When you have a young team with four new freshmen and a junior-college transfer, there’s no better way to start a season than playing a team with an unorthodox style that will confuse and confound them.
“They get the pace really fast and disrupt you with a bunch of different presses,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the Cats’ season-opening opponent. “A great challenge for us. It really has put some great pressure on us in practice to get ready.”
When Kentucky takes the floor in Memorial Coliseum on Friday night against Sacramento State, the Cats will be facing a team that led the country in three-pointers made in a game (10.7) last season.
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The Cats will go up against the team that finished third nationally in steals per game (12.3), seventh overall in forced turnovers (21.1) and eighth in scoring (82.4).
There is nothing traditional about the Hornets, coached by a familiar Central Kentucky name in Bunky Harkleroad, a Berea native and longtime coach at the college south of Richmond.
“I have known him a long time and really admire how dynamic he is as a coach and how dynamic their team is,” Mitchell said of Harkleroad, whose team will play at Morehead State on Saturday. “They are going to really try to play extremely hard and an unorthodox style.”
Just a few days ago, after Kentucky’s exhibition win over Southern Indiana, Mitchell talked about UK’s 22 turnovers, including 10 by the freshmen against the Eagles’ pressure.
Because there was so much to install this preseason with all of the new faces, Mitchell’s team hadn’t done much work on basic press breaks. That changed this week and he hopes to see the fruits of that work Friday night.
“I don’t think that we will look flawless against their pressure but we have to just hang in there and do better than we did against Southern Indiana,” he said of UK, which averaged less than 12 turnovers a game last season.
“Like I told the team (Sunday), a lot of those turnovers were on me because I didn’t have us organized, and a little more organization would have helped us.”
The Cats also will learn a lot about their ability to defend the three-pointer. The Hornets have led Division I teams in three-pointers made per game in each of the last four years.
Returning senior guard Maranne Johnson made 93 three-pointers last season for Sacramento State, a single-season record.
For comparison’s sake, UK’s top three-point shooter last season (Maci Morris) made 40 fewer than that.
It’s going to be quite a defensive challenge for a young team to close out on the perimeter and get to shooters, Mitchell said.
“They will just shoot it: anyone, any time, anywhere,” he said of the Hornets, who finished 10-20 last season. “You know, they will walk into the gym and shoot it. I don’t know exactly how we will react to that. We have tried to tell them. And I am sure at times we may not look fantastic out there because of the unorthodox way that they play.”
UK loses forward for season
Kentucky forward Ogechi Anyagaligbo will not play this season after injuring her knee in Sunday night’s exhibition game, Mitchell said Thursday.
The forward, a 6-foot-1 transfer from Stony Brook who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, tore her anterior cruciate ligament.
“Really so sad for her because she’s worked so hard and she had to sit last year for transfer rules and now a tough blow for her to absorb,” Mitchell said. “She’s had a great attitude so far. She’ll get the very best care she could possibly receive.”
No timetable has been set for Anyagaligbo’s surgery.
The forward from Miami, Fla., was expected to provide valuable minutes at both post positions. She came on in relief of senior Alyssa Rice in the exhibition.
In a preseason interview with the Herald-Leader, Mitchell said the forward was gaining confidence still on both sides of the floor, but was one of UK’s more physical post players.
The Cats have much more post depth than a season ago when they were forced to play 6-foot-1 guard Makenzie Cann regularly down low, but their depth this season is young.
It includes Tatyana Wyatt, a 6-foot-2 freshman forward from Columbus, Ga., and Dorie Harrison, a 6-foot-3 freshman forward from Nashville as well as Rice.
Freshman KeKe McKinney, a 6-1 freshman, could play at the four spot for UK, but she had been more of a swing player for her outside shooting ability.
McKinney and Cann are both capable of playing at the small or power forward spots for UK, which could use a four-guard lineup pretty regularly this season.
Mitchell called it a “tough blow for Ogechi” and for Kentucky.
“She’s still really an important part of our program and will make an impact on our team.”
▪ Walk-on guard Paige Poffenberger will not be available to play in the game against the Hornets on Friday night after taking an elbow to the head in practice. She’s working her way through the concussion protocol. UK is hopeful that Poffenberger will be able to return for the Gardner-Webb game on Sunday.
Sacramento State at Kentucky
What: Women’s basketball season opener
Where: Memorial Coliseum
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WKJK-AM 1080, W253BK-FM (WBUL) 98.5
Series: First meeting