AMES, Iowa — The grind that is the Southeastern Conference had taken its toll on Amber Smith.
Kentucky's senior point guard and her two surgically repaired knees were slowed. She has been dealing with wrist and foot pain most of the season.
Smith played a season-low six minutes in UK's SEC Tournament loss to Louisiana State.
It looked like she might spend the last part of her senior season on the bench as Kentucky's head cheerleader.
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But the week off between the SEC and NCAA tournaments was good for the feisty UK point guard.
She got some pep in her step and got back some of the explosiveness she had been without the past few weeks.
On Saturday in the Cats' first-round win over McNeese State, Smith played a team-high 31 minutes, scored eight points, grabbed a season-high seven rebounds and handed out four assists.
UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said it was clear his senior guard was feeling better physically, but he saw other positive things from her, too.
"She was giving the right kind of energy," he said. "She had the right kind of attitude. ... She had a very good game."
There probably was one key reason for that, Mitchell said.
"She's probably sensing that this thing is winding down and she needs to put everything she can into it," he said.
Smith tried to downplay her performance in post-game news conferences after the 68-62 victory.
Whether on the UK bench, as she's been so much at the end of this season, or out on the floor, Smith said her "role is the same every game: to bring energy, to bring leadership and that's what I tried to do this game."
Fouls handcuff Mathies
The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year didn't have much time to show off what she could do on the big NCAA Tournament stage.
Less than two minutes into the game, she picked up her second foul and took a seat on UK's bench for the remainder of the half.
"It was very hard and frustrating," A'dia Mathies said of her pine time. "You want to be out there and help them out."
Mathies missed all but two of her 10 shot attempts and turned the ball over five times. She played a season-low 18 minutes.
But Mitchell said he doesn't suspect his star will have a game like that again this season. Her time on the bench may end up benefitting Kentucky in the long run.
"She didn't have a great day today, but I was really pleased to see some kids who just haven't had much reason to have any confidence go to work for a couple weeks and show up today and play well," he said.
'We're pretty good'
Playing against a bigger, physical Southeastern Conference team, McNeese State didn't back down.
The Cowgirls took care of the ball, turning it over just 13 times, a low for a UK opponent this season. They handled the press so well, Mitchell called it off for most of the game.
McNeese Coach Brooks Donald-Williams credited her team's guards, specifically twin sisters Ashlyn and Caitlyn Baggett, with keeping the Cowgirls composed.
"We're pretty good and our guards are pretty tough," she said. "I believe the twins are as good as anybody in the country. I really do."
Caitlyn Baggett had a game-high 22 points to go with her five rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes.