On UK wanting to win SEC
It’s not the opponent Kentucky likely expected in its first game at the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday, but the game plan stays exactly the same.
“We need to be the most aggressive, attacking team over there,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said on Wednesday before the No. 20 Cats took off for the tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C.
“We really need to drive the ball from all positions. We can do that. We’re a team that can spread the floor and drive the ball, whether that be in transition offense or in the half-court. I just think we need to be relentless in that area.”
The fourth-seeded Cats likely expected a rematch with No. 5 seed Tennessee, but Alabama nullified that with a 72-64 upset win over the Lady Vols on Thursday afternoon.
The Crimson Tide (19-12) will be on their third game in as many days on Friday, which means Kentucky’s aggression plan stands.
The Cats have had a lot of success driving the ball in recent weeks, using that strategy to knock off then No. 3 Mississippi State last week as part of a five-game win streak.
When Kentucky is able to get in the paint, it’s found success. Getting those penetration points could be key.
Opponents know about star senior Makayla Epps’ ability to get in the lane and score as well as sophomore Taylor Murray, who is coming off a career-best points (29) in a loss at South Carolina.
This game could be a chance to get one of UK’s top offensive weapons back on track in Maci Morris, whom Mitchell called UK’s “most aggressive and best driver.”
Morris has struggled with foul trouble in recent games.
“Maci is very aggressive, she uses her change-of-pace and her ball-handling skill set, which she worked hard on this summer, to get her loose and a little bit more open,” Mitchell said of the sophomore guard, who is averaging 11.8 points and 2.8 rebounds.
Aggressiveness was the key for Kentucky in its 71-54 victory over Alabama in their regular-season matchup on Jan. 12 in Tuscaloosa. That UK win saw senior forward Evelyn Akhator score a career-high 29 points and grab 15 rebounds with three assists.
“We got outrebounded; they made more free throws than we shot; that’s an energy category,” Tide Coach Kristy Curry said after the loss. “Really disappointed in our energy and effort.”
After getting a rare two days off before beginning practices for this week’s SEC Tournament, Epps said she expects a more mentally fresh Kentucky team than the one that showed up for the loss at South Carolina.
“This week in preparation for the tournament, we’ve just been focusing on Kentucky,” Epps said. “We need to avoid the mental errors that cost us that last game of the season, just sharpening up the fine details.”
If Kentucky can survive a rematch with Alabama on Friday in the quarterfinals, it’s a quick turnaround in the semifinals for a likely rematch of last weekend’s game at No. 5 South Carolina.
The defending champion Gamecocks, who have won five straight over UK, will meet Georgia in the first quarterfinal on Friday.
“It’s the SEC Tournament, so no road taken is going to be easy,” Epps said of getting a difficult draw. “I believe in my teammates and myself that we can go make a really good run at this thing.”
That’s the aggressive mindset Mitchell wants Kentucky (20-9) to go into the tournament with: That the road might be rough, but wins aren’t impossible.
“That is no disrespect to anyone,” he said. “We are not trying to inflate where we are. We have tried to rise to the occasion every time and when we have been knocked down we have tried to come back and be a team that has been resilient.
“So there is definitely a sense of that on our team. I know that they want it bad. They want to do something and it would be real special to win the tournament. I think we are motivated to get that done.”
Kentucky vs. Alabama
When: About 2:30 p.m.
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 20-9, Alabama 19-12
Series: Kentucky leads 27-17
Last meeting: Kentucky won 71-54 on Jan. 12 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Alabama 77, Vanderbilt 57
Florida 71, Arkansas 61
Georgia 56, Auburn 52
Alabama 72, Tennessee 64
Ole Miss vs. LSU, (n)
Florida vs. Texas A&M, (n)
Noon: South Carolina vs. Georgia (SEC Network)
About 2:30 p.m.: Kentucky vs. Alabama (SEC Network)
6 p.m.: Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss-LSU winner (SEC Network)
About 8:30 p.m.: Missouri vs. Florida-Texas A&M winner