In its final test before an extended holiday break, the No. 18 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team had a parting gift for Coach Matthew Mitchell and a healthy crowd in Memorial Coliseum on Friday afternoon.
Behind monster performances from senior guard Maci Morris and freshman phenom Rhyne Howard, and yet another big payoff from their signature swarming defense, the Wildcats mauled Murray State, 88-49.
Morris scored 11 of her 13 points in the second quarter as the Wildcats took control. Howard dominated the third quarter, pouring in 17 of her game-high 25 points. Howard finished 9-for-13 from the field and pulled down four rebounds. After turning up the heat midway through the first quarter, the UK defense forced 27 turnovers.
Morris said it has been a pleasure to watch Howard’s early-career evolution into a major offensive weapon for the Wildcats. And Morris thinks the more the Cats lean on Howard, the better she gets.
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“It’s fun to watch. I’ve really enjoyed playing with her this season,” Morris said. “Me and Jaida (Roper) were actually just joking about how we think Rhyne shoots better when she’s tired. Because it just seems like she’s trying her hardest to run up and down the floor, then she gets a shot and she just cashes it in.”
Roper, who scored 15 points off the bench and matched Taylor Murray with a team-high six assists, said having a productive duo like Howard and Morris on the court makes her job easy.
“I’m trying to get my assists up. So I try to find (Howard). If Maci’s hot I try to find Maci and get me some good assists,” Roper said with a laugh.
Despite the lopsided final score, it didn’t come easy for the Cats early on against Murray State. The Racers went on the attack from the outset, firing up quick shots as soon as they saw an opening in the defense. Midway through the first quarter, Murray State led 16-10 after hitting its first seven shots from the field, including three three-pointers.
But the Racers couldn’t keep up that blistering pace as UK’s full-court press began to work its magic. The Wildcats forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter and held the Racers to 1-for-5 shooting to end the period. Tatyana Wyatt’s 12-foot jumper punctuated a 6-0 UK run and tied the game at 20.
UK blew the wheels off the wagon in the second quarter. The Cats took a 26-25 lead on Wyatt’s jumper in the paint and never trailed again. After a one-handed floater by Blair Green and Morris’ layup off a KeKe McKinney steal, Kentucky led 34-26, prompting a Murray State timeout. It didn’t help.
The Racers missed seven straight shots and the Cats ballooned the lead to 11 on Taylor Murray’s steal and drive for a layup. Murray swiped another steal on the next possession and worked down the clock, finding Morris at the top of the key with three seconds left in the half. Morris nailed her third three-pointer of the quarter to give UK a 42-28 halftime lead.
Mitchell said Murray’s tenacity was a major factor in Kentucky’s ability to seize control.
“I thought her hustle was able to make up for some plays that weren’t very positive for us, that could have deflated us,” Mitchell said. “I thought her energy at the end of the half ... (the lead) was seven, eight points and then we were able to stretch it out to 14 right before the half ... I just thought she just continued to play hard on defense and it made a big difference for us.”
Murray finished with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting and had four steals and three rebounds to go along with her six assists.
The Wildcats outscored the Racers 26-9 in the third quarter to put the game away and head into their seven-day holiday break on a high note. They were dialed-in on offense, knocking down 34 of 67 shots from the field, including 10 of 21 three-pointers.
UK will return to Memorial Coliseum on Dec. 29 to host Sacred Heart in its final non-conference game of the regular season. The Cats open Southeastern Conference play on Jan. 3, when they’ll host Vanderbilt.
Sacred Heart at Kentucky
When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 29
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)