketball without Howard, but the fourth and final half was a major cause for concern and has the ‘Cats sitting with a 1-1 record since her injury.
Here are some of my thoughts from No. 13 UK Hoops (17-4) 70-62 loss to the Florida Gators (12-10) inside Memorial Coliseum on Sunday. You can read my full game recap by clicking the link here.
Florida’s physicality was too much
Florida came into the game not all that much taller than Kentucky. They did have a size advantage, but nothing compared to some of the other SEC opponents the ‘Cats have faced this season.
In the first quarter, Kentucky did a great job of holding its own. They were attacking the offensive glass and were outrebounded by just two through the first 10 minutes. But then the Gators started to fight for loose balls and going up hard for contested shots at the rim that put Kentucky in serious foul trouble, compromising the rest of the afternoon.
Haines and McKinney had to be rotated in-and-out with foul trouble for the final three quarters. Wyatt’s third quarter was cut short due to foul issues. Ogechi Anyagaligbo and Nae Nae Cole couldn’t keep up any of the Florida bigs, either. Eventually, Coach Mitchell had to pull them in favor of going small with one of McKinney or Wyatt as the sole center.
But here’s what’s weird. Kentucky actually outscored Florida in the paint, 34-26. Considering they shot 3-20 from deep (more on that shortly), they had to make up points by attacking the rim, which Patterson and Roper did a really good job of. I wish Amanda Paschal would have drove to the rim a few more times, especially since she was coming off a career-high game agaisnt Mizzou, where she a beast in the lane. But outside of Patterson and Roper, no Wildcat had any luck in the paint.
Even though the ‘Cats won the battle in the paint, it doesn’t tell the story of what happened in the post all afternoon. Florida outrebounded Kentucky 45-27 and drew a season-high 27 fouls on UK (there were a combined 49 fouls called, but that’s a useless conversation to have at this point. College refs just aren’t that good, but Kentucky had more than enough chances to win this game). Zada Williams posted 12 points and 12 rebounds down low for the Gators while Lavender Briggs hauled in 13 rebounds of her own.
“We are not a great rebounding team in the first place,” Mitchell said in the postgame press conference. “And so when we have anything less than a real focused, tough effort we’ve shown that we struggle. We got absolutely smashed on the boards today. It’s really, really disappointing. It’s a real lack of effort there on the boards so we’ll have to see if we can bounce back from that.”
Kentucky finished with 15 defensive rebounds while Florida corralled 17 offensive boards. Florida converted those second-chance opportunities into 15 points.
Patterson stepping up in place of Howard
Thank goodness for Chasity Patterson, or Kentucky might have been blown out of this game long before the final buzzer. Both of her career-highs this season have come against the Gators (20 in the first meeting, 25 on Sunday) and she’s assumed responsibilities as the team’s go-to scorer without Howard.
Over the last two games, Patterson has combined for 37 points and five steals while shooting 14-28 from the floor. She’s become Kentucky’s most effective perimeter defender and easily the most impressive ball handler. When she gets locked into her stance and is in the face of the dribbler, Patterson can swipe a ball away from anyone in the country.
“I have seen my potential on defense, just seeing myself get steals like that. That kinda gets me going, and my team going, and the momentum. Every game I just try to focus in on that. Trying to get a steal to get us going. Every game we aren’t going to be as sharp as we need to be on offense. We have to bring that intensity every time on defense.”
While her vision still needs some improvement (there were two separate occasions where she had KeKe McKinney and then Blair Green both wide open in the corner, but failed to even glance their direction) there is no denying that she is an elite scorer at just 5-foot-5. But Patterson also missed six triples. Matthew Mitchell has said all season that this team thrives on shooting from the outside. If the team’s leading scorer isn’t knocking down shots from deep, that’s typically not a good sign for the ‘Cats.
“You look at our stats today and 3-of-20 is not gonna get it done for us,” Mitchell said after the game. “We generally make around nine a game. So, you know, we missed those 18 points badly. We definitely offensively, to be at our peak, we need to shoot the 3 better than we did today. Today was one of our worst days of the year shooting the 3. So even when Rhyne’s not playing, it’s a big weapon for us, and we need to do a better job there.”
It wasn’t just “one of” the worst shooting performances from Kentucky, it was the worst effort from deep through 21 games this season.
But where Patterson can’t help make up for in place of Howard is with her defensive prowess. Kentucky was able to keep Florida’s star freshman Lavender Briggs from exploding in the first half, but she made a mockery of the Wildcat defense in the second half. All 18 of her points came in the final two quarters and there wasn’t a Kentucky defender that could stop her. It got to the point where Coach Mitchell broke out a zone defense just to try and break Briggs out of her rhythm.
Spoiler: It didn’t work.
That would have been an instance where Howard would be glued onto Briggs. The sophomore has been the ‘Cats best defender this year and would have been a blanket on Briggs’ shadow once she started to get rolling. But without Howard and foul trouble to Haines, there wasn’t much any Kentucky defender could do against the 6-foot-1 Briggs.
Where has the shooting gone?
Speaking of the poor shooting performance, Kentucky has struggled heavily since Howard’s injury from the perimeter.
Typically one of the top outside shooting teams in the entire country, the ‘Cats are just 7-36 over the last two games – or 19 percent – from beyond the arc. For a team that can’t rebound, they have to make those looks to be effective, as Mitchell said. But it’s not like Howard was taking every triple for Kentucky when she was on the floor. The players that were normally hitting them a few weeks ago have gone ice cold.
Here are the three-point shooting stats of the team’s best shooters from the last two games:
That’s 6-32, or under 19 percent. That simply cannot happen if Kentucky wants to win games without their star player. And it’s not like all of these looks were contested. The ‘Cats run an offense that is designed to create space on the perimeter and they executed that to perfection on several occasions; the shots just weren’t falling.
Now the schedule heats up a bit. A road trip to take on Alabama in Tuscaloosa won’t be easy. It’ll definitely be more difficult than the games against Mizzou and Florida. After they go up against the Crimson Tide, two ranked matchups loom. This is an important time in Kentucky’s season for seeding purposes and their most challenging games of the year are closing in. If Howard is still out, something is going to have to change. Could it be something as simple as making outside shots? It could be, but that doesn’t explain constantly being outrebounded or stepping off the gas with a 10-point halftime lead.