DURHAM, N.C. — Twice this season Kentucky had come back from double-digit deficits and dropped ranked opponents.
But the Cats let a snowball (poor shooting) turn into an avalanche (poor defense) and they were buried too far to ever fully recover at No. 13 Duke, where UK fell 89-68 on Sunday.
"You've got to be tougher in a game like this," Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the loss, which saw UK shoot a season-low 31.3 percent from the field.
"You can't let your offense affect your defense. ... It takes a really mature, tough basketball team to not let offense affect defense."
The No. 13 Devils got the snowball rolling early, going up 15-4 before UK chipped away.
The avalanche came near the end of the first half when Duke's offense had even more bling than the holiday sweaters its fans were wearing in an attempt to set a new world record (they did not get it).
In the span of just a few minutes, the Devils (8-3) scored 10 straight as part of a 16-3 run that expanded the lead to 20 points. Before the break, the Cats trailed by as many as 24 points, their largest deficit of the season.
"Really, really tough shooting day and I think when they figured out we weren't scoring very much, it really emboldened them and the momentum really buried us there in the first half," Mitchell said.
Duke hit 11 of its final 12 shots of the first half to end it with a 49-26 advantage. Kentucky (10-2) shot just 23.1 percent overall and 7.7 percent from long range in that ill-fated half.
"They did a great job playing together, playing smart and figuring out what we were trying to do," Coach Joanne P. McCallie said of Duke, which made 60.7 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from three-point range in the first half. "Everybody was locked in."
It showed in the Devils' balanced scoring.
Six different Duke players finished in double figures, led by Azura Stevens' 17 points and eight rebounds. Elizabeth Williams and Sierra Calhoun added 13 points apiece for the Devils.
Former Owensboro Catholic star Rebecca Greenwell chipped in 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.
"Felt great, especially with my family in the stands cheering me on," the red-shirt freshman said. "Just being able to finish and go home for the holidays with this win is just a great feeling."
The Devils shot 55.8 percent for the game and 42.9 percent from three-point range, and outrebounded Kentucky 48-40 behind 10 boards from Williams, the senior All-American.
Kentucky, which had its six-game win streak snapped, kept it interesting in the second half, opening with a 13-4 run and cutting the Devils' lead to 11 points with 10:50 to go on an Azia Bishop layup off a steal by Jennifer O'Neill.
"The whole team felt like it was another comeback we had coming," O'Neill said of UK, which outscored the Devils by 10 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half. "But we missed a lot of assignments on defense, which is why we got so far behind."
O'Neill and freshman Alexis Jennings led the Cats' attack with 17 points apiece, which was a new career high for the freshman forward, who scored 16 of those in the second half. Bishop added 15 points and five boards.
Kentucky's starters made just eight of their 45 shot attempts (17.8 percent), and as a team the Cats shot a season-low 31.3 percent.
In previous losses, Duke had not handled comeback runs like the one UK had in the second half well, but the Devils kept their composure. They used a 12-4 surge to dim any Cats comeback hopes. Stevens had seven points in that rally.
"We always have a great deal of confidence in finding mismatches and executing," McCallie said. "The critical part of the game was the mismatch Azura presented and getting the ball to her in the block over and over again."
The Duke coach saw a different team than the one that had gotten flustered by blown leads in the past.
"They found each other," McCallie said. "We can score points in a lot of different ways; we've just got to play both sides of the ball really aggressively."
As does Kentucky, which goes home for the holiday break before its final non-conference game of the season against Tennessee State on Sunday. Then the Cats start Southeastern Conference play at Alabama on Jan. 2.
His team has to find a way to learn from the mistakes in this game and not get buried again, Mitchell said.
"You either let this defeat you or you let it develop you," he said. "This only counts as one loss if we handle it that way. If we go back and get better from it, it could actually be something good for us."