The absence of its most potent weapon on offense turned out to be too big a hurdle for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team to overcome in Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.
Playing without star senior Maci Morris, who was a late scratch from the lineup because of knee pain, the 16th-ranked Wildcats struggled mightily on offense and fell to Mississippi 55-49. UK hit just 17 of 64 shots from the field, going 6-for-23 from three-point range.
“Just not typical of what we’ve been doing,” said UK Coach Matthew Mitchell of Sunday’s shooting woes. “We’ve shot the ball really well this year. So I just think mentally we were clearly not at the standard that we’ve set as a team. They’re such a great group of kids and work so hard, so a day like this is very unexpected.”
Mitchell said Morris’ situation perhaps had a deflating effect on the Cats.
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“Maci practiced on Friday and Saturday and she was warming up before the game, then right there before (tip-off) she didn’t feel like she could go,” Mitchell said. “She’s so tough, you know it was really, really bothering her for her not to play. And I think the timing of it maybe affected our energy.”
Kentucky (15-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) was dialed-in on defense for most of the afternoon, holding the Rebels to 35.8-percent shooting and forcing 19 turnovers. But the Cats couldn’t contain Rebels guard Crystal Allen. The senior scored a game-high 28 points and hit several clutch shots to keep the Rebels within striking distance of the Wildcats, who took the lead two-and-a-half minutes into the game and didn’t surrender it until late in the fourth quarter.
The big mystery heading into Sunday’s game for Kentucky was the status of starting point guard Taylor Murray, who missed the second half of the Wildcats’ huge victory over Tennessee in Knoxville on Thursday after taking a hard fall and suffering a bruised knee late in the second quarter. It turned out the Cats would have the services of their floor leader against the Rebels, but not their leading scorer.
Murray joined Morris on the bench to begin the game, but subbed in during the first stoppage of play. It was tough sledding for Murray on offense. She went 0-for-8 from the field, but came up with five steals. She exited the game late in the fourth quarter after running into a screen in the backcourt and did not return.
After the game, Murray said she was recovered from the collision. She also said the plan going into Sunday was for her to play sparingly, if at all.
“The plan was really not to do anything,” Murray said. “But I needed to be there for them. Anything they needed me to do, I just needed to go out there and give whatever I could, even if I wasn’t 100 percent.”
Even though Kentucky was out of sorts on offense in Morris’ absence, the Wildcats’ were able to fall back on their defense as they edged ahead throughout the first half. Kentucky forced six turnovers and held Mississippi to 25-percent shooting in the first quarter as it built a 12-6 lead.
Freshman Blair Green put the Cats up by eight points early in the second quarter with a strong finish under the basket after a rebound.
Green finished with nine points, and nearly all of her baskets came at critical moments. Her spot-up 18-footer from the right baseline ended an 0-for-7 shooting drought for the Cats and put them ahead 17-12. With UK clinging to a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, Green sank a turnaround jumper in the lane to put the Cats up 38-32. After Allen hit her third three-pointer of the game to pull the Rebels within 38-37, Green immediately responded with a three of her own.
But neither Green’s clutch shots nor another big game from freshman Rhyne Howard could bail out the Cats.
Howard led UK with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but she missed the bulk of the third quarter after picking up her third foul.
After Allen’s fourth three-pointer gave Mississippi (7-11, 1-3 SEC) its second lead of the game, 42-41, in the fourth quarter, Howard nailed a trey to push the Cats back ahead.
But moments later Allen hit a pair of free throws to put the Rebels in front for good.
No. 16 Kentucky at LSU
7:30 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network Plus)