A few things became evident in Kentucky’s 63-51 win over Virginia on Thursday night in Rupp Arena.
Chief among them: Misses don’t matter. Not anymore. Not to UK.
Crashing the offensive glass matters.
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And defense matters — a lot more to this team than, maybe, what the program put on the court last season.
Kentucky shot a paltry 33.3 percent from the field against the Cavaliers and were an even worse 26.7 percent from the field in the first half.
Yet, UK led by as many as 18 against a team that reached the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. It would have won by 15 if not for an excuse-me three-pointer at the horn.
“That was very encouraging,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of his team’s ability shrug off its offensive woes. “I thought it showed a lot of growth from a lot of players. There are a lot of returners on the team who, I think, a year ago would have been really deflated. Offensive struggles really deflated us from playing hard on defense last year. It was a problem that plagued us all year long, and we’ve worked hard to correct that.”
Consider: Last season UK shot below 40 percent 12 times, bottoming out with an unbelievable 20.4 percent from the field in an early January game at home against Georgia. The Cats lost 11 of those 12 poor shooting games on their way to a disappointing 15-17 season. The lone win came against Auburn while shooting 39.2 percent to Auburn’s 40.
This season, Kentucky has already overcome below-40 percent shooting twice — against Alabama State, a game it won by a 52-point margin, and against Virginia, a game it broke open in the third period after scuffling for a half.
“Just knowing the difference in how we responded to (poor shooting) last year compared to this year gives me a lot of hope for this team,” senior guard Maci Morris said. “I was really proud of how we fought through the adversity and continued to play hard on defense.”
Part of those struggles included UK’s SEC Freshman of the Week, Rhyne Howard, who scored 29 and tied a team record seven three-pointers in a game her last time out. She couldn’t find her rhythm in Rupp, missing six of her first seven shots. Her only three-pointer in five attempts didn’t come until the fourth quarter. But as she gathered a mishandled ball off the floor to rise up with it in one fluid motion, she made it in such a way, one could wonder how the others ever went astray. She finished with 11 points.
“You get in a game that the speed of the game increases, the physicality of the game increases and so this is nothing but a learning opportunity for Rhyne,” Mitchell said. “I thought she had a great game from the standpoint of seeing what can take you out of your rhythm if you don’t pay attention to the details, like in the first half. I thought she responded to coaching and tried to do some of the things we’re asking her to do.”
UK also got 15 offensive rebounds to Virginia’s eight. And the Cavaliers boast a 6-foot-9 center in Felicia Aiyeotan, who gobbled up a game-high 13 rebounds and added five blocks. Aiyeotan and a physical defense that did not let UK get comfortable in the half court, kept the game close with a tie of 8-8 at the end of the first quarter and a 21-20 UK lead at the half after the Cavaliers had gone up by as many as four points, twice.
Taylor Murray led the team with 12 points, including the 1,000th point of her UK career. Jaida Roper provided a spark off the bench, scoring nine of her 11 points in the second half.
But it was Kentucky’s relentless defense, a mixture of full-court press, half-court traps, man-to-man, zones and double teams in the post, that remained the constant. UK forced 10 turnovers in the first period, eight in the second, 10 in the third and four in the fourth after the game had pretty much been decided when the Cats went up 18 on free throws by Roper two minutes into the period and capping a 10-4 run.
The Cats scored 32 points off turnovers Thursday, 41 points off turnovers Sunday and 51 points on turnovers in the season opener.
Virginia first-year coach Tina Thompson said her team had faced probably the best defensive team in the nation in their season-opening 74-44 loss to No. 6 Mississippi State last week, yet they coughed up fewer turnovers (23) and fewer points off them (27).
“I just think we turned the ball over an unimaginable amount of times, and you can’t give yourself a chance to win when you do that,” Thompson said. “... I do know that some of the times we turned the ball over it was because we just made very bad decisions.”
Mitchell agreed, but he thought his team might have had something to do with that.
“I think what happens is, when you can create a pace that the pace of the game will force players into doing some things that, if you’re watching it on film, it looks like they shouldn’t do,” Mitchell said. “It’s different out there on the court. I thought our tenacity and intensity and our commitment to disrupting what they wanted to do was very evident to me.”
High Point at Kentucky
When: 2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network Plus)