Perhaps Kentucky experienced some pre-Southeastern Conference Tournament jitters.
Perhaps the Cats’ poor shooting night came courtesy of what star senior Makayla Epps called tight rims.
“They have no give,” the guard said on Friday. “So we knew we weren’t going to come out and shoot lights out.”
Lucky for Kentucky, it had enough players close to those tight rims to top Alabama 65-55 and advance to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament for the eighth straight season.
“Just real steady, good effort,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said of his frontcourt after Friday’s victory at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. “We needed them on a day when our perimeter game was not shooting the ball well. We needed their production.”
Just as she did in the regular-season victory over the Crimson Tide, Evelyn Akhator had a huge game, finishing with 23 points and nine rebounds, just one board short of her 16th double-double of the season.
“She showed some really good poise and patience at times today,” Mitchell said of Akhator, who had 17 points in the first half. “She limited her turnovers. I was so proud of our turnover margin today. If anybody was going to turn it over a lot, it was going to be our bigs because they were trapping them in the low block. They had to make some decisions.”
Fellow forward Alyssa Rice had a career-high 11 points to go with five rebounds for UK, which won the rebounding battle 39-33.
As for the turnover margin, UK coughed it up just nine times, including only six in the final 35 minutes of the game. It was the ninth time this season that Kentucky had single-digit miscues.
“Just playing with poise,” Rice said of the Cats’ low turnover numbers. “We worked on that a lot in our practice. Even when they sent the double-teams, looking for our opposite post player or guard, just being poised and patient.”
Kentucky shot just 34.5 percent for the game, one of their worst shooting performances of the season, including making just two of 10 attempts in the fourth quarter. But UK made up for it by getting to the line 26 times and making 22 of those.
“Proud of our players for finding a way to win the boards today, won the turnover battle,” Mitchell said. “All those take a lot of hustle. … A tough, physical game that I’m proud we won.”
Because of the poor shooting, UK was never able to extend its lead beyond 12 points. And each time it looked like the Cats might break the game open, Alabama (19-13) had an answer.
It usually came in the form of a three-pointer for Hannah Cook, who had six makes from long range and finished with 22 points. No other Alabama player scored in double figures.
“Certainly a great run by a great group of kids,” said Tide Coach Kristy Curry, whose team was playing its third game in as many days and in its first quarterfinals game since 2005.
“Disappointed in the outcome, but also very, very excited about the future.”
Kentucky’s immediate future includes yet another matchup with tournament favorite South Carolina, which has won five in a row over the Cats (21-9). The teams played less than a week ago about two hours from here.
Epps, who made four of her 11 shots, added 12 points to go with five rebounds. Maci Morris had 11 points.
“It wasn’t my best night, but I’ve had worse,” Epps said. “The tournament goes on. Even though I didn’t play particularly good today, I can bounce back and play well tomorrow. That’s my mindset. Forget, bounce back.”
Kentucky will have to wait and see if point guard Taylor Murray is able to bounce back after crashing to the floor after a hard pick with 11 seconds left in the game sent her to the locker room.
Mitchell offered no immediate updates on Murray’s condition after the game. The sophomore guard had eight points, five assists and four rebounds in the victory, UK’s sixth in its last seven games.
Kentucky vs. South Carolina
What: SEC Tournament semifinals
Where: Greenville, S.C.
When: 5 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Series: Kentucky leads 33-27
Last meeting: South Carolina won 95-87 on Sunday.