It’s been a long December for Kentucky.
And even after his Cats lost their sixth straight game, this time to No. 7 Tennessee 63-49 on Sunday, Coach Matthew Mitchell promised “brighter days ahead.”
But it’s not going to be easy with Southeastern Conference opponents the rest of the way and a Kentucky team mired in its longest skid in 12 years.
“It’s not magic or sprinkling some pixie dust on them or anything,” Mitchell said. “They’ve got to know they can play winning basketball.”
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The first quarter at Rupp Arena against the Lady Vols didn’t look anything like that. It looked more like something out of an SEC horror movie for the Cats, who fell behind 15-3 and saw their only veteran post player get in foul trouble just a few minutes in.
The Cats missed all but three of their first 16 shots, and leading scorer Maci Morris went to the locker room to get two stitches over her left eye.
After one quarter, the Vols led 26-7 and had more three-pointers (five) than UK had field goals.
“That first quarter really was difficult for us to come back from,” Mitchell said. “They come out with a lot of energy and really ran the ball hard at us. We didn’t do a very good job. Disappointing start to the game.”
Kentucky (8-7, 0-1 SEC) didn’t get dominated the rest of the way, but it had a hard time scoring against a much bigger Tennessee team whose zone defense seemed to frustrate the Cats, holding them to a season-low 49 points on 30.3 percent shooting.
“I’m a man-to-man coach, but my pride is not going to get in the way,” smiled Coach Holly Warlick, whose Lady Vols made 40.4 percent of their shots and outrebounded UK 50-31.
The zone was geared toward frustrating Kentucky, senior Mercedes Russell said.
“That was part of our game plan: Just kind of throw them off a little because they’re used to getting in rhythm in man-to-man,” she said. “Zone’s been very good for us and that’s the best we’ve played it all year.”
What frustrated Morris, who led Kentucky with 18 points and three steals, was the number of open shots that didn’t go in.
“I thought the middle was wide open and we got a lot of wide-open shots. We just did not make any,” she said. “Kudos to Tennessee for playing us that way because it took away driving opportunities for us.”
Tennessee, which has won six of its last seven against Kentucky, took away the Cats’ ability to score in transition, too. UK forced the Lady Vols into 21 turnovers but only managed to get eight points off of those mistakes.
“We’ve got to convert those into points, and we’re just not making any dynamic plays in transition and that’s always been something in the past we’ve had the ability to do,” Mitchell said. “We have to try and find a way to get back to that.”
The Lady Vols (13-0, 1-0) had three players score in double figures, led by Evina Westbrook’s 17 points and Russell’s 16 points and seven rebounds.
Kentucky didn’t have a player other than Morris score in double figures. Freshman Dorie Harrison came close with nine points in 17 minutes.
“We’ll be really upset when we look at all the open shots that we missed,” Mitchell said.
It’s about more than just misses for this team at this moment.
“We clearly have a confidence issue right now,” Mitchell said. “There is some doubt in our minds, and we’ve got to work hard to battle through that.”
The battle will only get tougher in January and February. There’s a road game at No. 22 Texas A&M on Thursday, two games apiece against No. 5 South Carolina and No. 5 Mississippi State, and then another at No. 16 Missouri in the next two months.
Kentucky at No. 22 Texas A&M
7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network)