Sometimes coaches think their players aren’t listening to them.
Turns out Matthew Mitchell’s voice plays on a loop in Evelyn Akhator’s head.
“Coach Mitchell told me that when I’m with the ball no one can stop me, and that is what I keep thinking before every game,” Akhator said with a big smile. “I think it’s working.”
It worked for Akhator in a huge way on Thursday night at Alabama where she scored a career-best 29 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a 71-54 victory at Coleman Coliseum.
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The senior from Lagos, Nigeria, was the spark for a hot-shooting Kentucky team that made 64 percent of its shots in the second half and shot 72.7 percent in the fourth quarter, a period where the Cats have struggled of late.
“To see Evelyn come out here and have a huge game like this: Huge confidence boost for her and huge confidence boost for the team,” said fellow senior Makayla Epps, who had 16 points and three assists. “We were mobbing her after the game. Real excited for her.”
Akhator, who managed her ninth double-double of the season and No. 22 in her career, connected on all but two of her 14 field-goal attempts and pitched in three nifty assists as well.
Akhator was a shot of confidence for a UK team that had lost three of its last four games and was winless on the road until Thursday night.
“We needed this win,” Mitchell said. “Really happy. Thought we did it with our defense as well.”
Alabama got a career-high 24 points and six rebounds from Shaquera Wade, but not much else. The other four Crimson Tide starters shot 18.8 percent from the field (6 of 32).
Tide Coach Kristy Curry noted that while Akhator stuffed the stat sheet, Alabama’s three post players combined for 12 points and nine rebounds.
“That’s an energy and effort thing,” said Curry, whose team was outrebounded 37-33. “Really disappointed tonight in our energy and our effort.”
Alabama, which came into the game averaging 76.4 points, was held to its second-lowest point total of the season.
It was Kentucky’s third straight win over the Crimson Tide (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) and its 12th in the last 14 meetings.
The Cats (11-6, 2-2), who missed nine of their final 10 shot attempts of the second quarter, went into the locker room leading 27-24. After shooting 60 percent from the field in the first quarter, they made just five of 21 after that.
With so many of his players in foul trouble, Mitchell said he felt fortunate to have a halftime lead.
With a full complement of players in the second half, UK’s offense began to hum with help from Akhator, who scored 21 points after the break. Her 29 points were the most by a Kentucky player on the road in the SEC during the Mitchell era.
“We had a little bit of pop and some hustle to us,” Mitchell said. “I would hope that all the entire team would get some confidence from this victory.”
The Cats had a big return from Makenzie Cann, who had been wearing a protective plastic mask on her face for the past three games after breaking her nose at Duke on Dec. 29.
With the mask, the former Anderson County standout had gone from being a regular contributor to a struggling role player.
After being cleared to play without the mask, Cann scored nine points (all on three-pointers) and grabbed six rebounds.
“We want to burn the mask,” Mitchell joked. “We want to melt the mask. ‘#meltthemask’ is going to be on social media. She could see much better tonight.”
And Kentucky could see what it can be in the future if it just keeps listening to its coach and not getting discouraged.
When Alabama (14-3, 2-2) made its runs, Kentucky didn’t melt down. It went back to work, Mitchell said.
“We found a way to keep plugging and keep hustling,” the coach said. “There were several times where we could’ve gotten deflated on offense and we hustled back and made a play.”
It was just what Kentucky needed.
“Just to finally get that first SEC road win was really big for us,” Epps said. “Our defense and our offense was just clicking for us tonight and I’m really, really glad we got this win.”
No news on Hardin
Jessica Hardin, a reserve guard, missed her fourth straight game while working through the concussion protocol. She did not make the trip to Alabama and is questionable for UK’s game on Sunday against Georgia at Memorial Coliseum.
“We’ll check back on Friday and see if she’s ready for the game on Sunday,” Mitchell said. “I doubt the track’s going to be she’s cleared and then she plays in the game. I would say that now we’re looking at a couple weeks where we’re going to have to try to get her back into some conditioning. But we’re hoping to have her back.”
Georgia at Kentucky
3 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network)