In recent close losses, Kentucky wasn’t always perfect in the poise department.
Even its head coach wasn’t immune.
“I was the worst one who didn’t keep their poise at Missouri,” Coach Matthew Mitchell recalled of the Cats’ last loss on the road.
And while he was getting “a bit frustrated in the third and fourth quarters” at Georgia on Thursday night, Kentucky’s players had enough poise for all involved, gutting out a 66-56 victory at Stegeman Coliseum.
“Our toughness really came through,” Mitchell said after the Cats’ fourth straight victory over the Bulldogs. “They would not go away and we just were able to come up with some really tough plays.”
There was Makayla Epps’ steal and layup that helped extend UK’s lead after Georgia had cut it to five points. The senior guard led the Cats with 16 points and three assists.
“It was just a battle,” Epps said. “To get a win on the road was big for us.”
There was Evelyn Akhator’s 11 points and 17 rebounds, including 14 on the defensive end.
“Those 14 defensive boards Evelyn got were grown-up rebounds,” Mitchell said of Akhator, who had as many defensive rebounds as Georgia did offensive rebounds. “They were coming at them tonight. It was really, really tough in the paint.”
There was Maci Morris’ 15 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. The sophomore guard went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line to keep Georgia at arm’s length.
“Every time we made a run, they made a run and made a play,” said Georgia Coach Joni Taylor, whose team looked completely different than the one that struggled in Lexington on Jan. 15, falling behind UK 23-4 early and by as many as 30 points at the half.
“Coach emphasized it a lot that we were going to see a totally different Georgia team than the team we played in Lexington,” Epps said.
But UK (17-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) is an evolving team, too, including getting some key play from role players.
Jaida Roper offered up a career-best eight points off the bench, all in the first half. And Makenzie Cann set a new career mark with eight rebounds for the Cats, who outrebounded Georgia 40-35.
Taylor Murray added nine points, four assists and two steals playing nearly the entire game. The sophomore guard also had a hand in keeping Mitchell from getting too antsy.
“She was calming me down,” he joked after the game.
The Cats get the weekend off before four games close out the regular season starting with a road trip to Arkansas.
After the Bulldogs took a brief 12-11 lead thanks to a five-minute UK scoring drought, Kentucky used a 13-4 run between two quarters to get its largest lead of the half, 24-16.
Georgia charged back behind Caliya Robinson, who scored 10 of her 19 points in the second quarter. The sophomore forward added 12 rebounds.
With each Robinson bucket, UK had an answer, though, and managed to go into the half with a 36-31 advantage.
The teams traded points in the third quarter before Kentucky made its move.
Behind back-to-back buckets from Epps early in the fourth quarter, UK was able to grab its largest lead of the game, 57-47. A three-pointer by Morris in the final minute helped give UK some breathing room and extend the lead to double digits again.
“The players did a great job of keeping their poise and the players made some really, really tough plays,” Mitchell said of UK, which held Georgia to 26.7 percent shooting in the final quarter.
“We turned in a really, really tough performance. It was not easy and the way we finished the fourth quarter, just so proud of the team.”
Pachis Roberts led the Bulldogs (12-12, 4-7) with 22 points and six rebounds.
News and notes
Reserve Jessica Hardin missed her 12th straight game since suffering a concussion at Duke on Dec. 29.
Mitchell has addressed her recovery several times recently, hinting that she’s on her way back. The former Wayne County standout has been warming up with teammates before games and practicing.
“Jessica Hardin seems to be progressing back toward the floor,” he said Wednesday. “I am really proud of where we are right now because with our relative lack of depth we have handled it well.”
▪ Akhator’s 17 rebounds were a season high. The senior has led UK in rebounding in 18 of 25 contests.
Kentucky at Arkansas
8 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network Plus)