It’s been a season filled with lots of big wins and a few frustrating losses for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team. On Thursday night in South Carolina, the Wildcats exorcised a slew of frustrations and pulled off their most important win of the year — so far.
Behind the heroics of its star trio, No. 16 Kentucky (22-5, 9-4 SEC) dug out of a late hole to knock off the 13th-ranked Gamecocks, 65-57, for their fifth straight win. The victory not only ended a nine-game losing streak to South Carolina (19-7, 11-2 SEC), it put the Cats in prime position to secure a top-four seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the double bye that comes with it.
Senior point guard Taylor Murray and freshman star Rhyne Howard scored 17 points each, and Maci Morris rebounded from an ugly start to finish with 12. All three were instrumental in UK’s fourth-quarter comeback.
The win — UK’s first in Columbia since 2012 — also secured a special distinction for UK’s seniors. It gave them a win on the home floor of every SEC opponent.
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“I’m so happy for Taylor and Maci and LaShae (Halsel),” said UK Coach Matthew Mitchell on the UK Radio Network postgame show. “This was the last piece of the puzzle in the conference.”
For a while, it looked like the Cats would be unable to solve that particular puzzle. The game felt strangely similar to the first matchup in Lexington, when UK opened up a 20-10 lead before going stagnant on offense and dropping a close contest. On Thursday, the Wildcats jumped on the Gamecocks early, building a 26-17 advantage in the second quarter as Howard scored eight straight points in just over a minute, showing off the explosiveness that’s led to her being voted SEC Freshman of the Week a record seven times this season.
The Cats maintained their edge on the scoreboard in the first half with solid defense, swiping seven steals and forcing 12 turnovers while holding South Carolina to 1-of-8 from the three-point line. After the Gamecocks lost leading scorer Te’a Cooper to a knee injury midway through the first quarter, UK frustrated them with a 2-3 zone.
Cooper did not return to the game. On the TV broadcast it was reported her injury was believed to be a sprained ankle.
Things got ugly for the Wildcats in the third quarter. Howard and Morris were held scoreless as South Carolina outscored UK 19-10 to take a 43-40 lead into the fourth.
After scoring a career-high 35 points against the Gamecocks last season, Morris struggled in Columbia on Thursday, missing her first eight shots from the field. But she found her offense just in time to ignite the Cats. She drilled a step-back three to tie the game at 45 with 7:15 to play, then hit a one-handed runner while being fouled and sank the free throw. That’s when Howard’s hot hand returned.
Howard scored her first points of the second half on a deep two-pointer then connected on a three the next trip down court to put Kentucky ahead 55-48 and cap a 13-3 run.
Murray was instrumental in keeping South Carolina from adding to its three-point fourth quarter lead. She had a pair of steals and breakaway baskets late that kept the Cats close.
“Unbelievable fourth quarter for (Murray), just running the team,” said Mitchell. “She had her poise, she was talking to me the whole time. She had some courageous attacks with the game on the line to kind of ward off their final push.
“That was a great, great victory ... to come back with a 25-point fourth quarter, it was a big-time victory for the Cats.”
Louisiana State at No. 16 Kentucky
2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network Plus)