There have been nights when Maci Morris couldn’t lift her left knee without searing, intense pain.
“It feels like your kneecap is ripping,” the junior guard said, describing the patellar tendon bruise that has bothered her for weeks.
There have been nights when Morris has had two defenders chasing her, bumping her, yanking at her Kentucky jersey to keep her from getting a shot off.
It’s meant running off screen after screen after screen sometimes just to see the rim for a split second.
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But these have not been Morris’ biggest challenges during a challenging season for Kentucky (12-14, 4-8 Southeastern Conference).
The junior guard’s biggest challenge has been opening her mouth.
“The coaches were really hard on me about being more vocal,” said UK’s mostly soft-spoken leading scorer, who is averaging 16.1 points per game. “My mentality was always I’m going to go out there and work hard and (they’ll) follow my lead.”
That worked well enough in high school at Bell County. At Kentucky, she not only had to figure out how to speak up, but also what to say.
“We absolutely have to have her lead and, you know, to her credit she has really pushed out of her comfort zone,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Morris. “It is hard for her. That is where I am most impressed with her.”
A coach’s daughter, Morris didn’t mind getting in teammates’ faces and pointing out the problems if needed, but that wasn’t always effective with a team as young as UK.
“I realized people aren’t always going to respond well to that,” Morris said.
So she became more encouraging, more instructive and constructive even at times when she’s not feeling her best.
In one recent practice, Morris wasn’t able to practice because of the knee pain. She talked through the entire practice, encouraging teammates, trying to do her part.
“Our team was in a sluggish start, so I just tried to be super-extra encouraging, being loud and yelling, just trying to give them as much motivation as I could,” she said. “I felt bad not being out there with them. So I tried to do whatever I could with my voice.”
Morris is learning how to lead the team in more than just points.
“Her confidence is growing in that area and it I will help her improve as a person,” Mitchell said of being a vocal leader. “That is where, among all the areas, that she just continues to get better, that is the one I am most proud of.”
If the head coach is honest, there are a few other areas in which Morris has improved significantly, too.
There’s a reason teams are chasing and bumping the 6-foot junior. Morris has become a dominant, dynamic scorer this season.
Her 16.1 points per game is No. 12 in the conference. She’s shooting 46.8 percent from the field, but also 46.7 percent from three-point range, which is ninth best in the nation and second in the league.
If Morris stays on this long-range shooting spree this season, she will have the highest three-point shooting percentage of any player in program history. Sara Potts presently owns that record, making 45.4 percent from there during the 2002-03 season.
We absolutely have to have her lead and, you know, to her credit she has really pushed out of her comfort zone. It is hard for her. That is where I am most impressed with her.
Matthew Mitchell, UK head coach, discussing Maci Morris
Opponents aren’t making it easy for Morris. Just go back and look at the most recent game at No. 2 Mississippi State, Mitchell said.
“See how much contact that she had to play through, really just was pretty amazing the attention that they were giving her and all of the bumps and different physical contact that she had to play though,” Mitchell said of Morris, who had 21 points in that loss. The Cats face Arkansas in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night. “It was really a hard job and she just kept battling and kept going at it.”
Despite all of the extra attention, Morris’ shooting is 12.3 percent more accurate than it was a season ago. Her three-point shooting has improved by nearly 15 percent.
Those numbers will keep going up for her senior season.
Mitchell is sure of it.
“I’m not surprised by that kid,” Mitchell said of Morris, who has made 55 three-pointers this season, two more than she made last year with four regular-season games left to play.
“She is a tough competitor. She came in here her freshman year and put some veterans on the bench and earned it. From day one, she’s been a competitor. I’m real proud of how much she’s progressed and how hard she’s worked.”
Arkansas at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Records: Arkansas 12-13 (3-9 SEC), Kentucky 12-14 (4-8)
Series: Kentucky leads 22-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 76-65 on Jan. 29, 2018, at Fayetteville, Ark.