Mark Story

Has Matthew Mitchell found the player who will revitalize UK women’s basketball?

Kentucky freshman guard Rhyne Howard led Team USA to a gold medal in last summer’s FIBA Americas’ Under-18 Tournament and was named tourney MVP.
Kentucky freshman guard Rhyne Howard led Team USA to a gold medal in last summer’s FIBA Americas’ Under-18 Tournament and was named tourney MVP. USA Basketball

Rhyne Howard had her heart set on playing in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game.

When the rosters for the contest matching the best senior high school girls’ basketball players in America were announced last January, there were three players from Howard’s home state of Tennessee selected.

Howard was not one of them.

“I feel like I should have been named a McDonald’s All-American,” Howard, now a University of Kentucky freshman, said last week. “But (being overlooked) just kind of lit the fire.”

Ignited a motivational inferno would be more accurate.

Rhyne Howard in Italy.JPG
After earning MVP honors while leading Team USA to the gold medal in the FIBA Americas Under-18 Basketball Tournament in Mexico City, Rhyne Howard flew to Italy and scored 15 points for the University of Kentucky women’s team in an 81-64 exhibition victory over Marghera on Aug. 10, 2018. Noah J. Richter UK Athletics

What Howard, a 6-foot-2 guard from Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tenn., has done since her McDonald’s All-American non-selection explains the excitement her presence at Kentucky has brought to Matthew Mitchell’s UK Hoops program.

In her first three high school games after the Mickey D’s omission, Howard went for 41 points, 38 points and 39 points.

Over the first nine games following the snub, she averaged 29.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.4 steals, 4.6 assists and shot 64.9 percent from the floor.

Given a chance to play in the Jordan Brand Classic All-Star Game against many of the players who were chosen over her for the McDonald’s All-American Game, Howard tied as her team’s leading scorer with 13 points.

Most impressively, Howard not only made Team USA for the FIBA Under-18 Tournament of the Americas last summer. She was named tourney MVP after averaging 8.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and helping the United States earn the gold medal in Mexico City.

In Lexington, Howard’s all-around skill is evoking comparisons to former Wildcats guard A’dia Mathies. The Louisville product led UK to three NCAA Tournament Elite Eights during her career (2009-13) and left college as Kentucky’s second all-time leading scorer (2,014 points).

Asked if Howard is a Mathies-level talent, UK’s Mitchell said, “That’s what we think. She’ll have to go out and do it. ... She’s a talented player. I’d like to see her play some games before I anoint her or anything. But we have big plans for her.”

See the dance of Kentucky women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell at Big Blue Madness on Oct. 12, 2018.

‘Felt like home’

Since the Kentucky women’s basketball program was hollowed out during the 2015-16 school year by the exit of seven scholarship players plus five recruiting decommitments, the question has been whether Mitchell can subsequently recruit at the level necessary to get the Wildcats back to national relevance.

Howard — the eighth-ranked prospect in the class of 2018 by All-Star Girls Report — is the most emphatic yes so far to that question.

Jason Reuter, the head girls’ basketball coach at Bradley Central, said UK assistant Niya Butts initiated contact after Kentucky saw Howard play in an AAU event.

“Niya came by an open gym, and she asked me, ‘Do you think we would have a chance?’” Reuter recalled. “I told her, ‘Yes, but it’s going to take more than a phone call and one trip to an open gym.’ Rhyne Howard had a lot of offers.”

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South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley offered Howard during the player’s sophomore year. Howard said Purdue began recruiting her as a seventh-grader.

Florida, where Howard’s mother, Rhvonja “RJ” Avery, played college hoops, envisioned a legacy recruit. Though late to the party, home-state Tennessee eventually came calling, too.

Longtime followers of high school basketball in Kentucky might have surmised UK had a hidden advantage with Howard at Bradley Central.

Reuter is a Kentuckian. He started at center for LaRue County on back-to-back Sweet Sixteen teams in 1987 and ‘88, playing alongside Hawks star Scott Boley (father of 2016 Kentucky Miss Basketball Erin Boley).

Both Howard and Reuter, however, said the coach’s Kentucky roots were not a factor in the player’s college choice.

Howard said she eliminated South Carolina because it “was getting a lot of guards and they are keeping a lot of guards, so I just didn’t think that was going to be the right fit for me.”

She said no to the Lady Vols because “they were the last to recruit me, so I just didn’t feel like we had as good a connection.”

On her official visit to UK, Howard said, “I looked at my Mom and said, ‘This is going to be it.’ I just felt so comfortable. It felt like home.”

‘Long and strong’

Former Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap, recently inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame, was a 6-foot-1 post player. Mathies was a 5-9 combo guard.

One of the reasons there is so much intrigue in Howard is that she is bigger than Dunlap with the versatile skill set of Mathies.

“Rhyne plays so much with the ball as a perimeter player, but she’s really big,” Mitchell said. “One of the biggest kids on our team. Long and strong for a freshman.”

Rhyne Howard with Team USA II.JPG
Before leading Team USA to the gold medal in the FIBA Americas Under-18 Tournament, Rhyne Howard was named Gatorade Tennessee High School Player of the Year and won Class 3A Miss Basketball. USA Basketball

Like Mathies did, Mitchell envisions Howard being able to impact games in myriad ways.

“That’s the thing that reminds me of A’dia,” the UK coach said. “(Howard) can make plays all over the court with her rebounding, great ball handler. ... She’ll make some plays this year that will be like ‘Wow!’ just with her passing. And she rises to the occasion on defense.”

In 2018-19, UK will seek to bounce back from a 15-17 slog a season ago that ended the Cats’ stretch of eight straight NCAA Tournament trips.

If Howard plays to advance billing, she should join with UK senior guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray to give the Wildcats a backcourt capable of carrying the Cats back to March Madness.

With her Kentucky career soon to begin, there’s no reason to think Rhyne Howard is through proving that the McDonald’s All-American snub that foiled one of her hoops ambitions was a mistake.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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