[caption id="attachment_285617" align="aligncenter" width="600"] (Eddie Justice | UK Athletics)
I'll be honest, coming into Sunday's game against the No. 6 ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, I wasn't all that confident in the Kentucky women's basketball team.
The embarrassing loss they suffered at the hands of No. 25 Arkansas just seven days earlier still resonated in my mind. Sure, Rhyne Howard
was back in the lineup, but with a bulky wrap covering her left hand; every left-handed dribble used just her fingertips - and that's even if she felt comfortable enough to go left.
The Razorbacks had poured it on the Cats, scoring 103 points, the most UK has allowed all season long. It wasn't particularly close down the stretch, either. Kentucky ultimately lost the game 103-85 down in Bud Walton Arena and they did so in uninspiring fashion. Aside from winning the first quarter of that game 21-19, Kentucky was outscored by 20 in the final three quarters. A typically elite Wildcat defense put on its worst performance of the entire season.
But it's my own fault, I should have known that the ladies would respond. They've done so all season long. They've yet to lose back-to-back games this year. They might appear lifeless in one game before morphing into a top-10 team in the next game.
Remember when they lost to South Carolina 99-72 down in Columbia? They responded by taking down a ranked Tennesse team 80-76. The narrow, one-point loss to Louisville? They traveled all the way out to the West coast and beat Cal Berkley the very next game. They completely bungled the loss to Florida, where they led by 10 at halftime before falling by eight, but came back the next game and beat a tough Alabama team. They're 5-0 after a loss this season.
(Unfortunately, the postseason isn't a best-of-three series.)
So I should have seen this coming. I've written on this site before how the ladies have been excellent in responding to adversity, but the win over MSU was on another level. The Bulldogs are the No. 6 team in the country
. Their only conference loss prior to this game was a two-point L against South Carolina. But Kentucky didn't just outplay Mississippi State, either, they dismantled them from start to finish.
From what I saw, there were two glaring reasons why Kentucky was able to come out with a huge victory.
The first was lockdown defense from the guards and the second was the all-around team effort rebounding the ball.
Starting with the backcourt defense, they were the first line of defense against MSU. The Bulldogs aren't known as a shooting team and didn't try to change that against the 'Cats. They shot just 3-9 from beyond the arc (UK went 6-20) and didn't even hit their first three until the second quarter. But head coach Vic Schaefer's plan was never to launch 20 shots from deep; he had his team penetrating on almost every possession.
Guards Jordan Danberry and Myah Taylor for MSU controlled the offense and their mission was clear: start with the ball on one side of the floor and use your speed to slip around the Kentucky defense for shots at the rim. Mississippi State deployed constant screens to try and free open the ball-handlers, but Kentucky did an amazing job of switching everything on defense. The upside to not having much size, like Kentucky, is having forwards who have the ability to guard smaller players. KeKe McKinney
defending a point guard is not a mismatch for the opposing team. Howard is obviously a top-tier defender. Sabrina Haines
might have the sneakiest hands on the team.
"They [Mississippi State] are so explosive with their dribble-drive offense and hard to guard," said head coach Matthew Mitchell after the game. "And if you can’t put a four player [McKinney] on the court that can switch some screens and level off some drives and it was points that she [McKinney] prevented that will never show up in the stat sheet but her presence on the floor today was invaluable, we couldn’t have won without her and again it’s another game if we don’t have everybody come together and contribute what their part is, we can’t win a game like this."
Chasity Patterson, Jaida Roper
, and Amanda Paschal
are all way
above average defenders. They aren't very tall or stocky, but are unbelievably quick on their feet with even swifter hands. Danberry and Taylor struggled all night to get off clean looks at the rim. Those two combined to shoot 4-13 to go along with five turnovers. But it was what happened after those MSU misses that stook out to me.
Despite the Bulldogs owning a clear size advantage, they couldn't dominate the boards. 6-foot-5 Jessika Carter and 6-foot-2 Rickea Jackson had moments of brilliance, but were kept at bay and off the glass for most of the game. After three quarters, Kentucky actually controlled the rebounding battle, leading 28-27. They would ultimately lose by the time the game ended 36-35, but it was one of the few times this season that the 'Cats held their own in that area. It was only the second time in the last eight games that UK grabbed at least 35 rebounds.
Whenever Danberry or Taylor tried to drive around the lane for a sweeping layup, Kentucky was always in excellent boxing out position. Tatyana Wyatt
hauled in six rebounds, the most for her since the loss to Florida back in mid-January. Her effort on that end plus her defense and some beautiful shots in/around the paint culminated in arguably her best individual outing of the season.
Kentucky held MSU to just nine first-quarter points, tied for the fewest scored by the Bulldogs in any quarter all season. They also scored nine points in the third quarter, as well, marking the first time all season that they posted two single-digit quarters.
But we also need to talk about the one-two scoring punch of Patterson and Howard becoming one of the most dangerous scoring duos in the SEC. Obviously, Howard is the superstar and proved it once again with a 26-point, 10-rebound performance against MSU. But Patterson is slowly coming into her own.
The junior transfer from Texas has scored in double-figures in each of her last five outings, averaging 19 points per game in that span, including a career-high 32 points against Arkansas. Her ability to come in and put up points by creating her own shot relieves all kinds of pressure off of Howard to produce. 11 of Patterson's 15 points came in the first half and she connected on several timely buckets. She can score at all three levels and has never once shown fear when attacking the rim despite being the smallest player on the floor at all times. There isn't a better dribbler on the team than Patterson.
"It takes a lot of focus off of me," Howard said after the game about Patterson's scoring abilities. "And she can get to the basket, and she can shoot and do it all. Most of the time I just want her to go out there and play her game. I’m looking for her to be aggressive at all time.”
The only downside to Patterson's play right now is her inconsistency. She played excellent in the first half against MSU, but shot just 2-4 with one turnover in seven second-half minutes. Some of that was due to the Roper (eight of her 14 points came in the fourth quarter) taking control down the stretch, which is probably what's best for Kentucky at this stage of the season. But Patterson can sometimes fade into the background if she's not the main focus of the offense.
She's learning and steadily progressing, which is what matters. The 'Cats have three other viable guard options that are all seniors and can all run an offense (Roper, Paschal, and Haines) so Patterson's role can be reduced in certain situations. Next season, she'll have full control. Everything she learns now is preparation for next year. But even still, she's Kentucky's second-best scorer right now and a critical piece to a postseason run.