Preparing for Auburn is a bit like prepping for a hurricane.
Funky scheduling, which included a road game on Monday night, limited Kentucky’s ability to get ready for the Tigers as much as Matthew Mitchell would have liked.
So with just one day to plan for one of the Southeastern Conference’s most aggressive defenses, the UK coach wasn’t sure what to expect.
Despite a topsy-turvy start that included six early turnovers and poor shooting, UK was able to ride out the storm and top the Tigers 65-48 on Thursday night at Memorial Coliseum.
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“I’m just so proud of them,” said Mitchell, whose team won its third straight game after losing 10 of 11 before that. “It’s not the kind of game where you can draw a lot of plays up and control a lot of things as a coach.”
What the Cats could control was their toughness. They found it in the second quarter, using a 14-point run to go up 27-20 on a KeKe McKinney free throw.
Kentucky (12-11, 4-5 SEC) grabbed the lead during that run, which included a more than five-minute drought for the Tigers, on a putback and free throw from Alyssa Rice, who scored 11 points and was a rebound shy of a double-double.
Auburn ended the drought with a shot from Unique Thompson in the lane and then caught a lucky break as Janiah McKay heaved the ball from half court at the buzzer and banked in a three-pointer to cut the Cats’ lead to 29-25. Thompson led the Tigers with 12 points. McKay added 11 points and five rebounds.
Kentucky was able to keep its first-half lead despite shooting just 27.6 percent in the first half compared to 41.7 percent for Auburn.
Most of that scoring came courtesy of Rice and Maci Morris, who made four three-pointers and had 12 points in 14 minutes in the first half. The junior guard opened the game with back-to-back three-pointers.
The second make helped the former Bell County star become a member of UK’s 1,000-point club.
“She really steadied the ship for us when we were having a hard time figuring out how to beat that zone,” Mitchell said of Morris, who led all scorers with 18 points despite having some soreness in her knee still.
“She’s an absolute a warrior. She’s not 100 percent, not feeling great, but she’s just out there battling, and her three-pointers were big tonight.”
Taylor Murray added 14 points, five assists and five steals. McKinney, a freshman, struggled to find her shot but had a complete line with nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Kentucky was able to turn the tables on one of the league’s most aggressive teams, forcing Auburn into 25 turnovers, the Tigers’ second-highest total this season.
“It was a four-point game and then we started turning them over and executed,” Morris said of Kentucky, which scored 32 points off of those mistakes. “We’re just starting to click a lot better now and hopefully we can continue that.”
Kentucky had a season-high 20 turnovers of its own, but it was able to work through its miscues.
“It was not pretty tonight with 20 turnovers on our part, but to force them into 25 was fantastic,” said Mitchell, whose team won its third straight in the series. “Beautiful fourth quarter, people just flying all over the place, making plays, excited about that.”
A week ago against Alabama, UK had a 25-5 fourth-quarter surge, and it had another big one on Thursday, outscoring the Tigers 23-10, including 13 unanswered and 60 percent shooting.
“It’s a big snowball effect,” Rice said of the big fourth quarters. “When things are going good, you can feel that and you just want to keep building on the energy.”
Kentucky will try to keep building on its win streak on Sunday against Louisiana State at Rupp Arena. Then the Cats go on the road for four of their next five games, a stretch that includes trips to No. 15 Missouri, No. 7 South Carolina and No. 2 Mississippi State.
▪ Guard Jaida Roper, who suffered a head injury in the first half, was cleared to return for the second half but sat out because she still wasn’t feeling well, Mitchell said. “We’re hoping she can get some rest and be available on Sunday.”
LSU at Kentucky
Noon Sunday (SEC Network)