It leaped off the stat sheet.
Jaida Roper had just come off the Kentucky bench and made all five shots she’d attempted.
“It’s funny how she’s the last one in the gym every night, and how that improves her shooting percentage,” Coach Matthew Mitchell commented to the team after Roper’s career night two games ago.
“The next practice everybody stayed late and was working,” he relayed later. “That’s leadership she’s helping us with.”
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Roper, a 5-foot-6 guard, signed with Kentucky late after turmoil left the Cats with a short-handed roster and tumult at her original choice (Louisiana Tech) left her without a place to play.
“She was more of a thumb in the dam last year, trying to hold it together, and she had real limitations,” Mitchell said in the preseason of the guard. “She’s just grown tremendously since then.”
There were times when Roper felt a bit frustrated and overwhelmed last season, she admitted on Tuesday as No. 22 Kentucky prepares to meet Morehead State in Memorial Coliseum.
“I wasn’t satisfied,” Roper said of her 2.8 points per game last season. “I was frustrated that things weren’t clicking so easy. I wondered: Why was it taking so long?”
All of that stuff coaches preach about trusting the process and putting in the work? Roper lived it. She’s still living it.
“I worked hard and I worked a lot,” she said. “I stayed in the gym countless hours. And if you’re in the gym for countless hours, it builds your confidence.”
I worked hard and I worked a lot. I stayed in the gym countless hours. And if you’re in the gym for countless hours, it builds your confidence.
Jaida Roper, UK sophomore
Roper spent those countless hours putting up thousands of shots, and doing agility and ball-handling drills with teammate and fellow guard Taylor Murray.
“She works really hard,” Murray said of her teammate. “We watched a lot of film together, just talked about the game.”
They watch college games and NBA games together, breaking down offenses and defenses, discussing options for where the ball could go.
There’s been a huge early payoff for the sophomore from Memphis. Roper now is averaging 9.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists for unbeaten Kentucky.
After making just 31.3 percent of her shots last season, she’s hitting 51.9 percent through four games this season.
In each of UK’s first three games, she set a career high for points.
Her coaches have noticed a difference, but it became much more clear to Mitchell when he was doing some scouting work before UK’s game at Washington State. That work included watching the game against the Cougars a season ago.
Mitchell marveled at how much improvement Roper has made in just 11 months.
“She’s doing so many little things well right now that show you she’s dedicated to the process and doing things the right way,” he said. “It’s probably a combination of a million little things done well over the last year that are now paying off for her.”
News and notes
There probably will be a loud contingent from Anderson County in Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday afternoon with two of the program’s former stars facing off in UK’s Makenzie Cann and Eriel McKee of Morehead State.
Cann is coming off her first career double-double at Washington State (15 points, 10 rebounds). The senior is averaging 12 points and 5.8 rebounds. She’s made 11 three-pointers this season, the most on the team.
A five-year starter for the Bearcats, Cann finished first in school history in assists (645) and second in points (2,207) and steals (468).
McKee, who leads the Eagles in scoring at 14.3 points with 8.3 rebounds, holds the career record for points at Anderson County.
▪ Wednesday’s game is a “Thanks for Giving” game for Kentucky. Fans can bring a canned food item or a new clothing item like gloves, winter hats and socks to the UK Ticket Office and receive free general admission tickets to the game.
▪ Kentucky will be without freshman forward Tatyana Wyatt, who is working through the concussion protocol, Mitchell said. She suffered the injury before the Cats’ game on Nov. 12.
▪ Assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who hasn’t been on the UK bench this season while dealing with a family medical issue, will be back for Wednesday’s game.
▪ Transfer Ogechi Anyagaligbo will have surgery on her injured knee on Wednesday morning.
Morehead State at Kentucky
When: 2 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Morehead State 2-2, Kentucky 4-0
Series: Kentucky leads 33-5
Last meeting: Kentucky won 74-47 on Nov. 23, 2016, in Lexington.