On Monday morning, University of Kentucky senior star Maci Morris was named a contender for National Player of the Year. Later that night, she showed why.
Hours after she was one of 30 players named to the Naismith Trophy midseason watch list, Morris was instrumental in a crucial win for the 19th-ranked Wildcats, scoring 17 points as UK routed Alabama, 68-53, in Tuscaloosa.
The Naismith Trophy is awarded to the top player in women’s college basketball, and Morris made her case on Monday. She got her first points on a deep straightaway three-pointer to give the Cats an 11-6 lead. With the clock winding down at the end of the first quarter, she drove to the basket and banked home a one-handed runner at the horn.
“We’d struggled so mightily in the first few minutes, I thought that was a big psychological and emotional lift for us,” said UK Coach Matthew Mitchell on the UK Radio Network postgame show. “She’s just gotten really good at that real tough attack, running bank shot. That’s a real tough shot. That was a big-time play, really proud of her for making that.”
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Morris’ second three-pointer of the night put the Cats ahead 46-31 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
Regardless of where Morris finishes in this season’s race for National Player of the Year, it looks like a sure bet that Kentucky will have another contender on the roster for the next few years.
Freshman Rhyne Howard put on another show against the Crimson Tide, eclipsing the 20-point mark for the eighth time this season. Howard scored a game-high 23 points on 9 of 14 shooting, knocking down four of six shots from the three-point line and adding three steals and three rebounds.
The Cats continued their offensive resurgence on Monday, shooting 46 percent from the field as a team and hitting eight of 16 three-pointers. The Cats had shot under 40 percent in four straight games before hitting more than half their shots in last Thursday’s win over Auburn. In its last two games, Kentucky has gone a combined 19 of 36 from beyond the arc.
The Cats also turned in another stellar defensive effort, forcing 24 turnovers and converting them into 20 points. Eight different Wildcats combined for 15 steals against Alabama (11-13, 3-8 SEC), with Howard and Taylor Murray leading the way with three apiece.
”We’ve emphasized defense all year,” said Morris. “To have everybody getting up in the passing lanes and getting steals is huge for us.”
With the victory, Kentucky (20-5, 7-4 Southeastern Conference) moved into a tie with Missouri for fourth place in the SEC standings. The top four finishers earn byes into the quarterfinals of next month’s SEC Tournament.
After losing back-to-back games in late January the Cats were in danger of falling out of contention for one of those coveted spots. But they’ve responded with three straight wins, including two in a row on the road, and are now in prime position to finish the regular season on a roll as they’ll play three of their final five games at home.
Arkansas at No. 17 Kentucky
2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network Plus)