Big nights from Maci Morris and Taylor Murray weren’t enough to rescue the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team on Thursday, as the Wildcats’ comeback bid fell short in an 83-78 loss at No. 15 Missouri.
After trailing by as many as 16 points the Cats made a fierce run in the fourth quarter. They twice cut the Missouri lead to four points with less than a minute to play then got within one possession at 81-78 on Murray’s three-pointer with nine seconds to go, but Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham drained two free throws on the next possession to seal the win. The Tigers hit seven straight free throws as UK fouled to extend the game.
Cunningham showed why she’s been a First-Team All-SEC selection in each of her first two seasons. The junior forward scored 13 of her game-high 29 points in the final 6:17. After the Cats outscored Missouri 8-0 to cut the lead to seven with 6:34 to play, Cunningham responded by draining a three-pointer and sinking a pair of free throws when UK Coach Matthew Mitchell drew a technical foul.
Of the technical, Mitchell said he “was trying to tell our players to stop fouling and that was the wrong thing to say at the time.”
On a night when the Tigers were red hot from the field, shooting 55 percent as a team, Cunningham led the way. She knocked down eight of 10 shots, including five of seven from the perimeter. Four Tigers hit double-figure scoring, including Bri Porter, who posted a double-double with 16 points and 11 boards.
“Missouri was just on fire,” said Mitchell. “They had a great night and you just have to credit kids who come in and knock down shots. I am not for sure if we would have played better defense if it would’ve mattered. They were locked in tonight.”
Morris, UK’s leading scorer on the season, picked up her second foul early in the second quarter and was held to five points in the first half. She went on a tear in the second half to finish with 22 points, matching her season-high. The junior guard hit nine of 17 shots, including three of five three-pointers. The nine field goals matched her career high.
Murray’s hot streak also continued in the loss. She had team-highs with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists. It was the eighth straight game the junior guard has scored in double figures.
Dorie Harrison once again gave the Cats critical production off the bench. The freshman center scored 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting and pulled down four rebounds in 23 minutes. She’s scored double figures in four of her last six games.
UK’s bench outscored Missouri’s 20-4 and the Cats had a 26-20 scoring advantage in the paint, but the Tigers won the rebounding battle 31-22. Kentucky forced 17 turnovers and committed just seven.
UK cut the Missouri lead to 41-36 on Keke McKinney’s jumper early in the second half, but the Tigers closed the third quarter on an 18-10 run to take a 13-point lead.
The loss was the Cats’ second straight and dropped them to 12-13 on the season, including a 4-7 mark in the Southeastern Conference. Missouri improved to 19-5 overall and 7-4 in the SEC.
The road ahead doesn’t get any easier. Kentucky will play three of its next four games away from home, including Sunday at No. 2 Mississippi State and a matchup with defending national champion and seventh-ranked South Carolina on Feb. 18.
Kentucky at No. 2 Mississippi State
2 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU)