Maci Morris felt like a defensive liability.
In her first game at Florida last season, the Kentucky guard watched as players drove around her on both sides, especially along the baseline.
“It was bad,” the sophomore said. “I just knew I had to work on it. It really opened my eyes up because of how much I got driven on that game.”
So the 6-foot guard, a former standout at Bell County, decided she would make it her mission to get faster and stronger during the offseason.
Morris, who started all 33 games for UK last season as a freshman, went to work this summer with the team’s athletic trainer trying to improve her quickness, speed and agility.
Her teammates and coaches have noticed.
“Maci Morris can move,” senior guard Makayla Epps said. “Like she’s mooooving. She’s just moving.”
When No. 19 Kentucky opens its season on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum against No. 14 Miami, fans will notice a change in Morris, Coach Matthew Mitchell promised.
“That’s going to be one that I think everybody is going to go, ‘Wow,’” he said in the preseason. “She’s put on some muscle. She’s definitely improved in her speed, agility, quickness; athletic explosiveness is there.
“She worked her tail off this summer and this fall, and she is in phenomenal shape.”
Morris knew that was mandatory, first because of games like the ones against the Gators and also because she knew that she’d be playing a larger role and many more minutes with the attrition that ransacked UK in the offseason.
“Every day this summer, I wanted to push myself because I knew how fast the game is in college,” said Morris, who was on the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team after averaging 8.5 points and 2.6 rebounds last season.
“I wanted to push myself to become a faster player and just have better footwork. Last year with my defense, footwork was really critical. I just tried to work on that as much as possible.”
Specifically, Morris said she did more stretching to battle some previous hamstring problems and then more flexibility and agility exercises. She did more form running and muscle building in her legs.
“It’s just such an athletic league,” Mitchell said when asked about Morris’ defensive deficiencies last season. “She had to make some improvements there. But now, when she’s locked in and focused she can guard anybody.”
The goal was to get faster, not only on defense, but also in transition offensively and off the dribble.
She’s been able to do that, too. The Cats’ top returning three-point threat with 49 last season — just one short of the school record for three-pointers made by a freshman — has been the team’s top shooter this preseason.
“She is shooting the ball at an elite level,” Mitchell said. “She is a complete player right now. She’s moving great on defense. She can score at mid-range at the bucket, three.”
If Morris continues to shoot the three-pointer the way she has this offseason, it’s going to be difficult for teams to “game plan her because she’s not (just) a shooter. … She’s making a lot of plays in practice and in every phase of the game,” her coach said.
The kind of development he’s seen in Morris this offseason usually comes for players two years into college.
But the guard made it her mission to speed up that timeline.
“It’s all in her attitude and her work ethic,” Mitchell said. “She just doesn’t back down from work. She just works. You can do a lot of things if you’ll do that.”
No. 14 Miami at No. 19 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WWTF-AM 1580
Series: Kentucky leads 5-1
Last meeting: Kentucky won 60-57 on Dec. 1, 2001, in Memorial Coliseum.