UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky and Arkansas were locked in a dogfight. Then UK’s freshman star stepped up.

Photo slideshow: Kentucky women’s basketball defeats Arkansas 61-59

Kentucky's women's basketball team edged Arkansas 61-59 on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.
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Kentucky's women's basketball team edged Arkansas 61-59 on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.

Rhyne Howard has been a revelation in her first season with the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team, quickly becoming the Wildcats’ go-to offensive weapon and leading scorer. On Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum, she added another chapter to her burgeoning legend.

Playing on its home court for the first time in nearly three weeks, No. 17 Kentucky found itself tied with Arkansas in the closing seconds after a 39-plus minute dogfight. With the game on the line, the freshman phenom took matters into her own hands by sealing a 61-59 victory.

After Arkansas tied the game at 59 on a corner three with 22 seconds left, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell called a timeout.

Maci Morris was the first option on the play he called, but the Razorbacks prevented her from getting open on the inbounds pass. Instead, Howard wound up with the ball and dribbled down the shot clock as her teammates spread out to open up the floor. Howard dribbled inside the three-point line, then pulled up from the right elbow and let loose a fadeaway jumper with a hand in her face. The ball bounced off the rim and the backboard before rattling home with 1.3 seconds left.

“She just timed it absolutely perfectly,” Mitchell said of Howard’s go-ahead bucket.

He paused, then added: “Well, she didn’t time it perfectly. She left 1.3 seconds on the clock and that seemed like forever.”

But Howard made up for the minor mistake, denying the Razorbacks a chance to respond by stealing the final inbounds pass.

“She showed great poise for a freshman,” Mitchell said. “She didn’t panic, didn’t force it, stayed patient until the end (and) had the guts to take the last shot.”

Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors was fast and free with his praise for Howard after the game.

“The play of the game is not the (game-winning) basket, the play of the game … did you all see how far she came to steal that ball? She came from nowhere,” Neighbors said. “Chelsea (Dungee) was open. And (Howard) made a tremendous play to steal that ball.”

Neighbors said he’d already rank Howard among the Southeastern Conference’s best players.

“She’s dominating this league as a freshman,” Neighbors said. “She’d be the kid I’d pick up in a pick-up game. I think she’s just a tough matchup for every player in this league. I think she’s mature beyond her classification.

“She had my vote a long time ago for Freshman of the Year. She’s really got it now.”

Asked to pinpoint what makes Howard such a nightmare matchup, Neighbors responded: “Her versatility. You can’t really put a position on her.”

Mitchell agreed, citing Howard’s all-around game as an element that sets her apart from other players. She finished Sunday with a team-high 18 points along with four assists, three steals, a block and 14 rebounds (seven apiece on offense and defense).

“It’s just a complete performance,” Mitchell said. “It’s really awesome having her here, and she’s making a great contribution.”

The Wildcats will need more of the same out of Howard if they hope to extend their win streak to five games. With the win over Arkansas (16-10, 5-7 SEC), they set up a crucial rematch with No. 11 South Carolina that could go a long way toward determining whether UK will earn a top-four seed in next month’s SEC Tournament.

The top four teams in the conference standings will get a bye into the quarterfinal round, and Kentucky (21-5, 8-4 SEC) is tied for third with Texas A&M (19-6, 8-4 SEC).

South Carolina is a formidable roadblock in UK’s path to one of those coveted byes. The 11th-ranked Gamecocks topped Kentucky, 74-70, in Lexington on Jan. 31 in a game that was verging on a blowout before the Cats made a late run. After knocking off Florida on Sunday, the Gamecocks (19-6, 11-1 SEC) are now tied with Mississippi State atop the league standings and have won 15 of their last 17 games. Five of their six losses have come against teams currently ranked in the top 10.

But if the Wildcats can pull off the upset in Columbia they’ll be in prime position to finish the regular season on a roll, as they’ll get two straight games at home before closing out the schedule at struggling Georgia.

Next game

No. 17 Kentucky at No. 11 South Carolina

7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network)

Josh Sullivan has worked at the Herald-Leader for more than 10 years in multiple capacities, including as a news assistant, page designer, copy editor and sports reporter. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Lexington native.