Matthew Mitchell’s voice sounded like it had been dragged over gravel a few dozen times.
But no amount of the Kentucky coach’s shouting and pleading from the oddly positioned sidelines in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium was enough to help his short-handed Cats.
Against a four-win Vandy team that hadn’t won since December and had fallen in each of its first four Southeastern Conference games, UK struggled and lost 70-55 on Monday night.
“They really played a tough game, much tougher than we were,” said Mitchell, whose team was playing without leading-scorer Maci Morris.
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“They probably sensed that this was a team they could beat and they played that way. They played with tremendous hustle and desire. We just seemed to be a little bit lethargic tonight, which is so disappointing.”
It was disappointing because Mitchell thought the Cats (9-10, 1-4 SEC) had turned a corner, snapping an eight-game losing streak at Florida late last week.
But without Morris, UK seemed to backpedal around that corner.
Mitchell said: “We just weren’t real tough tonight, got physically dominated.”
Neither team started the game well, going a combined 0-for-17 from the field before Vanderbilt opened the scoring on a jumper by Rachel Bell.
Kentucky missed its first nine shots before finally getting a fastbreak layup from Taylor Murray six minutes into the game. Then the junior guard came on, scoring six straight points to end the first quarter to give the Cats a 10-7 advantage.
It was a short-lived lead.
Shooting 70 percent in the second quarter, Vanderbilt scored 15 unanswered to quiet Kentucky.
“That was huge for us just to get some confidence,” Vandy Coach Stephanie White said. “We had such a slow first quarter and we really challenged our team to come out and be aggressive and to play with a little bit more pace and play with confidence.”
A few times in the third quarter, UK got within seven points, but Vanderbilt always had an answer.
The Commodores (5-14, 1-4), who had lost 11 of their last 12 games to UK in the series, were led by Kayla Overbeck’s 19 points and five rebounds.
They shot 45.3 percent from the field and 43.8 from three-point range. Four different Vanderbilt players scored in double figures, including Cierra Walker, who had 15 points.
Christa Reed added 12 points and seven rebounds and Autumn Newby had 11 points and seven rebounds.
“Sometimes when we’re struggling, it’s really difficult to see the progress when it’s happening, so I’m really glad for them we were able to pull this one out,” White said.
It’s something UK can understand.
Of Kentucky’s 20 made field goals, eight of them were by Murray, who finished with 23 points and a career-best seven steals while playing all but a few seconds at the end of the game.
Freshman KeKe McKinney added nine points and six boards, but the Cats’ other newcomers struggled, going a combined 6-for-24 from the field. Kentucky made just 33.9 percent of its shots and managed just one make from long range.
“We clearly have a lot of young kids out there who feel like maybe they’re playing hard … it’s just not good enough right now,” Mitchell said. “They’re trying to get better, but they’re just getting the ball taken from them, getting pushed out. Saw a lot of physical mistakes tonight.”
Several times, UK got within seven points in the third quarter, but Vanderbilt wouldn’t let it get closer than that, getting key steals and layups or an important defensive rebound.
Kentucky clearly missed Morris, who suffered a bone bruise in her left knee on Jan. 4 and has played sparingly in the last two games. The plan is to give the junior a full week of rest to see if she can heal. She will be evaluated again on Friday.
“We’re just trying to get her back to full speed, hoping it doesn’t get worse and linger on for more games,” said Mitchell, who also confirmed that guard Makenzie Cann is battling through a foot injury as well.
They will get a couple days of rest — as will his voice — before the Cats face No. 9 South Carolina on Sunday in Rupp Arena.
Where does Kentucky go from here?
“Try to regroup, try to fight through,” Mitchell said. “It’s just real difficult. We’re not playing winning basketball and everybody wants to be playing winning basketball. We’ve got to do the things necessary to play winning basketball.”
South Carolina at Kentucky
Noon Sunday in Rupp Arena (ESPNU)