Matthew Mitchell called Montana “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.”
That was after the game.
At halftime in Missoula late Thursday night, the University of Kentucky women’s basketball coach got a look at the downside of Big Sky Country.
Strangely, that was exactly what Mitchell wanted.
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“Montana was so tough, and they made a huge run there in the second quarter. The crowd really got into it. And believe it or not, I was hoping we could have some of that tonight, where we really had to battle and fight and see how we would react to adversity,” Mitchell said.
As it turned out, the 25th-ranked Wildcats reacted flawlessly, cranking up their defense and outscoring the Grizzlies by 17 points in the second half en route to a 71-54 victory.
Kentucky started fast in its first road test of the season, building a nine-point lead before settling for a 20-13 edge after one quarter. Taylor Murray and Maci Morris led the way with seven and five points, respectively, as the Cats knocked down four three-point baskets.
Out of nowhere came the adversity.
Kentucky missed its first five shots of the second quarter, including four misses from three-point range and fell behind 22-20 when Montana’s McKenzie Johnson made a jumper in the lane 5:29 before halftime. Mitchell called timeout and subbed in four new players. Sophomore guard Jaida Roper was one of those players, and her basket at the 4:50 mark tied the game and gave the Wildcats their first points of the quarter.
The teams reached halftime tied at 27. The second-quarter damage included 2-for-13 shooting by UK, including 1-for-6 from three-point range, and four turnovers.
“Possibly what happened was when our shots weren’t going in it deflated us,” Mitchell said. “You can’t be a good ball team if that’s how you’re going to react to offensive adversity. But it’s very common that it happens to a team.”
Kentucky clearly did not prefer to be common. The Wildcats opened the second half with a 13-2 run that broke the Grizzlies’ spirit. UK increased its defensive pressure and set aside its three-point shooting to attack the basket offensively. Seven of the 13 points came at the foul line. Murray scored six and Rice four to fuel the breakout.
“We had a great session there at halftime,” Mitchell said. “I thought our veterans were very passionate about winning the game and correcting what we needed to correct. We kept our poise, got off to a great start, kind of got control of the game in the second half. Montana has a heck of a team.”
Kentucky led 47-37 after three quarters, expanded its advantage to 19 points in the fourth quarter and was not threatened again.
“We did a great job of sticking to the game plan,” Montana Coach Shannon Schweyen said. “They have a couple of good shooters. We were trying to locate them and make the rest of them take outside shots. That was going to be what had to beat us tonight. We weren’t going to let fast breaks be what they won on. We did such a good job in the first half. Then we hit a big dry spell.”
Murray led Kentucky with 18 points and 12 rebounds — her third career double-double. Morris added 16 points — going 3-for-6 from three-point range — and Roper had a career-high 14 points off the bench.
Freshman Dorie Harrison chipped in nine points and eight rebounds.
Murray said the team re-focused in the second half. “We just needed to get ourselves together,” she said on the postgame radio show. “I told Alyssa (Rice) and Dorie I was going to go to the boards and help them.”
Murray added that the Cats have “come a long way. Every time we’re at practice, our goal is to get better every day and keep working hard.”
Kentucky at Washington State
When: 4 p.m. EST Sunday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Live video broadcast: Pac-12.com