KeKe McKinney placed herself in a tiny box and struggled to climb out of it.
The new Kentucky forward got so singularly focused on shooting and making three-pointers that she stopped doing many of the things the Cats recruited her to do.
“She’s a perfectionist so she was dead set on if she wanted to be a stretch four she had to make threes,” assistant coach Kyra Elzy said of McKinney. “She became obsessed with it.”
It was nothing that a long discussion over a salad and fried pickles couldn’t fix for McKinney, whose emergence has happened as Kentucky has won three of its last four games.
The Cats will play at No. 15 Missouri (18-5, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) on Thursday night.
What the Cats now know is they’re going to get much more from McKinney.
“It’s one thing I thought I needed to do to help the team,” McKinney said last week, noting that she also was slowed early in the season by a hip flexor injury. “So my focus when I got up here was shooting the three more.”
She practiced it over and over. The freshman forward from Knoxville let the misses affect every other part of her game.
“She and I are a lot alike. Our strengths and passions can become a weakness when you start letting your emotions take over and you get too upset and lose focus on what you are doing,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
So Elzy and McKinney went to dinner and went about refocusing the freshman.
Elzy pointed out that if McKinney wanted to score in double digits, that there were other ways to get there: put-backs, 15-footers, free throws.
Each game, Elzy sets a points goal for the forward.
It’s definitely helped. After not scoring in double digits in any of Kentucky’s first 19 games, McKinney has done it in three of the last five.
“Quit obsessing and it will probably happen,” Elzy told McKinney of three-pointers that were failing to fall no matter how many she practiced.
The coach was correct on that, too.
After making just 24.3 percent of her 37 tries from three-point range in the early part of the season, McKinney made two of her three tries against Louisiana State on Sunday.
Coaches have encouraged the freshman to do what she does best: Provide endless energy on both ends of the floor.
In the past five games, McKinney is averaging 9.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and two assists while making 55.3 percent of her shots.
Instead of stressing about double-digit rebounds, the goal is two to three rebounds a quarter, Elzy said. “We can get you to eight rebounds that way,” she told McKinney. “Anything extra is a bonus.”
McKinney has become a key part of Kentucky’s defense, too, averaging 33 minutes a game, playing at the top of the Cats’ improving press.
“She is long and has some size and gave tremendous effort,” Mitchell said. “We love her hustle and her effort and her attitude up there. Then she has a good wingspan that bothers the people handling the ball.”
And while all of those things: scoring, rebounding and defensive play are key components, another thing McKinney brings to Kentucky (12-12, 4-6) is something that never shows up on the stat sheet.
“KeKe is one of our huge energy people,” senior forward Alyssa Rice said. “Each and every possession she gives us energy on offense and defense. She’s like our hype man.”
Her energy, her passion, her vocal presence all have been important.
“KeKe is a very vocal person and that is good for a team that is not very verbal,” Mitchell said. “We need her to do that.”
McKinney is learning that she is so much more than a three-point shooter, that her game is much bigger outside of that box.
A fan experience
Kentucky is auctioning off fan experience packages and special-edition pink uniform shorts to raise money for its Play4Key Pink Game on Feb. 15 against Arkansas. The fan experience, available for auction online, includes four tickets to the game, a chance to be introduced with the team during starting lineups and a photo opportunity after the game. Five pairs of special edition game-worn pink uniform shorts also are up for auction.
Kentucky at No. 15 Missouri
When: 9 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 12-12 (4-6 SEC), Missouri 18-5 (6-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 6-2
Last meeting: Missouri won 73-67 on Jan. 30, 2017, at Columbia, Mo.