It was a long, brutal night for Kentucky.
Baylor was bigger, stronger, faster and just plain better than the Cats.
It showed on the court of the Ferrell Center on Thursday night in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and on the scoreboard, where the ninth-rated Bears blitzed No. 20 Kentucky 90-63.
Despite the result, which included the Cats being held without a field goal for the entire third quarter, junior Maci Morris walked into the locker room and made an important declaration.
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“We got better today,” she told her teammates. “Even though we lost, I saw a lot of (good) things. We could’ve given up in the fourth quarter, but they kept playing as hard as they could.”
Matthew Mitchell knew there’d be games like this — where UK would be outscored in the paint 46-12 — for a young Kentucky team that has just one veteran post player.
The Cats coach knew there would be defensive lapses by a team with six newcomers playing key minutes.
But despite losing by 27 points and trailing by as many as 33, Mitchell said he was buoyed by the work he saw his team put in to prepare for the game.
“We are a work in progress,” he said. “That is a difficult game and we wanted the outcome to be different, but I’m really encouraged by how hard the players worked to get ready for the game. Everything didn’t show up tonight, but it will eventually.”
He pointed to the 2012-13 season when Kentucky lost by 34 points here and went on to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
There are lessons to be learned, he said.
“The snowball just got to be too big tonight, rolling down the hill, we couldn’t stop it,” he said of two long spans in the second quarter when Baylor was able to use two sizeable runs to take a commanding 50-34 lead at the half.
Early in the second quarter, UK trailed by two points before Baylor took advantage of the Cats’ foul trouble, scoring 11 straight points behind Kristy Wallace, who had 15 points at the break and led all Bears with 20 points.
During that span, Kentucky went nearly five minutes without a point.
Alyssa Rice, UK’s only post player who is not a freshman, picked up her second foul just four minutes into the game. Mitchell put her back in late in the second quarter and she ended the Cats’ scoreless streak with a layup, but the senior picked up her third foul immediately at the other end.
The Bears closed the first half with an 11-2 surge, including three three-pointers.
“That changed the game because they have the twin towers down below, and that made it really tough,” said UK’s Makenzie Cann of Baylor, which made 68.8 percent of its shots in the second quarter, including all four they took from beyond the arc.
“When those kids can nail shots, they’ve got the green light to do so,” said Coach Kim Mulkey, who had six players finish in double figures.
Alexis Morris added 15 points and Juicy Landrum pitched in 14 points and six boards for the Bears (6-1), who made nine of their 17 three-point tries in the win.
Forward Kalani Brown, a 6-foot-7 junior, had 13 points and six rebounds. And 6-foot-4 forward Lauren Cox added 13 points and nine rebounds.
“That’s one of the most talented teams in the country right there,” Mitchell said. “Not just one tremendous post player but two. It was a daunting task and we just weren’t quite ready for it."
Things got worse for Kentucky in the second half when the Cats missed their first 15 shot attempts and were outscored 23-6 in the third quarter.
“That’s impressive to hold a team to no field goals in a quarter,” Mulkey said.
Morris ended the long, brutal drought with a three-pointer. She led Kentucky with a season-best 22 points and five rebounds, making five of UK’s 11 three-pointers.
Of the Cats’ 19 field goals, 11 were from long range. They were 8-for-40 from the rest of the field.
Jaida Roper added 12 points. Taylor Murray and Cann pitched in 10 points apiece for UK, which shot 32.2 percent for the game and just 19.4 percent in the second half. Murray also had six rebounds and five assists.
Freshman forward Tatyana Wyatt returned for the Cats after missing five games with a concussion. She had three points and four rebounds.
Kentucky (6-1) will play two straight games at Memorial Coliseum starting on Sunday against Tennessee Tech and then Tuesday night versus Evansville.
There’s loads of work to do between now and then.
“We’re going to have a very good team,” Mitchell said. “We weren’t ready to beat Baylor tonight, but my spirits are buoyed because of the way the players show up every night and work and what they’re capable of doing.”
Tennessee Tech at Kentucky
2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network Plus)