The road for Kentucky gets a lot more bumpy and a lot more steep in the next week or so.
On Sunday, the No. 20 Cats cruised past Samford 80-57 in Memorial Coliseum, but next up are games against two straight top-15 teams in No. 13 Oklahoma on Thursday, followed by a trip to No. 4 Louisville.
And even though Sunday’s game was a lopsided win, Coach Matthew Mitchell and his players said they’ve got miles to go in the next few days.
“We clearly lost some intensity there in the second half and we have to correct that,” he said of a third-quarter lapse when the Bulldogs shot 75 percent from the field, including hitting their final seven shots to cut a 29-point lead down to 65-46 early in the fourth quarter.
While the game was never in jeopardy, the Cats weren’t happy to see their hard work in the first half undone, mostly by Samford’s Kassidy Blevins (18 points, three rebounds) and Hannah Nichols (17 points).
“We kind of put the car in cruise and that’s something we can’t do,” said senior Makayla Epps, who led all scorers with 20 points and five rebounds. “It’s all about intensity. We have to want to get stops so we can get easy transition buckets. I feel like the energy sort of dropped with us being up so high.”
Kentucky (5-1) had shown some intensity early in the game, closing out the first half on a 26-5 run, including scoring 13 unanswered to end the half up 41-17.
“Today showed me a lot of what they can do when they’re locked in and focused and hustling,” Mitchell said of UK’s defense, which held the Bulldogs (2-4) scoreless for the final 7:07 of the first half. Samford shot just 14.3 percent in the second quarter.
We’re going to have to have a real love for the defensive end of the court.
Coach Matthew Mitchell
Many of the issues revolve around Kentucky still trying to figure out what kind of defensive team it wants to be and can be while breaking in so many new players.
“We have to try and embrace the defensive end more and really want to do it instead of doing it because you have to,” Mitchell continued. “We’re going to have to have a real love for the defensive end of the court.”
Right now, he sees a team with a real affinity for offense, shooting 51.9 percent from the field and turning the ball over just six times. The balanced scoring, which included six different players with eight or more points, shows promise.
After missing out on a double-double last time out, Evelyn Akhator got one on Sunday with 15 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes. The senior forward has double-doubles in every game but one this season.
For the third straight game, guard Taylor Murray scored in double digits, this time with 15 points and five rebounds. Makenzie Cann added 12 points for the Cats. Jessica Hardin and Maci Morris had eight points apiece for UK.
It’s safe to say that for the next few days, offense will not be the Cats’ primary focus.
“I’ve got to make the situation in practice where they understand how much we value defense and not give them false hope that offense will be able to bail you out,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to be able to stay in front of the ball.”
No. 13 Oklahoma at No. 20 Kentucky
7 p.m. Thursday in SEC/Big 12 Challenge (SEC Network)