Rhyne Howard had a nice debut for Kentucky on Wednesday in its season opener, but Coach Matthew Mitchell said in the lead up to Sunday’s game against Southern he thought there was another gear in there.
Sunday, she found it. Howard scored 16 of her game-high 29 points in the first half, one more than her entire first game, and Kentucky rolled over its second Southwest Athletic Conference opponent in a row, 91-41, in Memorial Coliseum.
“Really proud of her for being that aggressive,” Mitchell said. “... I thought her teammates did a great job setting her up for some great catch and shoot threes. She’s got a real confident stroke on her shot right now.”
Howard’s seven three-pointers tied an all-time record for a game set twice by Sara Potts in 2004. Potts is UK’s all-time career leader in threes. Howard is a freshman.
A pair of mid-range jumpers early gave little sign Howard was about to go off, except maybe to her.
“When I took that first shot, I knew I was on,” she said.
Howard then poured in a pair of threes in each of the first two quarters to lead an offense that was significantly more potent early than what it showed Wednesday against Alabama State, a team picked to finish behind Southern in the SWAC.
Senior Maci Morris added 12 for the Cats in just 23 minutes. Last year, Morris led the team in scoring. She said she doesn’t mind having someone else step up big time.
“I love it,” Morris said. “It takes so much pressure off of me. It just expands our ability to play. It makes is a lot easier for me and it’s going to make it a lot harder on other teams to guard us because we have so many weapons offensively.”
The 13 three-pointers for the game was one shy of UK’s all-time mark. Morris and Jaida Roper each hit two, while Taylor Murray and Blair Green hit one apiece. Taylor was only other player in double figures with 11 points. She also led the team with seven of its 22 assists. Every UK player who entered the game scored. The win was UK’s 800th in program history.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s defense proved just as withering as in the opener, creating four steals in the first four minutes as the Cats built a 12-2 edge at the outset. Kentucky actually trailed Alabama State toward the end of the first quarter Wednesday. Southern wasn’t going to get the chance.
Kentucky harassed Southern primarily with a half-court trap that swarmed two UK defenders to the ball all around the perimeter. That, combined with the occasional full-court pressure, forced Southern into 29 turnovers. KeKe McKinney and Taylor Murray each had three of UK’s 15 steals.
“We really wanted to come out more focused tonight,” Mitchell said. “I just felt like they really did take coaching to heart and tried to get that done. ... The way we built an early lead wasn’t because Southern was playing bad, it was because we were playing good.”
The Jags averaged 71 points in their first two wins at home. Brittany Rose, their leading scorer at 14 points per game, was held to seven by the Cats. Skylar O’Bear led Southern with eight points.
Southern settled down in the third quarter, only getting outscored 17-10 as Kentucky’s offense slipped off the gas a bit.
And the Cats came out sluggish defensively in the fourth, letting the Jaguars get five offensive rebounds on two trips down the court, prompting Mitchell to call a timeout. UK’s offense began to misfire as well, missing four shots and turning it over during a sequence. that saw the Jaguars run off eight consecutive points.
“It happens with teams, but it doesn’t happen with great teams,” Mitchell said. “You can lose focus with a big lead, and we’re trying to be the best team that we can be, so that (means) to stay with it for 40 minutes.”
After the timeout, Murray burst for a layup to break the Jags’ run to put UK up 69-35.
Howard then hit back-to-back-to-back threes to create her own run to rouse the Coliseum crowd as UK pushed the lead to 78-35. She got an ovation as she went to the bench for the last time with just over four minutes remaining.
“She’s a phenomenal shooter, but it’s a work in progress,” Mitchell said with an air of caution for his young guard. “You’ve been such an effective player and productive player, and now your coach is telling you you’ve got to ratchet it up and ramp it up a little bit. It’s not going to be an overnight thing. But she’s made improvement from Wednesday to Sunday. It she can continue that ... she’s very gifted and very smart and she’ll have a chance to be a great player.”
Virginia at Kentucky
8:30 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network)