[caption id="attachment_340438" align="aligncenter" width="1442"] (UK Athletics)
Kentucky was able to regain its confidence on Thursday night with a win over the Georgia Bulldogs. The #19 Wildcats defeated #17 Georgia 62-58 after cleaning up many of the mistakes made on Sunday against #2 South Carolina.
Driven forward by a monster performance from Howard, Kentucky looked like an SEC title contender. One of the most notable changes for the Wildcats was the ability to adjust in-game. Kentucky’s quick adjustments mixed with better interior defense resulted in a great team win. Although the ‘Cats came out of the contest with a win, Georgia certainly didn’t make it easy.
Georgia began the night with a quick bucket from Jenna Staiti followed by a steal, but Chasity Patterson didn’t give them any time to be proud of their hot start. Patterson came down and responded with a pull-up jumper to kickstart the Wildcats’ night.
UGA tried to go back into the post to Jenna Staiti where they scored their first bucket. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Rhyne Howard was one step ahead and rejected Staiti from behind. To pile on, Howard finished inside on the other end.
To Georgia’s credit, they wasted no time showing off their impressive defense. Before five minutes had run off the clock, Gabby Connally had two steals and had taken a charge. The guard wasn’t only doing work on the defensive end, either. Halfway through the first quarter, Connally had already scored seven points.
Despite Georgia’s tough defense, the Wildcats refused to back down. The squad continued to attack Georgia’s interior time and time again. This quick run was capped off by a nasty in-and-out move by Howard that resulted in two. With Howard’s bucket, the game was tied at 12-12 with 3:40 to go in the first quarter.
At 2:20 in the period, Treasure Hunt entered the game for the ‘Cats. The highly-touted freshman has received minimal minutes during conference play this season but certainly wasn’t shy when given her chance. Upon entering the game, Hunt fired up two quick shots, although both came off the rim.
The quarter ended with the Bulldogs up 16-15 over the Wildcats. Although the contest had been good, team performances had not. The Wildcats were shooting 35% from the field with Georgia only shooting one percentage point higher. Neither team made a three-pointer in the first quarter of the game.
The ‘Cats began the second period by going right back to what had worked in the first: getting in the paint. Patterson scored the first points of the quarter after getting fouled attacking the inside. As usual, she converted both free throws.
With about 7:30 left in the second, Coach Elzy decided to mix up her defense and switched her ‘Cats into a 2-3 zone. Although it seemed like the obvious move considering Georgia was yet to make a three from deep, Georgia quickly took advantage. Georgia guard, Sarah Barker, made a 3-pointer right after the ‘Cats switched into their zone.
Barker’s triple may have saved Georgia for the moment, but a Howard explosion was inevitable. Howard led the Wildcats on an 11-0 run after Barker’s shot to take a commanding 28-21 lead. The run came to an end with a mesmerizing step-back triple of her own from Howard, leading to a timeout from Georgia.
Georgia continued to fight and evened up the score before the half but struggled to break through Kentucky’s lead. Connally was able to provide valuable baskets for the Bulldogs, but all for not. After a high-arcing 3-pointer from Patterson to close out the half, the ‘Cats went into the break with a 34-24 lead.
It has been no secret Kentucky has struggled to dominate the paint. Although the Wildcats weren’t perfect in the first half, they certainly improved. The Wildcats were tied with Bulldogs at 20 rebounds for the half. More importantly, they were tied at six in second-chance points.
The Wildcats didn’t play a perfect half, but it was undeniably a good one. With the combination of Howard going off for 12 points in 18 minutes and role players stepping up, the team was playing some of its best ball. For the ‘Cats good times to continue, however, they would need to keep their focus on the interior heading into the second half.
Georgia opened up the second half with four unanswered points, much to Coach Elzy’s chagrin. Elzy called a timeout only a minute and a half into the third period to straighten her team out. Unsurprisingly, it worked.
It only took a few seconds after the timeout for Howard to fly to the rim for another bucket. Not only did the team come out with a new mindset offensively, but defensively too. The Wildcats came out of the timeout in a full-court press and fell back into a 2-3. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, the zone didn’t seem to be working tonight.
Georgia was tearing through the ‘Cats defense like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Protecting the interior had been a key for the ‘Cats in the first half, but Georgia had suddenly figured out how to pick the lock. With 5:30 left in the quarter, the Bulldogs had narrowed the lead to three points.
Nevertheless, Patterson wasn’t ready to give up the Wildcats’ lead that easily. Patterson fired back with an impressive pull-up triple, drew a charge, and hit another long two. Before Georgia could blink, Kentucky was back up by eight points.
The next few minutes definitely didn’t break any speed records. The Bulldogs and Wildcats battled back and forth, neither being able to grow or shrink Kentucky’s eight-point lead. After playing nine minutes of the third quarter, the Wildcats were up 50-42.
Georgia was able to make up a small bit of the lead off of two made free throws from Jordan Isaacs, but still finished the period down seven. If Kentucky could continue to do what had brought them this far, they would surely finish the game victorious.
Sadly for the ‘Cats they didn’t begin the quarter well. Staiti was able to cut the lead to five points for the Bulldogs with eight minutes left in the game. After a little back and forth, Georgia’s Connally brought the game even closer with a basket from deep. Nevertheless, when all else fails Kentucky always does have one thing their opponent doesn’t: the best player on the court.
Howard halted Georgia’s run with another 3-pointer and reasserted the Wildcat’s lead at 54-49. With five minutes left in the game, both teams knew they were in for a battle.
Howard followed up her triple with another pull-up for two, but the favor was instantly returned by Staiti finishing down-low on the other end. After another Staiti score, Georgia had cut the lead to three. Sadly for the ‘Dawgs, Howard didn’t plan on losing this game.
The star guard came up with another enormous shot from deep for the ‘Cats to extend their lead to 59-53 with 2:48 to play. With a minute left in the game, the score remained the same, but the stakes were higher than ever. Georgia guard, Isaacs, knew this and converted on a finish to make it a four-point game.
Howard attempted to ice the game, but was blocked by Staiti. Unfortunately for Georgia, they were unable to turn Staiti’s rejection into a bucket at the other end. In poetic fashion, Howard, who had killed Georgia all night on the offensive end, sealed the game with a clutch steal. Kentucky finished the game triumphant, 62-58.
This was an important win for the ‘Cats in more ways than one. The victory over Georgia will give UK the four-seed in the SEC tournament, as long as Kentucky is not upset by Ole Miss on Sunday. Furthermore, this game gave the ‘Cats confidence.
After a disappointing loss against South Carolina on Sunday, it would have been easy for Kentucky to let their emotions run wild. But they came into the Georgia game with a focus and energy that has rarely been replicated this season.
The Wildcats were able to match Georgia on the boards at 36 rebounds and even snagged one more offensive board on the night. This change combined with Howard’s jaw-dropping 27 point performance led to one of Kentucky’s most stellar wins of the season. They'll look to keep their momentum moving forward as they head into Senior Day on Sunday against Ole Miss.