The University of Kentucky women’s basketball team went toe-to-toe with history and adversity on Thursday night. The Wildcats faced down both and came away with a historic victory.
After leading the entire game, Kentucky was on the verge of wilting in the face of a furious rally by Tennessee in Knoxville. The Cats led by just four late in the fourth quarter after top scoring threats Maci Morris and Rhyne Howard fouled out and point guard Taylor Murray was lost to a knee injury late in the first half. But junior guard Jaida Roper stepped into the void.
Roper, who started the second half in place of Murray, sank a short jumper to push UK’s lead to six points with just over three minutes to play. With the Cats nursing a two-point advantage with under a minute to go, Roper nailed the shot of the season. She dribbled the shot clock down to three seconds, then launched a deep three-pointer with a hand in her face. Her shot clipped the front iron and dropped through, putting the Cats up five on their way to a 73-71 victory.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
It’s just the fourth time in 27 visits that Kentucky (15-2 overall, 2-1 SEC) has won in Knoxville. Tennessee (12-3, 1-2) had won six of seven against the Cats before Wednesday. It’s also the first win over the Volunteers in Knoxville for UK’s senior class. Before fouling out, Morris put her stamp on the win with a game-high 27 points, moving up to No. 10 on UK’s all-time scoring list in the process. Roper said the Cats had to dig deep once Morris left the court.
“It was a real hard adjustment,” Roper said on the UK Sports Network postgame show. “But we knew as a team we had to get this win. We had to pull it out, no matter what.”
Late in the first half, Murray was fouled hard from behind under the basket on a fast break. After hitting the floor, Murray was writhing in pain for several moments before being helped off the court by two UK assistants. She was taken directly to the locker room and avoided putting any weight on her left leg as she left the floor. Late in the third quarter, Murray returned to the Kentucky bench with a pair of crutches and her left knee wrapped in ice.
The Cats led 37-28 when Murray left the game with 26 seconds to play in the first half and took a 38-28 advantage into halftime, though the lead could have been even bigger. The Tennessee defender who fouled Murray was whistled for unnecessary contact on the play, giving the Cats two foul shots plus possession. Morris went to the line in Murray’s absence. Nearly automatic at the line, shooting 90 percent on the year, Morris missed both free throws. On UK’s final possession of the first half Morris missed the second of two free throws.
That turn of bad luck seemed to follow the Cats into the second half, as Howard and Morris each picked up their third fouls less than a minute into the third quarter. Just 1:15 into the quarter, Howard drew her fourth foul on an illegal screen and went to the bench. That’s when Morris took over for the Cats.
Morris scored eight points in the third quarter after Howard departed. She put the Cats ahead 51-36 on a three-pointer with just under four minutes to play in the period. Her step-back three-pointer with just 1:50 to play ballooned the advantage to 56-40.
The tide turned from there. Tennessee went on a 20-8 run to cut Kentucky’s lead to 60-56 with 5:39 left in the game. With 4:19 to go, UK’s odds took a major hit when Morris was called for her fifth foul. But Roper’s big-time shot breathed new life into the Cats, who iced the game at the foul line. Tennessee’s Evina Westbrook hit a three at the buzzer to set the final score, as Kentucky got its first victory in Knoxville since 2014.
Ole Miss at No. 16 Kentucky
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
TV: SEC Network