Even perfect isn’t quite perfect enough for Alyssa Rice.
Kentucky’s junior forward had a 100 percent in a course recently, but then the instructor offered some extra credit opportunities.
Her reaction? “Why not?”
So Rice ended up with a 103 percent in that class.
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Her reaction? “Good enough.”
Rice, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average at UK, was her class valedictorian Reynoldsburg High School in Ohio. She prides herself on being the best she can be at everything.
But UK’s Matthew Mitchell privately called her out this season for settling.
“She was content with just being a good defender, a good teammate,” the Cats coach said of Rice, who has played in 86 games for UK, starting in 36.
Rice doesn’t dispute what her coach says.
“Defense has always come more natural to me and sometimes I just use my defense to fall back on,” she said.
This isn’t the season for settling into a role. Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) is down to a little more than a handful of scholarship players thanks to last season’s mass exodus.
A season or two ago when UK had plenty of post depth, that might have meant Rice spent some time on the bench until she worked out her offensive issues.
But coaches have challenged Rice to become more than a good defender and a good teammate.
“We needed her to do more than what she was doing,” he continued. “She works really hard to get in the right position and she always has, but she’s had a timidity about her about finishing.”
After the loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 8, Mitchell met with the players individually and discussed goals for the rest of the season, things the players could do to help the team be successful.
For Rice, the goal was get out of her own head offensively, shake off the frustration when she misses layups, and work harder to become a weapon for the Cats on that side of the ball.
In many ways, basketball gets the self-described perfectionist out of her comfort zone.
“She loses confidence, gets down on herself very easily because I think she wants to be excellent and if she’s not and she can’t figure that out in a real systematic way, then it’s difficult,” Mitchell said of Rice.
“That’s what’s been so wonderful this season. You really see her now going for it, throwing caution into the wind, not getting down on herself.”
Rice may never be the Cats’ leading scorer, but she’s become a more reliable weapon under the basket. She’s gained some swagger with the ball in her hand at the top of the key.
Instead of passing it off, she’s making a move toward the basket. It’s not foreign to Rice to score. She holds the all-time scoring (1,433 points) and rebounding (904) records at Reynoldsburg. The Raiders went 96-11 when she played there.
So Rice has spent extra time looking at game tape to see how she can make changes to her game on both sides of the ball. And she’s spending a lot more time working on finishing strongly around the rim.
“I’m definitely gaining more confidence, trying to get in the flow of the game and not overthink,” said Rice, who averaged just 2.4 and 2.3 rebounds last season.
In league play this season, she’s improved to 4.5 points and 3.3 rebounds. In the past five games, that scoring average has jumped to 5.2 points a game.
Her goal is to become a double-digit scorer. And playing to her nature, Mitchell mapped out a precise plan to do that, including working to get her shooting percentage up to around 60 percent and trying to be perfect from the free throw line when she gets there.
“She’s blossoming into the player that she can be,” Mitchell said of Rice. “It’s not accidental. She’s been working really hard.
“She’s starting to reap some benefits from that hard work.”
News and notes
The game on Sunday against Florida will be Cats’ annual Play4Kay Pink Game benefiting the Kay Yow cancer fund. For more information about the initiative, visit kayyow.com. UK will be wearing its all pink uniforms and the team is encouraging fans to wear pink as well.
▪ The Gators (13-13, 4-9) feature the league’s top scorer in Ronni Williams, who averages 18.8 points per game. The senior leads Florida in rebounds at 7.9 per game. The Cats have won nine of their last 12 against Florida, including splitting last season’s two games. This is the start of a two-game home stretch, including Thursday’s Senior Night against No. 3 Mississippi State. The Cats are still in the hunt for a top seed and a bye in the SEC Tournament on March 1.
Florida at Kentucky
When: 1 p.m.
Records: Florida 13-13 (4-9 SEC); UK 18-8 (9-4 SEC)
Series: UK leads 28-25
Last meeting: UK won 92-69 on March 4, 2016, in SEC Tournament
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 1300
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (11.7 pts, 2.8 rebs, 1.6 asts); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (14.7 pts, 10.5 rebs); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (12.5 pts, 5.3 rebs, 3.5 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (17.0 pts, 4.4 rebs, 3.7 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (4.1 pts, 4.4 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (6.1 pts, 3.7 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.0 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (2.8 pts, 1.3 asts)
Probable starters: Ronni Williams, 6-0, F, Sr. (18.8 pts, 7.9 rebs); Haley Lorenzen, 6-3, F, Jr. (12.5 pts, 6.4 rebs); Delicia Washington, 5-10, G, Fr. (11.1 pts, 5.3 rebs); Dyandria Anderson, 5-10, G, Jr. (7.0 pts, 4.7 rebs, 5.0 asts); Sydney Morang, 5-10, G/F, Fr. (3.4 pts, 1.9 rebs)
Key reserves: Tyshara Fleming, 6-4, C, Sr. (7.0 pts, 6.6 rebs); Brooke Copeland, 6-2, G, Jr. (4.5 pts, 2.0 rebs); Sydney Searcy, 5-7, G, Fr. (2.6 pts); Elif Portakal, 5-9, G, Fr. (0.9 pts)