Just a few short months ago, Oklahoma faced Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum, which gives Sooners Coach Sherri Coale a unique perspective on UK.
After the No. 17 Cats upended her No. 12 Sooners 82-68 on Thursday night, Coale was asked if there was anything different about this Kentucky team.
“These guys are a little bit more purposeful,” she said simply.
Kentucky seemed to play with a purpose in knocking off its second top 25 opponent of the season behind 30 points, five assists and three rebounds from senior Makayla Epps.
It was hard to know what — or who — Kentucky was going to play with at the end of last season when the dust settled and a handful of players had transferred out of the program and all three assistant coaches had departed.
So when Epps was told that Coale said Kentucky was playing with more purpose, she flashed a big grin.
“Well, I’m glad somebody sees that,” she said.
“After the turmoil we had last season, I’m sure a lot of people counted us down and out, but I try to reiterate to them in the locker room a lot, let’s just go out there and shock the world. Why not? Why not go out there and knock off No. 12 in the country?”
Kentucky (6-1) handed the Sooners their first loss of the season behind Epps, who got on a roll early, scoring 18 points in the first half and helping the Cats jump out to an eight-point advantage in the first half.
The lead was short-lived, though, as the Cats went cold the final 3:05 of the half and Oklahoma scored 10 straight to take a 39-37 lead going into the break.
The Sooners, who hit three three-pointers in that stretch, made eight of 17 from long range in the first half against Kentucky’s two-three zone.
Coming into the game, Oklahoma’s game high for made three-pointers was nine. The Sooners finished with 11 Thursday.
Kentucky had to stay in the zone much longer than Coahc Matthew Mitchell likely would have wanted with the Cats’ only post players picking up two fouls early in the game.
Alyssa Rice sat for all but two minutes of the first half and Evelyn Akhator missed all but one minute of the second quarter.
“It wasn’t the ideal situation,” said Makenzie Cann, who at 6-foot-1 was the tallest UK player in the lineup. “We had five guards out there and didn’t give up any ground and I think that says a lot about us.”
One of the more awkward sights of the night was 5-foot-10 Epps in the center of that zone battling with Oklahoma’s 6-foot-9 backup center Nancy Mulkey.
“I hope there’s a picture somewhere because I’m sure it was funny,” Epps said. “She’s very long, had her elbows in my face. I couldn’t get around her.”
Kentucky found a way to get around Oklahoma (5-1) in the second half with much more efficient defense and a heavy dose of sophomore Maci Morris, who scored nine of her career-high 19 points in the pivotal third quarter.
“In the third quarter, I just had a feeling that I was feeling it,” said Morris, who pulled down a career-best eight rebounds in the win, UK’s third straight.
“I’ve been in kind of a shooting slump, so they’ve just been telling me, ‘It’s going to be your time. It’s going to be your time,’” she said. “(Coaches) having faith in me and my teammates having faith in me makes me want to do well.”
Others in double figures included Cann (10 points, four rebounds), Akhator (11 points, six rebounds). Point guard Taylor Murray added nine points, six rebounds and three assists for Kentucky (6-1).
Oklahoma, which returned four starters from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, was led by Peyton Little’s 19 points. Gioya Carter added 18 points.
Vionise Pierre-Louis had 15 points and 13 boards for the Sooners, who outrebounded Kentucky 35-34.
While Morris coming on in the third quarter was big for Kentucky, Mitchell seemed most pleased with the Cats’ energy and effort on defense, including holding Oklahoma scoreless for the final 2:30.
“Finally tonight in the second half, we were able to disrupt and hustle and find some way to get that turnover margin tilted in our favor,” he said of UK, which turned the ball over 11 times compared to 17 for the Sooners. The Cats scored 18 points off of those miscues.
“They did dig deep and it’s awesome to see the team do that,” he said. “This was a very important game for us. We needed this game. It’s a tough, tough month ahead and to be able to gut out a victory was great.”
The road ahead includes a trip to No. 7 Louisville on Sunday. The Cardinals (6-2) have dropped two in a row to ranked teams, first falling at No. 3 South Carolina and then losing to No. 5 Maryland on Thursday night at the KFC/Yum Center.
When asked about Coale’s “purposeful” comments about Kentucky this season versus last season, Mitchell said the Cats have no choice.
“We just have to embrace the struggle we’re in,” he said. “We’re an imperfect team and we have to play with purpose and we have to play harder than our opponent and we have to do all the little things and we have to play with enthusiasm.”
No. 17 Kentucky at No. 7 Louisville
2 p.m. Sunday (WatchESPN.com)