For 20 minutes at Middle Tennessee State, Kentucky looked every bit the way Coach Matthew Mitchell hoped it would by this point in the season: tough, aggressive, dominant.
Unfortunately for the Cats, it was the first 20 minutes.
In the second 20 minutes at the Murphy Center, things came apart for Kentucky, which fell to the Raiders 62-57.
“We’re just not a very intense defensive team,” said Mitchell, whose Cats coughed up a 12-point lead at the break. “Maybe 20 minutes is all we have in us now. We’ve got to get that corrected. We took our foot off the gas pedal. That’s my fault we’re in this situation.”
The Cats (8-6) lost their fifth straight game for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
The road doesn’t get any easier with the start of Southeastern Conference play at Rupp Arena on Sunday against No. 7 Tennessee and then a trip to No. 22 Texas A&M a few days later.
Middle Tennessee was the aggressor in the second half, especially inside behind Rebecca Reuter, who scored 13 of her 16 points after the half, mostly from the foul line.
The senior helped whittle a 12-point Kentucky lead down to 44-42 after three quarters.
She helped spark a 14-0 run for the Raiders that included a nearly seven-minute span without a point for Kentucky.
“We don’t put our head down and go to the rim and get in the paint and get tough and make shots when a team is overplaying you,” Mitchell said of the scoring droughts. “That’s my fault that I don’t have them any better prepared at this point in the season.”
“We were just a little intimidated a little bit early on and then by halftime we got it back together,” Coach Rick Insell said. “Our posts are better than that and we were 1-for-10 from the post at halftime. That’s not us.”
The Raiders (8-5) were led by Abbey Sissom, who had 22 points and five three-pointers. The senior guard carried her team when it was struggling early; MTSU went nearly eight minutes without a field goal to open the game.
“At halftime, we knew we could win, but we knew we were killing ourselves, so we just came together,” Sissom said.
Middle Tennessee picked up its defensive intensity and took a UK team that shot 75 percent in the second quarter and 55 percent in the first half and held it to 8-for-28 (28.6 percent) shooting in the second half.
Despite the scoreless stretches, UK only trailed by five points at most and had a chance to tie it with 14 seconds left in the game, but KeKe McKinney’s open three-pointer bounced off the rim.
“That last three she missed was a big miss for us,” Insell said of McKinney, who had hit one a minute earlier. She finished with eight points.
Kentucky was led by Maci Morris’ 13 points. The junior guard also had four rebounds and three assists. Alyssa Rice added 11 points and eight rebounds for UK, which was outrebounded 34-26.
MTSU, which snapped a five-game losing streak to Kentucky, scored 10 second-chance points to just two for the Cats.
Of those stats and many more, Mitchell said: “Give Middle Tennessee credit. They outhustled, outworked us for the victory.”
No. 7 Tennessee at Kentucky
Noon Sunday (SEC Network)