UK women stay perfect with 73-56 win over ETSU

jsmith3@herald-leader.comDecember 15, 2013 

  • No. 2 Duke at No. 5 Kentucky

    When: 3 p.m. Sunday

    TV: FS South

Maybe Kentucky's unbeaten streak of games where it's averaging almost 100 points has spoiled fans a little bit.

It's probably even spoiled Coach Matthew Mitchell. So he didn't seem to mind so much that fifth-ranked UK (11-0) had a hiccup on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.

In the second half against East Tennessee State, the Cats had a bit of a scoring lull, but lucky for Kentucky, it had a 22-point lead at the half and was able to hold off the Buccaneers 73-56.

"It's not nearly as bad as it probably feels to everybody and that's a real compliment to the team because they've played such explosive offense all season long," Mitchell argued.

Either way, UK matched the 2009-10 team for best start in program history. The Cats can top that on Sunday against No. 2 Duke at Rupp Arena.

After scoring 49 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the first half, UK managed just 24 points on 32 percent shooting in the second. The Cats missed 12 of their first 14 shots after the break and allowed the Bucs to cut their once cushy lead to 10 points.

Kentucky had to go back to basics and lean on something it hasn't needed as much this season: defense.

The Cats' defense held the Bucs nearly 10 minutes without a field goal after they'd cut the lead to 12 points with 11:26 to play.

"Glad we were able to tighten up there in the second half and really, really shut them down for a long period of time and I think that was the big difference in the game," Mitchell said. "Very, very happy to win."

His players, on the other hand, still saw reasons to be unhappy.

"Defense is always important to us," said senior forward Samarie Walker, who tied Janee Thompson with a team-best 12 points. "It's one of our main focuses for this team. I wouldn't say the offense wasn't working today, we just weren't playing that hard in my opinion."

If that's true, Mitchell conceded the Cats had probably earned an off night.

The Cats had just completed a brutal stretch of games that included matchups against top-10 teams Louisville and Baylor (which went four overtimes in Dallas). UK also had a difficult game at DePaul, which was ranked early this season, on Thursday night.

"I just think when you have played 11 games and you're coming here to the end of what's been a real tough stretch, the team has created real high expectations because of their fine play," he said.

Walker did agree with her coach on that one.

"Our minds are kind of everywhere right now with finals week coming up and coming off this long, hard stretch of away games," she admitted. "Hopefully we'll come back Wednesday and refocused and recharged."

East Tennessee State (2-6) did its part to make life difficult on Kentucky, which struggled from all over the place in the second half, missing 13 of 21 free throws and all four of the three-pointers it tried.

UK's two three-pointers in nine attempts also were season lows.

"We had challenged our team prior to the game to hold Kentucky at 80 (points)," Bucs Coach Brittney Ezell said. "You never want to say you want to hold someone at 80, but we felt if we could hold them in the high 70s or low 80s we would have an opportunity to be in the game at the end."

The Cats' defense and depth made life difficult on her team, too, Ezell said.

"Their pressure is a cumulative effect," she said of the Bucs, whose 25 turnovers led to 27 Kentucky points. "You saw at the end of the game that it was wearing on them."

Kentucky's bench, which outscored ETSU 32-9, was led by 10 points from Linnae Harper. The freshman also added four rebounds and two steals.

Kastine Evans, Jennifer O'Neill and Makayla Epps, who was recovering from a car accident the night before on the Bluegrass Parkway, added eight points apiece.

Mitchell was ready to give the team some time off for exam week before hitting the court again this week.

"The players need a couple of days off here," he said. "It's been a very tough stretch for us. I'm proud of our team to be in the position we're in now."


Sunday

No. 2 Duke at No. 5 Kentucky

When: 3 p.m. TV: FS South

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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