There was going to be nothing merry about the holidays if Kentucky had blown a 20-point lead and fallen to Washington State on the day the Cats were set to go home for the break.
“We wanted to go into our break happy,” guard Maci Morris said. “We don’t want to be drained of energy and moping around.”
Morris might have been the mopiest of all if No. 18 Kentucky hadn’t topped the Cougars 69-67 on Wednesday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum.
The sophomore, who had made 20 of her 21 free throws coming into the game, missed two that would have iced a back-and-forth game in the final seconds.
“I don’t miss free throws like that,” she said. “That is one thing I know I will make is a free throw. I was really disappointed in myself for that.”
Instead, Morris had to settle for winning the game on the other end. Her lockdown defense in the final 11 seconds forced Washington State into a difficult shot that fell short.
“I knew I needed that stop because I did not want them to score the winning points on me,” said Morris, one of three UK players to finish in double figures with 14 points.
Makayla Epps led the Cats (9-3) with 20 points, five rebounds and three assists. Fellow senior Evelyn Akhator notched her seventh double-double of the season with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Playing without starting guard Taylor Murray, Kentucky figured it would take a big effort to win.
“It was a dogfight until the end,” Epps said. “We knew we would have to gut it out and make a couple more plays, get another basket, get another stop and that is what it came down to.”
Washington State (5-6) evened the game 67-67 with a minute to go on Alexys Swedlund’s sixth three-pointer of the game. The sophomore guard finished with 20 points for the Cougars.
Then Akhator made both free throw attempts (and nine of 12 tries for the game) to give Kentucky the lead for good. Nike McClure missed two free throws attempts a few seconds later and Epps secured the rebound on the final miss to help seal it.
“Well, I was really proud of the team to be able to finish down the stretch and earn a really tough victory,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “It was a really up-and-down day for us, but in the end, we won by one more point than necessary, so I am thrilled that we won and it was a great effort for the team and a great result for the team today.”
Early on, it looked like the game was going to be a blowout with Kentucky grabbing a 28-8 lead early in the second quarter.
Washington State started the game by missing 13 of its first 15 shots and UK couldn’t miss, hitting 10 of 14 in the first quarter. The Cougars went nearly six minutes without a point while UK scored 14 unanswered.
“We were a little nervous coming out and it’s not unexpected right now,” said Coach June Daugherty, whose Cougars are playing without their top two scorers.
“We’re adjusting to that, and once they settled down I think they understood that they could get the stops that we needed and kind of get into a little bit of a running game.”
That running game, coupled with a matchup zone that Daugherty thought gave UK “all types of trouble,” spelled problems for Kentucky in the second quarter. The Cats missed all but four of their 19 shot attempts and went 3:17 without a point.
“When we started getting stops in the second quarter ... that is when we started having that confidence,” guard Chanelle Molina said.
Washington State used a 20-5 run to close the half, including scoring 11 unanswered, to trim Kentucky’s lead to 38-36 at the break behind 14 points from Molina, who finished with 17 points and five assists.
“We probably felt like we could relax a bit,” Mitchell said, noting that UK has a bad habit of letting offensive problems dictate defense. “When we aren’t making shots, we tend to kind of withdraw from the fight on the defensive end.”
The Cougars grabbed their first lead of the game, 50-49, with 3:10 to go in the third quarter, but UK responded with a 9-2 run to end the quarter and lead 58-52.
Part of that run included four consecutive free throws as part of a technical foul on the Washington State bench.
When asked about it, Daugherty said: “If I comment they will take some money out of my pocket and it’s the holidays so I would rather keep it.”
The Cats extended their lead to as many as 10 points in the second half before the chaos at the end.
“The confidence and the heart to come back was outstanding,” Washington State’s coach said. “We outrebounded them, we outshot them, came out short there at the end with them being able to score and us running out of time there.”
Kentucky at Duke
7 p.m. Dec. 29