The No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats have been struggling to find a groove on offense early in the season, but they found a rhythm against the Morehead State Eagles and rode it all the way to a massive 25-point win in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.
Here’s what we learned from the ‘Cats best offensive outing of the year.
The threes FINALLY found the bottom of the net
Through the first four games of the 2019-20 season, it was no secret that Kentucky was in a shooting slump that didn’t seem like it would ever end. A 27 percent mark from the three-point line in those four games on 83 attempts dumped Kentucky towards the bottom of the country in terms of outside shooting percentage.
Against the Eagles, the Wildcats finally broke the dry spell.
Kentucky connected on 11 of its 32 attempts from beyond the arc – both season highs for the team. After averaging 20-22 three-pointers in previous outings, the ‘Cats were firing at will on Thursday night. Sophomore Rhyne Howard poured in five triples on 11 attempts after making just eight of 29 on the year. Senior Sabrina Haines added three more shots from long range and three other Wildcats also hit at least one triple.
The duo of Haines and Howard has become quite the scoring threat, too.
“They [Howard and Haines] had a good 1-2 punch tonight,” said Matthew Mitchell. “And did the same thing for us at Virginia, so that’s a good development for us and was proud of those two tonight. I thought they came out really aggressive and were efficient.”
It wasn’t just the outside shots that were falling, either. Kentucky’s offense was simply finding every open look they wanted. Whether it was Howard curling around screens, pull up jumpers from Haines or junior Tatyana Wyatt, or close shots from inside the paint, the ‘Cats were finally hitting the looks that rattled out previously. Almost every play that Coach Mitchell called out was executed to perfection.
Had UK not missed 14 of its last 15 shots to end the game, the overall shooting percentage could have been boosted even higher. Take away that terrible four-minute stretch to end the game and Kentucky shot over 48 percent from the field. In the first half – arguably the best 20 minutes of the young season for the ‘Cats – they shot 18-37 (48.6 percent).
KeKe McKinney’s ankle seems to be doing just fine
During Saturday’s close win over the Virginia Cavaliers, junior forward KeKe McKinney landed awkwardly on her ankle late in the third quarter. While she did not leave the bench for the locker room following the injury, she did not come back into the game. Her status going into Thursday’s game was still murky.
During the pregame press conference on Wednesday, head coach Matthew Mitchell said he wouldn’t guarantee that McKinney would play, but explained that she was doing everything she could to make it back on the court.
Fast forward to shortly before tipoff and the 6-foot-1 defensive beast was already back in the starting lineup. McKinney finished with six points and two rebounds on 3-4 shooting while playing her typical stout defense on the block. She only played 21 minutes, which is a season-low and likely due to Kentucky’s sizable lead late in the game, but told reporters afterward that she’s feeling much better.
“I felt really good,” McKinney said. “When I came back we did a lot of treatment, we did a lot of things to get me ready. I was well prepared.”
Roper and Paschal quietly playing their roles to perfection
The backcourt consisting of two seniors, Amanda Paschal and Jaida Roper, has been the most consistent area for this team through five games.
While they can often find themselves overshadowed by the brilliance of Howard and the shooting stroke of Haines, the two smaller guards have quietly been playing excellent basketball every night on the court. Against Morehead State, they showed out once again.
They’ve never been high-volume scorers – they combine for just 10.8 points per game – and likely won’t be considering who surrounds them on the court, but they might just be the two best game managers that Kentucky can roll out.
Connected the dots tonight. ? pic.twitter.com/i4wtQjernY
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) November 22, 2019
Roper finished the night with just seven points on 3-9 shooting, but she added four assists, zero turnovers, and performed up to expectations on the defensive end. I even counted at least four wide-open misses from teammates that Roper crafted all by herself. Paschal recorded a career-high eight assists to go along with seven rebounds and just one turnover. She might have shot 1-6 from the field for just three points, but she made a constant impact all game long.
With Paschal and Roper at the point of attack in the full-court press and Howard lurking in the middle, it produces nightmare-like scenarios for opposing teams. Kentucky forced Morehead State into 25 turnovers – the most they’ve caused since the season-opener.
“You look at Amanda’s shooting numbers and they have not been very good,” Mitchell said. “But she had eight assists. That is a ton of assists and baskets that she helped turn in tonight. That is a very good development. Jaida is seeing the floor really, really well and she is very smart, so it’s good to see them doing that.”
It’s been Roper’s duties as a floor general that has caught my eye recently. She loves to run the fastbreak and is unselfish as they come. She wants to make that extra pass or slip a bounce pass to her teammate without looking. She has flair to her passing game but never gets out of control.
Whenever Howard has been dealing with foul trouble, Roper has proved she can come in and run the offense. That can’t be overlooked. She has borderline-elite vision even at 5-foot-6. There isn’t a player on her team that has more confidence driving to the basket. Roper easily draws the most charges on the team. There is not one trace of fear in her entire body when she’s on the court.
Overall, it was a great effort from Kentucky on both ends of the floor. The defense continues to produce numbers that rank near the top in the nation and the offense broke out of the shooting slump. A 5-0 start for the Wildcats has been well-deserved. They look every bit of the top-15 ranking that has been bestowed upon them.
Kentucky’s next game will be against Grambling State this Tuesday in Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. on the SEC Network+.