First the game was delayed by a tornado near campus and then Kentucky had to weather several more storms before walking away with a 64-60 victory over Auburn.
“It was just toughness down the stretch,” senior Makayla Epps said after the Cats won their fourth straight game. “A minute to go on the road? It’s hard to come out with a win like that. Just toughness from the team.”
Epps was the epitome of toughness at Auburn Arena on Sunday, making multiple key plays in the second half, including the go-ahead layup and free throw with a minute to play.
Then Maci Morris drove the baseline and hit a shot from close range with 17 seconds to play.
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“Maci just made a really smart, aggressive play,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Morris, whose free throw with three seconds left sealed the victory. “She just took it right there strong to the front of the rim and finished. Just a big-time play.”
Morris, who hadn’t scored in double figures since Jan. 5, led UK with 18 points and grabbed a career-best nine rebounds in the victory. Epps added 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists while playing all but one minute of the game.
“It was just a really great win, one that I’m as proud of as I can remember in a long time,” Mitchell said after the Cats (14-6, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) won their second game away from home in four days.
“Going on the road for these two games, staying together out on the road for five days and being able to win two games is just really, really big for our team. Proud of them. Proud of our players.”
After a 27-minute weather delay locked down the arena, it looked like it would be a long day for Kentucky, which promptly turned the ball over on its first two possessions.
It’s an easy thing to do against the Tigers, who are second in the country at forcing turnovers at 24 miscues a game. But UK found a rhythm for a while and led by as many as eight points early in the second quarter.
Auburn used an 8-3 run to close the half and trailed the Cats just 29-26 at the break.
Things got much less steady for UK after halftime when Auburn scored nine unanswered and grabbed its largest lead of the game, 36-29, which included free throws after Mitchell was called for a technical foul.
After nearly three scoreless minutes, Morris quieted the run with a three-pointer and Epps added free throws a minute later to get back in it.
“We looked up and we was only down four, and it felt like the weight of the world was crashing down on us and we was only down four,” said Epps, who had 13 points in the second half. “So I just told everybody to stay real positive and just go play some basketball. That’s what we did.”
The Cats trailed by a point, 45-44, going into the final quarter before Epps started it off in dramatic fashion with a three-pointer at the shotclock buzzer to put UK up 47-45.
It ignited a fourth quarter in which Kentucky shot 58.3 percent from the field and turned the ball over just twice. Five different UK players scored in that quarter, including Taylor Murray, who finished with 14 points, five assists and three steals.
“We didn’t get stops,” Auburn Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “They hit some shots and our defense got a little bit out of position. And then we came down and the offense was a little stagnant and we didn’t score. So if you’re not getting stops and you’re not scoring, it leads to a very bad game.”
The loss halted a three-game win streak for the Tigers (14-6, 4-2), who were led by 22 points and eight rebounds for Brandy Montgomery.
After Jazmine Jones’ shot in the lane put Auburn up 52-51 with six minutes to play, Mitchell called a timeout to help shorthanded UK regroup.
“We caught our breath and we said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to bear down here for five minutes here and figure it out,’” the UK coach said. “We just stayed in the stance. … We made them work, and we did a good job on communicating and switching today. Just a great team victory.”
Since that loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 8, the players and coaches have worked hard to figure some things out and win four in a row, including two straight on the road.
“I’m really proud of this team because we went through a lot,” Morris said. “I’ve learned we’re really tough mentally and physically and we’re getting better each day.”
Mitchell sees it, too.
“It’s (all) the kids today,” he said. “There was not a lot of coaching going on once the game started. We worked hard to get them prepared, but the players, you give them every ounce of the credit today. They were amazing.”
Mississippi at Kentucky
7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network Plus)