Taylor Murray is starting to find her shot.
But that’s not what Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is most excited about.
“What I loved about Taylor Murray tonight wasn’t her offense,” Mitchell said after the point guard had career highs of 18 points and eight rebounds. “It was her defense.”
Coaches have been trying to encourage the soft-spoken sophomore guard to take ownership of the Cats’ defense. He saw Murray do that in No. 20 Kentucky’s 74-47 win over Morehead State that included a span of 15 minutes without a field goal for the Eagles.
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“She was not hunting comfort tonight,” Mitchell said of Murray, who also had two steals and two assists. “She really got after it.”
Murray’s offense was a big spark for Kentucky (4-1) while it waited for some of its bigger stars like Makayla Epps to settle in and find her stroke. Epps finished with 18 points and nine assists.
When Morehead State started sagging off Murray, who averaged 6.5 points last season as a freshman, she stepped up and took the shots. She did the same thing against Colorado a game ago, walking away with 14 points.
“There’s nothing better than to see a player use her good footwork and (shoot) with confidence,” Mitchell said.
Those are shots Murray might have passed up a season ago.
“I have a lot more confidence,” she said. “I want to help my team out in any way I can, being aggressive for them and taking the open shot when they pass me the ball.”
And also becoming a defensive stopper, which she did against Morehead State. The Eagles (3-2) made just 22.8 percent of their shots compared to 42.9 percent for Kentucky.
Epps’ 18 points didn’t come as easily for the senior star as they usually do. The guard missed six of her first seven shots before finishing 6-for-17.
It was annoying at times, said Epps, who created plenty of shots for others with her nine assists.
“I put a lot of work into my shot,” she said. “We shoot a lot in practice, and to not see the ball go through the net is very frustrating. … As long as my teammates keep uplifting me and encouraging me I’ll be OK.”
It was a similar issue early for fellow senior Evelyn Akhator, who had double-doubles in each of the Cats’ first four games before finishing one rebound shy in Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday with 11 points and nine boards.
“Epps and Evelyn both let some missed shots affect them,” Mitchell said. “If the defense is going to stop you, that’s one thing, but if you stop yourself, that’s not good.”
Guard Maci Morris added 14 points and six boards for the Cats, who sprinted out to an 11-0 lead to open the game, but saw Morehead get back in it with five three-pointers in the first quarter.
Both teams went through dramatic scoring droughts in the second quarter, Kentucky’s lasting about four minutes, and the Eagles (3-2) going into a deep freeze, not scoring a point for the final 7:30 of the first half.
Despite its poor shooting, UK was able to score eight straight to go into halftime up 33-19 behind Murray, who matched her career high of 14 points at the break.
The overall MSU scoring drought ended at nine minutes when Aaliyah Wells made two free throws. The former Collins standout finished with 10 points for Morehead, which was led by Brianna McQueen’s 14 points.
“We played some good defense,” Mitchell said of the 15 minutes without a basket. “I think they missed some shots that they probably normally make. … They got some unlucky bounces there a couple times. We’re trying to get better defensively. We’re by no means where we want to be.”
After a couple of days off for the holiday, UK returns to Memorial Coliseum for a game on Sunday against Samford.
December gets much more complicated for the Cats, including a home game against No. 13 Oklahoma on Thursday and a trip to fourth-ranked Louisville on Dec. 4.
Samford at No. 20 Kentucky
2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network Plus)