[caption id="attachment_276127" align="aligncenter" width="600"] (@KentuckyWBB)
The lower level at Rupp Arena was overflowing with holiday cheer all game - right up until the final buzzer.
Sophomore guard Rhyne Howard
had a chance to win the game for No. 14 UK Hoops, but the last shot of the game rimmed out after the buzzer and the Wildcats fell at home to the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals, 67-66.
Howard finished the day with 26 points, 20 of them coming in the first half alone. She added four rebounds, two assists, and two steals on 9-23 shooting. Two of her fellow Wildcats topped double-figures in scoring as Sabrina Haines
and Tatyana Wyatt
both contributed 12 points apiece.
Louisville was powered by an 18-point, 10-assist outing from Dana Evans and another 11 points from Kylee Shook. With the win, the senior Cardinals will finish their careers against Kentucky with a perfect 4-0 record.
The 'Cats got down early in this game, falling into a quick 8-3 hole a few minutes into the affair. Kentucky was shaking off some nerves inside the famous gym, struggling to establish an offensive rhythm. Howard was 0-5 to start the game, forcing the issue instead of letting the offense come to her.
As a team, the 'Cats got off to a 1-9 start shooting from the field compared to 4-8 from the Cards. It wasn't until Jaida Roper
entered the game halfway through the first quarter that the tide began to shift. Roper quickly hit the Lousiville bigs with an up-and-under move for an easy two and Kentucky was finally into the game.
A barrage of triples from Howard and KeKe McKinney
eventually gave UK a slight 16-15 lead, but UL scored six straight before the end of the quarter to take a 21-16 lead heading into the next frame.
The second quarter was one of the best Kentucky played all season long. Howard quickly poured in seven straight points for the Wildcats, tying the game up at 23. An and-one finish for Howard pumped up not only the rambunctious crowd, but also the naturally quiet sophomore from Cleveland, TN.
Kentucky would continue to build on its momentum, playing lockdown defense to build its offense. At one point, the 'Cats forced three consecutive turnovers on the Cards and ballooned its lead to a 33-27 advantage. A massive 3 from Blair Green
was followed by another by Howard right before the intermission and Kentucky went into the locker room with a 40-31 lead.
UK outscored UL 24-10 in the second period and Howard led both teams with 20 points. The 'Cats shot 6-12 from deep in the first half compared to a 0-5 mark from Louisville.
It wasn't until the first minute into the third quarter that UL finally knocked down a shot from deep. In fact, they went 4-6 from long range in that frame. The energy that the Cards instituted from those outside shots swung the momentum back towards their end.
The offense for Kentucky began to stall early in the third quarter. They hit a couple of tough looks that came at the end of the shot clock, but couldn't find a rhythm moving the ball around the floor.
While the offense was in a funk, the defense kept the 'Cats in the game. However, towards the end of the third quarter, Lousiville's shots began to fall. Kylee Shook hit two triples in that frame and ended the game with three makes (she was just 3-14 on the season coming into Sunday's game). She hit her second three as the game clock was running down and UL held a three-point lead heading into the final 10 minutes.
In the fourth quarter, rebounding proved to be the difference. Overall, the 'Cats were outrebounded by 20 (37-17) and the Cards pulled in 13 rebounds in the fourth compared to just four boards for Kentucky. Those second-chance opportunities would end up being the difference down the stretch. UL's 15 offensive rebounds on the day were too overpowering.
The Kentucky defense continued to keep the game close and they were able to tie the game up at 62 after a mid-range jumper from Howard with two minutes remaining. Shook hit her third and final triple of the day to give UL a three-point lead, which Haines responded to by knocking down two of three free throws after being fouled on a shot from the perimeter.
A turnover with 39 seconds left gave Louisville the ball back, but they would fail to score on that possession. Wyatt corralled the rebound with 10 seconds left and gave it up to Howard who dribbled down for the final shot. Head coach Matthew Mitchell declined to call a timeout and Howard got a great look, but the shot didn't drop as the final buzzer went off.
Kentucky finished the night shooting 44.0 percent from the field and 10-19 from deep while Louisville was 51.8 percent from the field and 5-15 from long range. The 'Cats did win the turnover battle, forcing the Cards into 15 miscues compared to just eight for UK. But it was the rebounding by the UL frontcourt that ultimately won them the game.
McKinney finished with nine points, one rebound, one steal, and one block. Roper registered four points and three assists while Green knocked in one three in her 10 minutes.
With this game out of the way, the schedule will heat up for the 'Cats. Kentucky will head out west to take on California, which will be the first game that transfer point guard Chasity Patterson
is available to play in. After that, conference play picks up to start the new year with games against South Carolina and Tennessee in the first week of 2020.
The game against California will be this coming Saturday at 7 p.m.
It was a tough loss for Kentucky against its biggest rival, but it showcased the talent that the Wildcats possess. They are for real and they'll only get better from this defeat.