UK Women's Basketball

Knoxville always tough on UK women. Here’s why Thursday’s visit might be different.

Freshman Rhyne Howard went to high school an hour from Knoxville. On Thursday night, she’ll lead Kentucky against her home-state Volunteers.
Freshman Rhyne Howard went to high school an hour from Knoxville. On Thursday night, she’ll lead Kentucky against her home-state Volunteers. cbertram@herald-leader.com

If there’s such a thing as a good time for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team to be traveling to Tennessee to play the Lady Vols, sooner is probably better than later.

Sixteenth-ranked Kentucky (14-2 overall, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) will get that chance Thursday night when the Wildcats take on No. 13 Tennessee (12-2, 1-1) in Knoxville.

Kentucky has lost six of its last seven games against Tennessee, including its two most recent, and trails the all-time series 55-11. UK is 3-23 in games in Knoxville and has not won there since 2014.

Again, never a good time.

However, catching the Vols for the teams’ only regular-season meeting of 2018-19 this early in the SEC campaign means facing a young Tennessee squad still searching for its identity — as opposed to a team that might have things figured out by March.

Tennessee comes into Thursday night stinging from a 66-64 loss to Missouri in Knoxville on Sunday.

“There’s a lot of talent on this (Tennessee) team,” Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton told the Knoxville News-Sentinel after the game, “and I think they’ve still got some young kids and different pieces that they’re trying to work through a little bit.”

Tennessee is led by a pair of sophomores in Evina Westbrook and Rennia Davis, who both average 15.5 points per game. The Vols are trying to incorporate four freshmen — Mimi Collins, Rae Burrell, Jazmine Massengill and Zaay Green — as quickly as possible.

That has not proved easy in SEC play. A key to Missouri’s victory was its bench outscoring Tennessee’s 25-6.

“They’re growing up,” Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick told the Times Free Press of Chattanooga of her first-year players. “Every game I think they grow up, and I’ve played them a lot early for that particular reason. They’re going to have to come in.”

Kentucky, coming off an 86-71 defeat at No. 7 Mississippi State on Sunday, counters with a veteran backcourt leading a youthful roster overall.

Senior guards Maci Morris (16.2 ppg, team-best 45.7 percent three-point accuracy) and Taylor Murray (13.1 ppg, 4.2 assists per game) are Kentucky’s anchors. The difference-maker has been freshman Rhyne Howard, who is leading the team with averages of 17.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.

Howard, who won her school-record fifth SEC Freshman of the Week honor Tuesday, grew up an hour southwest of Knoxville in Cleveland, Tenn., and will be going against the home-state Vols for the first time Thursday night. She was never seriously pursued by the Lady Vols during her recruitment.

“They were the last to recruit me, so I just didn’t feel like we had as good a connection,” Howard told the Herald-Leader’s Mark Story last summer.

Howard’s venture to Kentucky is going just as well as she’d hoped.

“The chemistry I have with my teammates has helped so much. On and off the court,” Howard told her hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Daily Banner, over Christmas. “Nothing so far has really surprised me. We have worked hard and look forward to all there is still to come. The key is to stay humble and not let anything go to our heads.”

Thursday

No. 16 Kentucky at No. 13 Tennessee

When: 7 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630

Records: Kentucky 14-2 (1-1 SEC), Tennessee 12-2 (1-1)

Series: Tennessee leads 55-11

Last meeting: Tennessee won 63-49 on Dec. 31, 2017, in Rupp Arena.

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