When any team loses its best player, hiccups in the offense are expected. When that player is one of the top two or three in the entire country, the only thing that is known is the unknown. Kentucky was heading into game three without Howard after the first two yielded some promising and also disappointing qualities. The whole team crumbled late during the most recent loss to Florida in Memorial Coliseum, handing the Gators a win despite UK holding a 10-point halftime lead. But nonetheless, they were 1-1 without Howard entering Thursday night.
It took a collective effort from all eight Wildcats to gut out a tight win against Alabama, 66-62.
Kentucky didn’t shoot the lights out. They battled hard for rebounds in the first half but ultimately lost that fight. It wasn’t anything spectacular that won them this game. They played the most sound and fundamental basketball they have since Howard’s injury.
18 of the Wildcats 23 field goals were assisted on – a season-high for an SEC game. Chasity Patterson’s four assists were a season-high and Sabrina Haines’ four dimes tied her season-best. On top of that, the team only turned the ball over six times in 40 minutes. SIX! That tied a season-low. The Crimson Tide only managed six points off of those miscues.
Posting a team assist/turnover ratio of 3:1 is going to win Kentucky a lot of games. Against the top-tiered teams of the SEC, they probably can’t couple that with just a 37 percent mark from the floor and 30 percent from deep, but it was able to mask their flaws on Thursday.
The backcourt did everything that was asked of them; they scored, ran the break, played great defense, and operated with high-energy. Jaida Roper might be taking a back-seat in the scoring department in favor of Patterson (who is averaging 16 points per game since Howard’s injury), but that doesn’t mean she’s not looking to make an impact.
Roper finished with a team-high five assists, the eighth time this season she’s done so and the 27th time in her career. While her scoring has come in waves this season, they aren’t crashing right now. The senior is averaging 7.5 points on the season but has stepped that up to 10.6 the last three outings. She’s posted 10 points in four of her last five games. Her playmaking abilities were superb and she was lockdown on defense.
Status of Howard
Following the game, Coach Mitchell was asked about the current status of Howard’s pinky – and he had some good news.
“She had a good week in the cast, so the cast came off and things looked good so no set back during that week,” Mitchell said in the postgame press conference. “So, we’re on track for the mid-February return. The last week was an important week in the cast to see if the pinky lined up well and was healing well, so really good update from the cast coming off. Now she is in a splint and that’s what she will be progressing back to playing in. So now it is a matter of if you can catch, can you get some movement and get going. So very positive update and no setback, so we feel like we are on track and we’re much closer. It is still kind of a moving target. It depends on how she responds this week and she’s very anxious and motivated to get back.”
Mid-February falls somewhere in between this Sunday’s game against No. 25 Arkansas (Feb. 9), next week against No. 8 Mississippi State (Feb. 16), or the following week against Ole Miss (Feb. 20). Ideally, she comes back after the road matchup with the Razorbacks when they face a very good Bulldogs team. If not, another road game against the Rebels might be the target date. As long as Howard is back before the showdown with No. 1 South Carolina in Lexington on Feb. 23, Kentucky should be in good shape for the remainder of the season.
Impressive outing from the frontcourt
The backcourt will get, understandably, a good amount of the credit for a win like this, especially since they held onto the ball so well and were hawks on defense. But the frontcourt trio of Tatyana Wyatt, KeKe McKinney, and Ogechi Anyagaligbo was the reason Kentucky came away with its 18th win of the season.
All three of them scored seven points in the same for the first time all season; McKinney with nine, Wyatt and Anyagaligbo with seven each. McKinney and Anyagaligbo both hauled in six rebounds apiece while McKinney set a season-high with five blocks – a few of them timely with the game still undecided.
“She [McKinney] was a great presence,” Mitchell added. “Five blocks, incredible timing, incredible tenacity, just staying after it. They were big plays because their kids were in there and in range to make some layups. Every play in this kind of game where it was so close and the margin for error is so thin, were big plays.”
Kentucky didn’t win the rebounding battle in the end, but they didn’t need to.
They attacked the boards early, commanding a 9-1 advantage on the offensive glass through the first 20 minutes that gave them several extra opportunities. McKinney and Anyagaligbo combined for six of the team’s 12 offensive boards. Some foul trouble limited Wyatt’s production but she shot 3-5 from the floor including a clutch and-one that gave UK a seven-point lead with 1:12 left.
Responding to adversity
This isn’t the first time that Kentucky has responded to adversity, but it’s certainly been the most difficult to overcome. The loss to Florida could have devastated team morale, but this group has always come back with an answer. Every single player has stepped up with Howard out.
“I think it’s an amazing effort for us to bounce back from just that terrible disappointment of Sunday,” Mitchell said. “And they found a way and they came back energized on Tuesday and Wednesday, worked hard, had a good session today and found a way. It was hanging in the balance there so many times and we just found a way to get it done.”
Kentucky is now 4-0 this season in games after they lose. Those wins have come against Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, and Cal – a respectable list of programs. They had to beat Cal in Berkley. But they also had a healthy Howard for three of those games. To win one against an SEC team with their backs against the wall is impressive. They could have backed down, but they didn’t. It seems like they never do.
“It was definitely important to come back and bounce back,” Patteson said following the game. “We got in the gym and we just focused on us. Every time we get down like that and we have a disappointing game like that we just always focus on ourselves and just try to move forward. We can’t dwell on it.”
They haven’t dwelled on any losses this season. But now the schedule heats up; three of the next four games are against ranked opponents. It’s nice to see them respond to adversity, but now they need to prevent it from surfacing in the first place.
If you missed the game, you can read my full game recap here or watch the highlights below.