UK Women's Basketball

Is the UK women's basketball program headed in the right direction? Mitch Barnhart weighs in.

Coach Matthew Mitchell and the Wildcats are coming off a 2017-18 season in which they finished 15-17 overall and 6-10 in the Southeastern Conference.
Coach Matthew Mitchell and the Wildcats are coming off a 2017-18 season in which they finished 15-17 overall and 6-10 in the Southeastern Conference. Herald-Leader file photo

It had been a long time since Kentucky watched the NCAA Tournament at home from couches.

Eight years to be exact.

Under Matthew Mitchell, who will begin his 12th season in October, UK's women's basketball team had advanced to eight straight NCAA Tournaments and made 13 straight postseason trips before this past season's slide.

During a rebuilding season with a relatively young roster and a schedule ranked among the most difficult in the nation, the Cats finished 15-17 overall and 6-10 in the Southeastern Conference.

The 2017-18 drop-off probably was the result of a tumultuous 2016 that saw seven players — including five transfers — part ways with the program. Several signees and commitments opted out as well.

In a recent interview with the Herald-Leader, Kentucky’s athletics director discussed what he wants to see from the program this coming season to know that last season was a speed bump.

“I think people have trusted us to know what growth looks like in our program,” Mitch Barnhart said.

“I’ve tried not to measure things in wins and losses, but I say, ‘You know what? And it’s the one thing everybody hates to hear: the eye test. I know we’re gaining ground and getting better.’”

Barnhart was not pleased with how the season ended for Kentucky, which finished in ninth place in the conference and lost in the quarterfinals of the league tournament.

But he thinks it’s still a program headed in the right direction. Barnhart said as much by extending Mitchell’s contract through 2022.

“We want to be more consistent,” Barnhart said. “I’d like fewer peaks and valleys. We had a lot of highs and lows last year where we’d play really, really well for a couple of games and then we’d have to come back and resurface."

Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell talks about losses at Florida Gulf Coast and Miami. UK plays arch-rival Louisville on Sunday.

Barnhart continued: “Let’s level off, let’s be more focused at all times, and I think that came from a young team. We have some leadership moving forward.”

That leadership comes in the form of senior guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray.

“That’s a good place to start: You’re going to have people with the ball in their hands a lot that are experienced,” he said of the guards. “I think that’s good.”

Morris, who averaged 17.3 points per game and finished second nationally in three-point shooting, making 47.5 percent of her long-range shots, returns along with UK’s other top four scorers in Murray and sophomore forwards Dorie Harrison and Tatyana Wyatt.

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Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said he'd like to see greater consistency from the women's basketball team this season. David Stephenson AP

In all, Kentucky returns 81 percent of its scoring, 75 percent of its made three-pointers, 74 percent of its rebounding and 80 percent of its assists.

While defense used to be the sure way to win games in women’s basketball, the trend in the past few years is for teams to become dominant offensively, which Barnhart said he hopes to see more of from Kentucky.

“We’ve got to find a way to score,” he said of the Cats, who finished 107th nationally in scoring and seventh in the conference at 68.1 points per game. Kentucky was No. 83 in the nation in field goal percentage at 42.5 percent.

“We’re going to have to score the ball a little bit and return to our days of defending consistently. … I’d like to see consistent effort from our team.”

Kentucky also gets forward Ogechi Anyagaligbo back after she missed all of last season with a knee injury, as well as two potential difference-makers in the freshman class in Rhyne Howard and Harlan County’s Blair Green.

Howard, Tennessee’s Miss Basketball and the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, also recently was named one of the 12 players on the Team USA U18 roster.

“We’re trying to continue to foster growth in the program,” Barnhart said. “We know this is not where we wanted to be this year. We know we want to get back to who we’ve been.”

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