Arkansas just wouldn’t go away.
But Kentucky showed it had some staying power of its own.
Twelve times on Thursday night, the Razorbacks pulled within a possession of tying or taking the lead, and 12 times, the Cats had an answer.
“We never gave up the lead, so we kept trying to remind ourselves of that,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said after the Cats’ 69-62 road victory. “I just thought we were tough enough at the right times to get a little separation and win the game.”
Twice Kentucky grabbed double-digit leads, going up by as many as 13 points at one point, but Arkansas always found a mini run to get back within striking distance.
“We got down a little bit, but we never cratered to a spot where we couldn’t get back, so we just kept getting back in the huddle and asking each other to stay the course, stay poised,” Mitchell said.
It’s been the story for the Hogs all season. It was one they were hoping to rewrite against Kentucky on Thursday night.
“We talk a lot of times during a game that all you need is back-to-back stops and back-to-back baskets and we never could quite do that at the end,” lamented Jimmy Dykes, whose Arkansas team has lost seven straight this season and seven in a row to UK overall.
While Arkansas made some dynamic plays, especially in the second half, the second quarter ultimately did the Hogs in, Dykes said.
In that quarter, Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) held Arkansas to just four points and the Hogs’ 20 halftime points was tied for their fewest in a first half this season. It was the ninth time this season that UK’s defense has held an opponent to 20 points or fewer in the first half.
“That second quarter really got us,” Dykes said.
So did Taylor Murray, who seemed to have the antidote every time Arkansas plagued Kentucky. The sophomore guard converted several of her game-high six steals into quick and easy points.
Murray finished the game with 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists in all.
“That’s more than pretty impressive, that’s real impressive,” Mitchell said when asked about Murray’s stat line. “She’s just been playing fantastic.”
When Arkansas had runs of seven or nine straight points, Murray was able to get a steal and a layup to keep enough distance to win the game.
“My job is to always lead my team and make sure we’re calm,” Murray said calmly. “It was just a matter of us staying poised and running our sets. If they scored, we were just going to keep going and run it at them.”
Kentucky had 15 fast-break points compared to none for the Razorbacks and the Cats scored 21 points off 18 miscues.
“That probably was the difference in the game,” Mitchell said. “Points off turnovers tonight really saved us.”
Murray was one of four Cats in double figures. Makayla Epps added 14 points and four assists.
“She played with a lot of energy, played with a lot of effort,” Mitchell said, noting that the senior’s three-pointer with 3:18 to play extended the Cats’ lead to seven and “really stabilized the game.”
Maci Morris pitched in 13 points and Evelyn Akhator recorded her 14th double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Kentucky, which has won eight of its last 10 games, didn’t get off to its best start after getting the weekend off. UK was struggling with shots around the rim, but found some unexpected success from three-point range.
At the half, UK had its largest lead of the game thus far, 31-20, despite shooting 29.4 percent from the field. That’s because it shot 42.9 percent from long range behind two apiece from Morris and reserve Jaida Roper.
UK extended its lead to as many as 13 points before things went cold and Arkansas scored seven unanswered as part of a 14-4 run that kept things interesting.
A Jessica Jackson three-pointer got the Hogs within a point, 40-39, late in the third quarter, but Kentucky got aggressive and found itself on the free throw line enough to help spark an 8-2 run to end the quarter.
Jackson, a senior forward, paced Arkansas (13-13, 2-11) with 24 points and seven rebounds.
“We looked a little rusty tonight, a little out of rhythm,” Mitchell said of UK, which shot 40.4 percent for the game and allowed the Razorbacks to make 45 percent. “But we gutted it out on the road. Proud of ’em.”
Florida at Kentucky
1 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network)