It was a soul-crushing defeat that the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball team suffered a few nights ago against the No. 4 South Carolina Gamecocks.
Kentucky came out with little energy or effort and it cost them a chance to propel the program into the national conversation for best in the country. Heading into another dangerous matchup against the No. 22 Tennessee Volunteers later on Sunday, a bounce-back game is necessary.
We gotta game tmr. ???
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) January 4, 2020
Luckily, this situation will be much different compared to the loss in Columbia. Kentucky is back in Lexington inside Memorial Colisuem, the first game the Wildcats have played in its home building since Dec. 8 in a 30-point win over Samford. The pressure of playing in the first SEC game on the road is gone. The Gamecocks will likely be the best team that UK plays the rest of the regular season. The Vols are a good team – and taller than South Carolina – but will be a much more favorable matchup for the undersized Kentucky team.
With the first devastating loss out of the way, its time to regroup. Taking down a ranked, in-conference opponent would be the quickest way to forget about Thursday’s embarrassing result.
So what do we know about Tennessee – other than the fact they’re taller than most men’s basketball programs?
Both Kentucky and Tennessee enter the game with 11-2 records. This will be the 68th all-time meeting between the two schools, with the Vols commanding a huge win-loss record of 55-12. UT won its conference opener against Missouri, 77-66, with its only losses coming against No. 1 Stanford and to an unranked Texas team. They also boast an impressive early-season win over Notre Dame, however, the Fighting Irish have since stumbled to an unusual 6-8 record. The Lady Vols have probably played a weaker overall schedule than the ‘Cats have thus far this season.
Head coach Kellie Harper is in her first season as the head coach of Tennessee and is the second to lead UT since Pat Summit retired in 2012. Harper is in her 16th season as an NCAA head coach, recently taking Missouri State to the Sweet 16 in the 2018-19 season before landing the UT job. She holds a career record of 296-210 across four different programs, consistently leading her teams to postseason appearances. Harper was the starting point guard for Tennessee’s three-peat as National Champions back in 1996-98.
Harper is going to see some familiar faces on the sideline, too, as Kentucky’s assistant coaches Niya Butts and Kyra Elzy both played with Harper in Knoxville during its historic title runs in the late 90s. Head coach Matthew Mitchell also has ties to Tennessee, as he was a graduate assistant under Summit during 1999-2000.
The main thing we need to know about Harper’s version of Tennessee is something we’ve already briefly touched on: incredible size.
According to Tennessee Athletics, this current Volunteer roster is the tallest in school history. The average height is 6-foot-2 and 11 of the 12 rostered players stand over 6-feet. Only Nae Nae Cole stands taller than 6-foot-2 for Kentucky, and she was recently suspended three games. This means Kentucky will go into Sunday’s game vastly undersized, just like in the game agaisnt USC.
The good news is Kentucky should know how to better handle an overwhelming height advantage after dealing with it for 40 minutes a few days ago. Carolina outrebounded UK 40-20 and crushed them in paint scoring, 60-24.
Like the Gamecocks, the Lady Vols are not an outside shooting team. USC shot just six threes all game, making only one of them. Kentucky has already attempted 73 more triples than Tennessee this season. According to Her Hoop Stats, UT is one of the worst teams in Divison I with respect to its three-point rate and they also give up three-point attempts at an unusually high clip. But I should note that the Vols have shot over 44 percent from deep during its last three games (19-43).
Kentucky likely isn’t going to be able to win the battle on the glass, so they’ll desperately need to work the perimeter and find easy looks from deep. Because the reality is Tennessee is going to dominate both sides of the rebounding battle. The Lady Vols are the No. 1 ranked team in the nation in offensive rebounding and No. 5 in defensive rebounding. In comparison, Kentucky is ranked 154th and 301st, respectively.
Don’t expect many easy looks for the ‘Cats, either. Tennessee is the top-ranked team in Division I when it comes to field goal defense. Opponents are making a lowly 30 percent of its shots against the Vols and a mere 24.8 percent of shots from the perimeter. UT seems to prefer letting teams take threes as opposed to attacking them inside – although attacking a team this big down low can be counterproductive. But Tennessee has never played a team that can shoot like Kentucky – not even No. 1 Stanford can match UK’s stellar outside shooting.
Tennessee earns its points by working the ball around with quick passes and punishing teams in the paint with their size. 6-foot-2 junior Rennia Davis is the Vols leading scorer at over 16 points per game and has reached double-figures in 11 straight outings this season. She also leads her team in double-doubles with seven while hauling in 9.0 boards per game – also a team-high. Davis is shooting 45 percent from the floor and leads her team in free-throw attempts. She’ll be the major focus of Kentucky’s defense, as she can beat the ‘Cats both inside and out.
Joining Davis are the two starting guards, freshman Jordan Horston and sophomore Jazmine Massengill (yes, they are both at least 6-feet tall). Horston and Massengill are both excellent distributors who can score if needed. Massengill, in particular, is having a fantastic year. She ranks third in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, posting 64 assists to just 19 turnovers. She’s one of the team’s most well-rounded starters, averaging 6.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.9 assists in 13 games this year.
Horston, like, Massengill, knows how to get her teammates involved. She has already dished out 58 dimes this season while averaging 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Horston is the team’s best perimeter shooter, converting on 35.6 percent of her 45 three-point attempts this year.
Both Horston and Massengill make up the SEC’s top-passing team. UT ranks No. 20 in the country in assists per game at 17.9.
Completing the rest of the frontcourt and complementing Davis are redshirt senior Lou Brown and freshman Tamari Key. Key is the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-5 but hasn’t been all that dominant on the glass, averaging just 4.7 rebounds – seventh-most on the team. However, she makes her mark in the paint. Key is shooting over 60 percent from the field this season, averaging 8.6 points per game. As for Brown, she hails from Australia and can stretch the floor at 6-foot-3. She’s hitting 34.6 percent from beyond the arc on 26 attempts.
Off the bench, Tennessee brings on two perfect role players. 6-foot-4 junior Kasiyahna Kushkituah and 6-foot-1 sophomore Rae Burrell lead a dangerous second-unit.
Kushkituah is another forceful inside presence, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting exactly 50 percent from the field. Burrell provides a scoring punch off the bench, adding 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game on 44.9 percent shooting from the floor.
Kentucky is going to have to ramp up the effort levels right from the opening tip. South Carolina used a quick 11-2 lead in the first quarter to bury the game before Kentucky could even try and find its rhythm. That can’t happen against the Vols. They need to play physical and let the Tennessee bigs know they aren’t afraid to attack the rim. Passing was a big issue on Thursday for the ‘Cats – something as simple as meeting passes from teammates never happened. Kentucky played scared and it showed from the first minute of the game. Sunday is a chance for redemption.
The action tips off at 4 p.m. in Memorial Colisuem and you can watch it on ESPN2.