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UK Hoops Starts SEC Play This Week, Here’s a Non-Conference Recap

(UK Athletics | Noah Richter)

(UK Athletics | Noah Richter)

With just one non-conference loss through the first 12 games of the season, the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats are on the brink of tipping off the second half of the 2019-20 schedule: SEC play.

The ladies will enter the new year with an 11-1 record but they’ve played a relatively easy schedule up until the last couple of weeks.

Kentucky got off to a slow start on offense to begin the year, especially from beyond the arc. The ‘Cats made just 5.75 triples per outing in the first four games and they failed to shoot better than 40 percent from the field in the first five games of the season (although they still won four of them by at least 15 points). A three-point nail-bitter against Virginia in Charlottesville showcased real issues that needed to be fixed; rebounding, outside shooting, and low energy levels.

A lot of Kentucky’s early-season worries ended up being dependent on Howard’s ability to fill up the score sheet. Once her scoring rampage took off – starting in the fifth game of the season against Morehead State – the ‘Cats flipped a switch. The defense was in elite form from the exhibition games. The offense just needed some time to catch up.

And when it did, the potential began to shine brighter and brighter with every win. Kentucky started to pummel teams by 30, 40, and even 50 points. But those opponents were nothing compared to what would come next.

The only blemish on the Wildcats resumè is a one-point, 67-66 loss to the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals on Dec. 15 in which Rhyne Howard’s potential game-winning shot rimmed out at the buzzer. The star sophomore would redeem herself, however, not even a week later, drilling a go-ahead game-winner on the road against a good Cal Golden Bears squad.

That West Coast trip was already more than a week ago. Kentucky still doesn’t play another game until Jan. 2. It will be almost two weeks in between games as everyone spends some time with family before getting back into the gym. But when they do get back on the court, there won’t be nearly as many opportunities for more 40 or 50 point wins.

In back-to-back games to begin conference play, Kentucky will travel down to Columbia where they’ll play No. 4 South Carolina then head back to Lexington to host No. 22 Tennessee three days later.

Not far ahead are teams such as No. 11 Texas A&M (11-1) and LSU (12-2). Also on the docket in February is back-to-back games against at No. 20 Arkansas followed by No. 15 Mississippi State at home. Then South Carolina comes to town for the second meeting between the two on Feb. 23. The rankings will surely move around, but the challenge is always going to be the same.

Let’s quickly review what each of the ladies has done this season as we hit the unofficial halfway point.

Here are the individual stats through 12 games:

(via UK Athletics)

It goes without saying that Howard is the engine that drives this team. She’s currently second in the SEC in points per game at 20.9 and has been on fire over the last five games, dropping at least 26 points in four of them. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Year is on her way to competing for SEC Player of the Year if she continues to dominate the college level. There has not been one team in either this season or last season that has successfully figured out how to limit Howard when she sets her mind on scoring the ball.

But after the super-soph are a few valuable seniors that each provides a necessary piece to the puzzle, starting with a redshirt senior.

Sabrina Haines is the team’s second-leading scorer and its most effective outside shooter so far. The Arizona State transfer is drilling over 44 percent of her shots from distance on 54 total attempts. Her season-high is a 17-point showing against Virginia and she’s posted double-digit scoring numbers in eight games. Haines sat out nearly two years of basketball due to her transfer and an ACL injury but has never lost her ability to lead. She’s been a big boost for this team in the scoring department and plays with more confidence and energy that 90 percent of her opponents.

Alongside Haines in the backcourt are two fellow seniors, Amanda Paschal and Jaida Roper, who both have some similarities to their games, but are two completely different players.

Paschal has been the hard-nosed, in-your-face defensive-minded threat that has helped establish head coach Matthew Mitchell’s deadly full-court press. She is one of five Kentucky players that have recorded at least 14 steals and she’s coupled that with an excellent assist/turnover ratio of 2.71 – tops on the team. She is equipped with a dangerous crossover move that she perfectly transitions into a mid-range pull up jumper. Her field goal percentage is the lowest among her teammates at 29.7 percent, but her abilities have been best served as a floor general on both sides of the floor.

Roper shares the same knack for creating offense by herself and directing the floor as Paschal does. Roper has been a loud and encouraging voice, especially when she’s bobbing and weaving through a fastbreak. Her 45 assists lead Kentucky and it’s never a surprise to see her sneak a behind the back pass or no-look into the corner. She’s up to 46.8 percent shooting from the field and 34.5 percent from deep thanks to a career-high 30-point outing against Winthrop where she shot 12-13 from the floor.

Down low in the frontcourt are two juniors and another redshirt senior. Tatyana Wyatt and KeKe McKinney are the two third-year players that command the most minutes on the block. Both ladies have vastly improved from their sophomore campaigns – on both offense and defense – to create a balanced attack.

McKinney has become the Wildcats best defensive player, leading the team in blocks with 23 and ranking third with 16 steals. Her discipline to go straight up and not foul has been invaluable in Kentucky establishing an identity as one of the premier teams on defense in the country. At 6-foot-1, she’s a bit undersized on the glass, but makes up for it with enough heart and enthusiasm that she can lock down anyone that tries to go at her.

Wyatt and McKinney have both improved their shooting strokes, too. The former is 6-10 from deep on the year after shooting 9-32 a season ago while the latter is firing from all areas of the perimeter, sitting on a mark of 7-23 through 12 games. McKinney was just 11-55 in 2018-19 from three. Constant foul trouble has limited Wyatt’s impact, but she still leads the team in rebounds at 5.7 per game.

The third player up front is the redshirt senior Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who has appeared in all 12 games for UK, including one start. The 6-foot-1 forward leads the team in field goal percentage, converting on nearly 53 percent of her shots this season while corraling 3.3 boards per game. Off the bench, Anyagaligbo has provided a scoring punch if Wyatt gets in foul trouble or if coach Mitchell needs another rebounding presence down low. Her post game has improved in her final season in Lexington, too. Just in time.

Fitting in somewhere between the frontcourt and the backcourt we have the sharp-shooting sophomore Blair Green. At 6-feet tall, the Bluegrass native is somewhat of a combo-forward who can dribble the ball up the floor and knock down open shots at will. She hasn’t started a game this season, but is one of the first off the bench and is sixth in total minutes. She averages 7.5 points and 2.6 rebounds per game on 42.7 percent from the field. Her three-point shooting has picked up lately (8-15 over the previous seven games), although her minutes dipped to just 11.0 per game against UL and Cal.

The final two players to earn some playing time in the nonconference have been freshman Emma King and senior Nae Nae Cole. King is another Kentucky-born Wildcat that can shoot the lights out. In only 76 minutes this season, she’s already fired up 18 shots – 12 of them from beyond the arc. Her inexperience at the college level has hurt her ability to stay on the floor, plus she needs to work on her defense and strength in order to really compete. Cole is the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-3 but has played only 51 minutes this season. She’s shot 5-12 from the field over six games.

Obviously, Chasity Patterson has only played the one game against Cal – where she posted nine points, four rebounds, and four steals – so we still don’t know much about her right now. Although, if that one game was any indication, she’ll be hard to keep out of the starting lineup moving forward.

Expectations are higher than usual for this Kentucky team as they head into SEC play. But this video from the first 12 games should get you feeling good about what’s to come.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR