While the end result wasn’t the outcome that head coach Matthew Mitchell and his No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats would have liked, there are far more positives to take away from this loss than negatives.
Which is why losing to No. 7 Louisville by a score of 67-66 isn’t as bad as it might seem right now.
The Cardinals handed the ‘Cats its first loss of the 2019-20 season and it surely won’t be the last. But this was far-and-away the most talented team Kentucky has faced thus far – and they might be the toughest they face all season.
Coming into the game on Sunday inside the historic Rupp Arena, there was confidence that Kentucky was worth the national ranking of 14th best team in the country it possessed, but I don’t think many would be convinced they had a chance to break into the top-10 and stay there all season.
Despite the loss, Kentucky proved they have more than enough talent, depth, and coaching to make some noise in the women’s college basketball scene. The ‘Cats will likely drop in the rankings, but I would be surprised to see them fall below No. 15. Kentucky did everything they needed to do against a powerhouse team to steal a program-altering win, they just couldn’t hit that last shot.
“It was a pretty good look,” Rhyne Howard said after the game about her last-second shot. “It looked good coming off my hand and I thought it was going in. I’d probably take that shot every other time.”
Here is the good news: Kentucky held a nine-point halftime lead and were convincingly outplaying the Cards in the first half; Rhyne Howard poured in 26 points, 20 of them coming in the first half against an elite-level defense; the team’s outside shooting has become the strongest trait.
So while we can dwell on the loss for now, everything about that game showed encouraging signs as Kentucky gets closer and closer to a rough SEC schedule.
“I don’t think it knocks our confidence down,” Tatyana Wyatt said in the postgame about the loss. “If anything, I think it’s building us up even more, since it’s showing us how good we can be in the future and it’s getting us ready for tough SEC teams. So, I think today was not the outcome that we wanted, but it was something that showed us where we can go.”
“Moral victories” don’t mean anything in the record column, but they do in the middle of a long season. Kentucky was one missed shot away from taking down the seventh-best team in the country. They can take solace in knowing that this game was one bounce of the ball from ending with a different result. My biggest fear was that Louisville would come in and knock UK in the teeth early on and a 20-point route would follow.
Kentucky did get hit hard early in the game but responded the way great teams should. The ‘Cats best quarter of the day was in the second when they came out of the break trailing by five. UK took a nine-point lead into the intermission.
“We learned that we can bounce back from some adversity,” coach Mitchell said. “We got into some tough spots early and then battled back.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Kentucky’s game was on the defensive side of the ball. Hounding ball handlers and trapping in the half-court has defined this team on that end of the floor. They did an excellent job of that once again against a strong offensive team. Kentucky forced UL into 15 turnovers (compared to just seven for the ‘Cats) and turned those into 14 points.
Louisville turned the ball over just 10 times in its win over Oregon and 11 times in its loss against Ohio State. For what it’s worth, Kentucky caused plenty of issues against a team that hasn’t been turning the ball over all that much lately. UK finished with seven total steals.
The ‘Cats did a great job of keeping UL off the free-throw line, as well, giving up just four shots from the charity stripe.
Louisville’s 67 points were the second-fewest it scored all season long. They put up just 60 points in its lone loss to Ohio State. The Cards came into the game possessing one of the nation’s best offenses and the ‘Cats did everything they could to slow them down.
The defense obviously kept Kentucky in the game. It was the offense that plagued them throughout stretches of the game.
Leading by 10 with three minutes left in the third quarter, the offense came to a complete halt. Howard couldn’t create space and the Cards stopped double-teaming her as they had been in the first half. UL was determined to make Kentucky beat them one-on-one and it worked in their favor. Louisville rattled off a 13-0 run in those final three minutes, snagging a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
That run would prove to be the difference in the game. Kentucky’s defense kept them in it, but the lack of offense was the reason they couldn’t pull away. Howard (26 points), Sabrina Haines (12), Wyatt (12), and McKinney (9) were the team’s leading scorers but only two other Wildcats scored (Jaida Roper and Blair Green combined for seven points) while Ogechi Anyagaligbo and Amanda Paschal failed to register a point in 26 combined minutes.
Roper was hardly the rim-attacking bully that we saw against Winthrop. The backcourt was never a threat to score against the Louisville team. Wyatt and McKinney drilled some massive shots from deep, but Kentucky can’t rely on it’s two forwards to shoot 5-7 from deep every game (although they probably could).
The addition of transfer point guard Chasity Patterson should alleviate some of those missing points, but it was clear that Howard or Haines were going to take all the shots for UK with the game on the line.
There was one stat you could point to in this game that would tell you all you need to know about how Lousiville pulled out the victory: offensive rebounding.
Specifically, in the second half, the Cards were dominating the glass on both ends of the court. Louisville corraled 22 overall rebounds – nine of them on the offensive glass – in the second half while Kentucky managed just seven. The result was at least five extra possessions in a close game when Kentucky desperately needed the ball.
The Wildcats have some great rebounders in Howard, McKinney, and Wyatt, but lack the pure size to compete up top with players such as Louisville’s 6-foot-4 Kylee Shook, who grabbed 11 boards.
“That’s been an Achilles heel for us,” Mitchell said about crashing the glass. “We have to do better, we’re not a flawless basketball team and in many games, this season we’ll be undersized and that was the case today. I thought we did a more than adequate job on first shot defense today, it was the second shot that really got us. We’re just not quite physical enough and not in the habit of really finding and boxing and making the play and that falls on my shoulders. I have to do a better job in practice of making sure that we’re ready to rebound at a higher level than we did today. I’m not sure if we’ll ever outrebound a team as big as UofL.”
In the preview for this game, I said that offensive rebounding would decide this game, and Louisville proved it to be true.
In the end, Kentucky didn’t come out with the victory, but they proved to everyone that they aren’t going anywhere. They will be a threat to win the SEC. An easy non-conference schedule has only boosted the confidence of this team. I said that this was the matchup that would quickly put on display how good this team is right now and how good they’ll be going forward. Are they a fluke? Or are they legit? I think we all have our answer now.
The rest of the year is going to be a whole lot of fun.