Before the Kentucky’s women’s basketball season even reached tip-off, the narrative on the 2015-16 UK season had been set.
Before the season began, a player was thrown off the team. A standout player, to the surprise of everyone, quit. A player who had never been cleared to practice with Kentucky, also quit.
Once the season started, a popular in-state player quit, too.
So, this was not going to be a happy tale. The story of UK Hoops this season was going to be a program in disarray.
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Except the nine eligible players who have stuck with Matthew Mitchell and Kentucky are writing a stunningly different script.
No. 8 Kentucky rocked a Rupp Arena crowd of 17,150 and ran its record to 10-0 Sunday night with a 71-61 victory over No. 13 Duke.
“The hustle was great. The energy was great. Just really, really proud of my team,” Mitchell said afterward.
He should be. For many reasons.
Prized junior-college transfer Evelyn Akhator scored 18 points, and got UK out of the gate with 12 in the first quarter.
“That number 13 might be the MVP of this team,” Duke Coach Joanne P. McCallie said of Akhator. “I don’t know where they would be without her.”
Veteran guards Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps did what an experienced backcourt is supposed to do: They closed the win out, each finishing with 17 points.
Yet UK heroes were many. True freshmen guards Maci Morris (nine points) and Taylor Murray (four points, two assists) made the homecoming of Duke star Rebecca Greenwell, the former Owensboro Catholic star, truly miserable.
The two took turns harrying Greenwell, face-guarding her, beating her around screens and holding the 14.5-points a game scorer without a field goal. Greenwell finished with one point.
“Those two freshmen had Becca for 40 minutes,” Mitchell said. “Out team did a good job of helping them, but I’m proud of those freshmen.”
The Kentucky season that began with so much disruption will see the Wildcats enter Christmas break unbeaten. UK has gone on the road and beaten a Sweet 16 team (Arizona State) from a year ago that had four starters back.
In Rupp, UK took it to a team that began the season ranked in the top 10 (Louisville, which fell 72-54) and now beaten traditional power Duke (9-3).
The same Duke that obliterated a Kentucky team with a full compliment of players last season in Durham, 89-68.
Sometimes in sports, as in life, having to fight through unexpected adversity produces something steely and strong and special on the other side.
I kind of like having a shorter bench. Everyone knows their role, now. Everyone on this team knows they have to do their job.
Kentucky still has a loaded SEC to navigate. The Cats have yet to face a truly upper-crust team – think Connecticut, Notre Dame, South Carolina etc. –this season. So there are still massive tests ahead.
But it is also possible UK’s “No-Quit Nine” is turning into something special.
Epps, who went a full 40 minutes against Duke, says there are some advantages to playing on a team with only nine eligible players.
“In practice, we know we have to do it ourselves, there’s no one else,” she said. “But I kind of like having a shorter bench. Everyone knows their role, now. Everyone on this team knows they have to do their job.”
Said Thompson: “You do get tired. But, especially in our backcourt (where UK has only four guards), you are able to get in a rhythm and stay with a rotation. It’s been good.”
After his nine-player team had vanquished Duke, Mitchell was all but beaming.
When you have four players depart your program in a six-week period, it has to lead to some self-doubt.
“I looked at this non-conference schedule, and there were some real challenges,” Michell said. “And then everything started happening, and you just have to stick with what you believe in and believe in the kids who wanted to be here.”
It’s quite an equation this Kentucky women’s basketball team have written out so far – 9-10-0.
Said Mitchell: “I’m really happy to be captain of this ship. I can tell you, it’s a good ship to be on. These are a good group of kids.”
Kentucky’s “No-Quit Nine.”