After starting the season strong with five double-doubles in the first six games, Kentucky’s Evelyn Akhator struggled a bit at Louisville.
Early foul trouble was the culprit, and the senior forward spent much of the overtime game on the bench, frustrated and upset with herself.
“It really got me down against Louisville,” Akhator said Friday. “After the game, I told the coaches about it and they told me that I cannot control it so I just need to control what I can control, which is me being positive.”
So she took that positive attitude into the Cats’ next game against Middle Tennessee State.
And the result was, well, positive.
Akhator managed her first double-double in three weeks with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
“She’s a beast; she’s a player,” Middle Tennessee State Coach Rick Insell said of Akhator, who led Kentucky in rebounding. “You’re going to have to go guard her and keep her off the boards, too.”
The No. 15 Cats outrebounded the Blue Raiders 44-22, their largest margin of the season. Also behind Akhator, UK controlled the paint, with 34 points there compared to 20 for Middle Tennessee.
Every player is going to struggle at times on the floor, Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Akhator, but it’s a matter of how they bounce back from those struggles.
He knew early this week that Akhator wasn’t going to let it drag her down the rest of the season.
“She’s such a high-character person and such a worker,” he said of the senior from Lagos, Nigeria. “She had a great week, and she was flying around out there making plays, and really proud of her because she made a left-handed hook tonight. I was really pumped about that.”
Kentucky (7-2) is going to need big play from both of its true post players in Akhator and Alyssa Rice going forward, especially in Southeastern Conference play.
They’ll get a big test on Sunday in Rupp Arena when the Cats head downtown to take on Arizona State for the annual “Pack the House” game.
Arizona State (5-2) is led by a senior frontcourt of 6-foot-1 Sophie Brunner and Quinn Dornstauder, who is 6-4. Brunner is the only Sun Devils player to average in double figures with 10.6 points.
Dornstauder’s 5.7 rebounds per game lead Arizona State, which is No. 31 nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 54.4 points a game.
Mitchell is hopeful that UK’s Rice can continue to come along after showing some toughness in recent games.
“I just think that she is getting close to having a real breakthrough,” he said of the junior. “She just keeps getting better and better. She’s working awfully hard and I think she can see the improvement.”
What Kentucky needs is for both players to keep gaining confidence, Mitchell said, noting that he believes they “both have their best basketball in front of them.
“They don’t need to be yelled and screamed at, they just need to be taught,” Mitchell said of Akhator and Rice. “I think it’s really important for both of those to have confidence and it’s important for me to not build them up artificially.”
▪ As of Friday night, Kentucky had distributed more than 22,000 tickets for the game against Arizona State in Rupp Arena. Promised Mitchell: “If we can walk in that building with a packed house — the biggest crowd in the country this year — it really gives us a jolt of energy.”
Arizona at No. 15 Kentucky
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena
Records: Arizona St. 5-2; UK 7-2
Series: UK leads 1-0
Last meeting: UK won 68-64 in Tempe, Ariz., last season
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WWTF-AM 1580
Probable starters: Sabrina Haines, 5-10, G, So. (5.4 pts, 1.6 rebs, 3.3 asts); Quinn Dornstauder, 6-4, C, Sr. (8.1 pts, 5.7 rebs); Sophie Brunner, 6-1, F,Sr. (10.6 pts, 5.3 rebs); Kiara Russell, 5-8, F, Fr. (5.1 pts); Kelsey Moos, 6-0, G/F, Sr. (5.3 pts, 4.7 rebs, 3.0 asts)
Key reserves: Robbie Ryan, 5-9, G, Fr. (7.6 pts, 3.6 rebs); Kianna Ibis, 6-1, F, So. (5.7 pts, 2.7 rebs); Reili Richardson, 5-11, G, Fr. (7.4 pts, 1.6 rebs, 3.6 asts); Jamie Ruden, 6-1, F, Fr. (3.0 pts); Charnea Johnson-Chapman, 6-3, C, So. (1.7 pts, 3.1 rebs)
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (10.7 pts, 3.6 rebs); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (14.8 pts, 10.3 rebs, 1.1 blks); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (12.3 pts, 5.2 rebs, 2.2 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (18.7 pts, 4.2 rebs, 5.0 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (4.0 pts, 5.2 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (8.7 pts, 4.0 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (4.2 pts, 1.9 rebs); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (1.9 pts, 1.4 asts)