UK Women's Basketball

Drake coming up big for Cats

Sophomore center Samantha Drake averages 7.4 points and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds for Kentucky.
Sophomore center Samantha Drake averages 7.4 points and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds for Kentucky.

There were times last season when Samantha Drake wanted to give up on basketball.

She was pushed around in the post. She seemed lost on the court.

In practice, she'd mess up and her entire team would run as a result of her failure.

"She has had some struggles here, some big-time struggles with the adjustment to college," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the 6-foot-3 sophomore center. "She didn't always demonstrate the greatest amount of toughness during her freshman year."

College was a rude awakening for the former Nelson County star, who dominated in high school, scoring 3,068 career points, the most for a boy or girl in school history.

Drake felt lost.

"It took a toll on me emotionally," Drake admitted on Wednesday, the day before her No. 10 UK team takes on No. 6 Duke in Rupp Arena.

Last season when Kentucky lost in Durham, Drake was one of the highlights.

The freshman played 38 minutes and made all three shots she attempted. She grabbed six rebounds and had four blocked shots.

"The Duke game was probably her best game as far as competing and staying on the floor," Mitchell recalled.

But after that game, Drake's season started to slide.

She averaged just 6.8 minutes the rest of the season and didn't score a point in nine of the 15 games.

In five Southeastern Conference games, the only action she had on the court was in warmups.

"I had my doubts," she said. "The struggles I had got me down a lot. ...

"When I'd make mistakes and mess up, I knew I could do the things I'd mess up on and it would really frustrate and agitate me."

Her only solace?

"They say your freshman year is your toughest year and if you can make it through that, you can make it through the rest," Drake said.

So this summer the center tried to brush off her freshman failures in the weight room .

Mitchell would hear snippets about Drake's renewed efforts from the conditioning coach, but he admitted to being skeptical.

"A lot of times kids wilt and just never fight back or come around," he said.

He saw some of the old Drake tendencies in games early this season.

"She was doing all the tough stuff, but then as soon as she got the ball and anyone would touch her, she'd let go of it," he said.

But about two weeks ago, he saw a different Drake develop in practice.

She started fighting back against fellow post players Samarie Walker (eligible to return to the court for UK at No. 3 Notre Dame on Dec. 18) and DeNesha Stallworth, a transfer from California.

"DeNesha goes at Samantha every day and really makes her look bad at times," Mitchell said. "That has helped Samantha immensely."

Drake has now become one of UK's most consistent inside players. In eight games this season, she already has 59 points, just 23 points shy of her total all of last season.

She's averaging 7.4 points and a team-best 7.8 rebounds on a roster crowded with talent.

"She's traveled such a distance, it's incredible," Mitchell said. "I'm really happy with Samantha Drake and what she's done. She's come a long way."

Drake is going to have to come up big if UK wants to beat its second straight top-10 opponent on Thursday night.

The No. 6 Devils feature a fearsome frontline including two 6-foot-3 starters.

One of those, freshman Elizabeth Williams, was the top-rated player in the country out of high school last season. Waiting on the Duke bench is a 6-foot-5 player and others at 6-4 and 6-2.

But Drake has been challenged before, pretty much her entire first season at Kentucky. She didn't quit then and she won't quit now, she said.

"It'll be a challenge," Drake said. "But I'm up for it. We're all up for it."

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