Just hours after freshman Rhyne Howard arrived in Italy this summer, her Kentucky coach saw the immediate impact she could have.
And not just in points and rebounds.
Howard was running on little sleep after playing in games for Team USA in Mexico before joining Kentucky on its in-progress Italy trip.
So the freshman wasn’t necessarily playing her best basketball, but her presence immediately had an impact on UK’s seniors.
“Particularly helped Maci and Taylor,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They don’t have to be perfect every possession. She takes the pressure off.”
Now that the season is in full swing, Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Howard have become a sort of three-headed scoring monster for No. 19 Kentucky, which topped Rhode Island 75-52 on Thursday night behind those stars.
Fresh off her season-best 31 points versus Morehead State last week, Morris led the Cats with 29 points, five rebounds and four assists. Howard added 19 points, seven rebounds and a career-high seven steals with Murray pitching in 11 points and four steals for Kentucky.
“It just takes off a tremendous amount of pressure because if one of us isn’t scoring, then the other two usually picks it up,” Morris said of the trio’s success that has helped Kentucky stay unbeaten nine games into the season.
“When all three of us are on, it’s going to be scary. I’m excited for when that happens.”
Morris hopes that happens on Sunday when Kentucky travels to No. 5 Louisville, which also happens to be unbeaten. The Cardinals, featuring preseason All-American Asia Durr, are among the top 10 scoring teams in the country.
Kentucky didn’t get caught looking ahead to Louisville on Thursday night, using a big third quarter to shake off some poor shooting — the Cats shot a season-low tying 33.3 percent against the Rams — and pull ahead.
“We picked up our hustle a lot, getting on the floor, getting some deflections,” Morris said. “That plays a very vital role in the team we want to be: just getting some energy and sparks like that.”
Another spark came from watching the hustle of teammate Amanda Paschal, who went flying and sliding across the floor for a loose ball as part of a big UK run.
“She’s one of the ones that lays it out when we do diving on the ball drills,” Morris said of Paschal, who had four points and three boards. “You can tell when she’s about to dive because she brings her arms out and throws her body on the ball.”
Kentucky (9-0) scrapped and clawed for loose balls on Thursday night, scoring 21 points off 30 forced turnovers. The Cats won the rebounding battle after Mitchell called for improvement there this week.
“I was really proud of the hustle and being able to get it done with our defense,” Mitchell said of UK, which has forced three opponents into 30 or more turnovers in a game this season.
Even though there was a week between games, Morris started off where she finished against Morehead State, scoring eight straight out of the gate for the Cats.
Kentucky (9-0) went cold shortly thereafter, missing 10 of its final 11 shots of the first quarter, and took a slim 16-12 lead after one.
It was the Rams’ turn to go quiet in the second quarter. They went nearly five minutes without a field goal while UK raced out to a 25-15 lead, its largest of the half.
Rhode Island (5-3) was paced by Elemy Colome’s 16 points, four assists and four rebounds. Davida Dale added 14 points and four assists, but she turned the ball over nine times against the Cats.