With the early-season cupcakes all consumed, it’s expected Southeastern Conference play will reveal whether No. 16 Kentucky is on a sugar-high or actually has the heavy fuel to make a deep run into the postseason.
The Cats (14-1, 1-0 in the SEC) chomped down Vanderbilt in their SEC opener Thursday with a 77-55 win at Memorial Coliseum that saw UK’s recipe of relentless defense and steady offense wear down an SEC foe like all their other fodder.
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Vandy (5-9, 0-1) is off to a rough start, but last year handed Kentucky a 70-55 loss in Nashville, a defeat that signaled more trouble ahead in what became a disappointing 15-17 season.
Times have changed.
“’Forty minutes of dread is back,’” declared Vandy Coach Stephanie White, giving a nod to what was once and is now again UK’s defensive mantra. “You can see it on film, and you can prepare for it as best you can, but it’s tough to simulate the pressure that they bring. “
Freshman Rhyne Howard had 16 points and a team-high seven assists, while senior Maci Morris chipped in 14 points, including four three-pointers, to lead the Cats. The win marked the 300th of Matthew Mitchell’s 14-year head-coaching career at UK and Morehead State. He’s 270-118 overall at Kentucky.
“They’ve just got more horses,” White said of the difference between this year and last. “Typically in the past when you looked at Kentucky ... they created a lot of offense from their defense, which they still do. But they also have the ability to execute in half court. And you’ve got to give credit to the players who have been here and gotten better. Maci Morris and Taylor Murray have improved so much.”
At the outset, Vandy looked to be in trouble, allowing UK players open looks all over the floor as the Cats staked a 14-6 lead thanks to open jumpers by Morris and Howard. When Morris hit her second wide-open three-pointer less than four minutes into the game, Vandy’s White called timeout to try to stop the momentum.
“Our team does a really good job sharing the ball (18 assists),” said Morris, who scored eight of her 14 total in that period. “My teammates were giving me open looks and Coach has given me the green light. If I have space, I’m going to shoot it. And they were going in.”
The Commodores rallied briefly thanks to missed shots by the Cats and fouls on UK’s defense that put Vandy at the line on three straight trips. Vandy cut the lead to 16-15 with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
Vandy’s 6-foot-5 forward Mariella Fasoula went 3-for-3 from the field in that stretch, and represented Mitchell’s biggest concern heading into the game.
“Fasoula is such an efficient player around the basket and we let her catch it,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we’ve got coming up in a lot of these games in the league. We’re just not going to be very big (inside). But we’ve got to be dynamic. We’ve got to hustle. We’ve got to put the ball in the basket.
“I don’t know that against the top teams we’re going to be able to hold people down to 45 and 55 points. ... We’ve got to try to be true to our identity.”
Kentucky did just that to close out the first quarter. KeKe McKinney ended UK’s scoring drought with a three-pointer and the Cats didn’t let Vandy get down court the rest of the period, forcing a pair of turnovers that helped set up Howard for a buzzer-beating three-point try. Howard got hammered on the attempt and made two of three at the free-throw line to put UK up 21-15 at the first break.
In the second quarter, an 8-0 run sparked by back-to-back baskets by Ogechi Anyagaligbo off the UK bench pushed the Cats’ lead to 34-19. The redshirt junior has been hampered by a high-ankle sprained since the Paradise Jam, but delivered six points in 11 minutes Thursday.
Vanderbilt had trouble breaking UK’s pressure and would sometimes have trouble keeping hold of defensive rebounds with UK defenders slapping the ball away to create more easy chances. Kentucky forced eight turnovers in the first, second and third periods. Vandy finished with 29 turnovers in the game. Four different Vandy players coughed up the ball at least five teams apiece.
Taylor Murray led UK with five of the team’s 10 steals.
Vandy’s turnovers combined with Kentucky’s hot shooting (more than 50 percent from the field for most of the game) helped the Cats stretch the lead to 40-24 at the half and 65-38 at the end of three periods.
A Blair Green jumper and foul gave UK its largest lead, 65-35, with 1:37 left in the third. Green finished with nine points.
Three Vanderbilt players scored in double figures. Cierra Walker had 17 points, and Fasoula and LeaLea Carter added 12 each.
The Commodores were limited to 1-for-6 shooting from three-point range but made 20 of 36 shots (55.6 percent) overall.
It’s been more than 10 years since former Kentucky head coach Mickie DeMoss led the Cats in Memorial Coliseum.
DeMoss coached UK from 2003 to 2007 turning what had become a moribund team into a consistent winner with two NITs and an NCAA Tournament appearance, setting the stage for Matthew Mitchell’s eventual success.
Now, on staff with Vanderbilt, she was as amazed as anyone at the giant video board on the wall.
“It looks great,” said DeMoss, who was an assistant the last two years at LSU, but missed out on coming back to Memorial because last season’s game with the Tigers was held in Rupp Arena.
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer thought she might be done coaching after LSU and a more-than-40-year career as an assistant, most notably to Tennessee legend Pat Summitt. But a call from Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White drew her back to the game and back to the state of Tennessee. DeMoss had been on White’s staff with the WNBA’s title-winning Indiana Fever from 2012 to 2014.
“I’m more of a senior adviser,” said DeMoss, whose official title is director of offensive analytics. “I’m really enjoying it … just being able to work with her again and her staff. I’m not allowed on the floor to coach the players, but it’s been a good transition for me. There’s no recruiting, I’m just basically doing exactly what I want at this point in my career.”
No. 16 Kentucky at No. 7 Mississippi State
When: 5 p.m. EST Sunday
TV: SEC Network