The No. 16 ranked Kentucky Wildcats (15-2) held off the No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers (12-3) by a score of 73-71 despite the Wildcats three best players watching the final minutes from the bench, giving UK their first win in Knoxville since 2014.
Even with Maci Morris and Rhyne Howard fouling out of the game and Taylor Murray missing the second half with a knee injury, Kentucky’s reserves were able to fend off a pesky Tennessee team.
Kentucky got off to one of their hottest starts of the year, a completely different opening than their most recent loss to No. 7 ranked Mississippi State. Through the first two minutes, the Wildcats were leading Tennessee 7-0 and built that impressive advantage up to 22-5 before the first quarter could even end.
Morris – who was playing with a compression sleeve around a sore right leg – was hitting shots from all over the court and a couple with defenders staring right into her eyes. The uniform adjustment didn’t seem to bother her. She closed the half with 14 points to lead both teams in the scoring department.
If it hadn’t been for two first-quarter fouls picked up by both Morris and Howard, Kentucky might have been able to extend that lead even higher. However, playing cautiously with foul trouble forced Kentucky into a more relaxed defensive pressure and Tennessee made sure to capitalize.
After knocking the lead down to 11 points by the end of the first period, the Lady Volunteers were able to chip it down to only a 38-28 Kentucky edge at the intermission.
The Wildcats received some valuable minutes from Ogechi Anyagaligbo in the first half as she scored seven points on 3-3 shooting while providing some much-needed defense against Tennessee’s front line. With their massive size advantage, the Lady Volunteers were able to outrebound Kentucky 33-17. It was particularly lopsided on the offensive glass, with Tennessee winning that battle 19-6 at halftime. UT finished the first half with more offensive rebounds (19) than defensive (14).
Late in the second quarter, Taylor Murray broke away for a fastbreak layup that led to her being fouled hard on a shot attempt. The foul was by no means intentional, but Murray’s leg flailed in the air and appeared to slam right onto the hardwood. She was slow to get off the floor and was immediately helped to the locker room. She scored nine points before her injury and was a major key to Kentucky maintaining a lead with their two best scorers in foul trouble. Murray did not return to the game.
Despite Murray’s absence, the team rallied to inflate Kentucky’s double-digit halftime lead. Correction. Maci Morris inflated Kentucky’s halftime lead.
Morris poured in another 13 points in the second half before fouling out a little over halfway through the fourth quarter. Her scoring partner, Howard, picked up her third foul 11 seconds into the half. Shortly after, Morris picked up her third. Immediately after that, Howard picked her fourth foul and was relegated to the bench. That’s when Morris went to work.
Morris helped build the Kentucky lead to 15 points at one point in the third and was hitting tough shot after tough shot. Anyagaligbo continued her career day and came up huge whenever the Cats desperately needed a bucket. She finished with 13 points, her season-high and the first time this season she scored in double figures.
Tennessee would not let up on the boards as they expanded on their rebounding onslaught. The Lady Volunteers outrebounded Kentucky 28-14 throughout the game just on the offensive glass alone. But Kentucky continued to fight.
After Morris picked up her fourth foul early into the final quarter, Howard checked back into the game. She promptly fouled again, though, which ended her night. Howard played under three minutes in the second half and scored only six points for the game. After Anyagaligbo picked up her fourth personal foul with under five minutes remaining, Morris was tagged with her fifth not more than 10 seconds later and Kentucky found themselves without their three top scorers with four minutes still to go.
Without Morris, Howard, and Murray, Kentucky held a four-point lead that felt like anything but. Tennessee controlled the momentum and was slowly crawling back into the game.
Then Jaida Roper happened.
Despite their three best players watching from the sidelines, Kentucky was able to pull out the win thanks to Roper – who scored seven of Kentucky’s final eight points. She hit what will probably go down as the most important shot of her life and one of the biggest in the UK-UT rivalry with a long, contested three that rainbowed into the basket and gave Kentucky a five-point lead with under a minute remaining.
The reserves would hit their free throws and seal a 73-71 win for the Wildcats, the program’s first against Tennessee on the road since Jan. of 2014.
Roper finished with 10 points and three assists while Morris added 27 points on 10-16 shooting (4-6 from three) before fouling out. Kentucky forced 19 Tennessee turnovers.
The Wildcats next game will be at home in Memorial Coliseum as they take on the Ole Miss Rebels on Sunday at 1 p.m.