Coming off back-to-back losses against Missouri and No. 5 South Carolina, Kentucky fought hard for a much-needed 71-63 victory against Vanderbilt.
An eye-for-an-eye battle turned in favor of the Wildcats when they scored nine unanswered points to end the third period, giving Kentucky (16-8, 7-4 Southeastern Conference) a lead it did not relinquish.
“It was a tremendous turning point in the game. We lost some defensive focus there,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We had to weather that storm and just made it through some effort plays and disruptive plays on defense.
“That’s what the theme for the day was: to really try to disrupt Vanderbilt.”
Senior Makayla Epps led the Wildcats with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists, scoring the only two shots from beyond the arc for Kentucky. Senior forward Evelyn Akhator and sophomore guard Taylor Murray weren’t far behind Epps with 20 and 18 points, respectively.
“(Epps’s) ability to play in all three levels — really shoot the three, get to the paint, and play the mid-range — she’s really one of the great finishers with contact,” Vanderbilt Coach Stephanie White said. “She’s got an edge about her. She’s got an edge that you need to be successful.”
Starting guard Maci Morris was quickly relegated to the bench after drawing a pair of fouls and turning the ball over twice early. She reappeared in the second half but did not score until the final 2 1/2 minutes of the game.
The Commodores (11-12, 1-9 SEC), who average 39.9 rebounds per game, out-rebounded the Wildcats 41-29 and shot just slightly better from the field, making 43 percent of their shots compared to Kentucky’s 40 percent.
For the third game in a row, Vanderbilt’s leading scorer junior Rachel Bell did not get the start. The Commodores relied heavily on the production of Kayla Overbeck, who posted the game’s only double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Erin Whalen added 11 points and six rebounds before fouling out of the game.
One lopsided stat for the day was the difference in bench points: Vanderbilt with 20, Kentucky with zero. Whereas the Cats’ scoring was concentrated around the Epps-Murray-Akhator trio, the Commodores deployed five bench players who combined for four three-pointers.
“We shared the ball offensively, but you can’t come into an environment like this and play a team like Kentucky and have 21 turnovers and give them opportunities at the foul line that you aren’t recouping,” White said.
Despite being last in the conference standings, Vanderbilt is the No. 3 team in the country in three-point shooting, sandwiched between powerhouses Connecticut and Notre Dame. Long-range shots kept them in the game, including back-to-back threes in the third quarter just before Kentucky’s run.
“We have to give ourselves opportunities to shoot,” White said. “We have a very small margin for error. In this conference, teams take advantage of you. And when you are giving an opponent 21 extra possessions you’re not giving yourself an opportunity for success.”
UK honors alumni
Kentucky honored a quartet of former student-athletes for their accomplishments at UK and after graduation.
Bernadette Madigan-Dugan, who won a national title for the 2-mile run in 1982, was recognized during the first half as Kentucky’s 2017 SEC Legend. She will also represent the university at the 2017 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Greenville, S.C.
Madigan-Dugan was an All-America honoree in five separate running events before going on to a collegiate coaching career at Marshall, Furman, UK and Transylvania. She now coaches Lexington Catholic High School.
During halftime, recognition of the three 2017 Sue Feamster Trailblazer Award recipients preceded a performance by the recently crowned national champion Kentucky cheerleaders. Becky Hudson, Wendy Martin and Susan Bradley-Cox were presented with their awards, which has been given annually since 2008 to those who provide “exceptional leadership and paved the way for others to succeed,” according to the university.
No. 25 Kentucky at Georgia
7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network Plus)