[caption id="attachment_338170" align="aligncenter" width="2560"] (KSR | Dr. Michael Huang)
Heading into the fourth quarter, it felt like Kentucky had been here before.
They led by 11 at halftime against the No. 16 Tennessee Lady Volunteers on Thursday night in Rupp Arena, but wasted no time squandering the entire advantage and even trailed by one after the third period. It was a scene that had become all too familiar for Wildcat fans over the last few weeks--a lack of halftime adjustments that ultimately leads to a downtrodden group of ladies. This exact situation is how Kentucky fell flat on its face against an Ole Miss team that had just one conference win before taking down the 'Cats one week ago.
But the seven-day break proved to be worth it, as Kentucky hit the right adjustments down the stretch and outscored UT 25-9 in the fourth quarter to secure a 71-56 victory and arguably the most important win of the season.
The 'Cats didn't exactly burst out of the gate, holding a slight 5-4 edge throughout the early stages of the night, but the energy levels were noticeably higher. Kentucky wasn't sitting back and letting Tennessee power over them as the Lady Vols did in the first outing, rather battling hard on the glass and playing much more physical in the paint.
The two sides continued to go back-and-forth throughout the first quarter, with Kentucky taking a 10-8 lead before ballooning it to 13-8 with roughly 70 seconds left in the period. Some second-chance scores for Tennessee had them trailing 13-11 after the first 10 minutes as both teams combined to shoot just 10-38 from the floor and were struggling to muster up points.
From there, Kentucky finally delivered the first punch, jumping ahead 20-14 early in the period thanks to second-chance opportunities and a solid defensive effort. For what felt like the first time in weeks, the Wildcat offense was grooving. After Tennessee cut the lead down to 23-20, Kentucky went on a lethal run.
The 'Cats rattled off a 14-6 spell to end the first half and took a 37-26 lead at the intermission. After being outrebounded by 31 in the first meeting between these two, UK had it knotted up at 23 apiece on the glass as everyone went to the locker room. Despite Rhyne Howard
shooting just 1-7 from the floor, Kentucky refused to back down on the boards and played its brand of offense.
But the demons that have plagued this team the last few games quickly came alive out of the break. The same Kentucky team that had submitted to Tennessee and Ole Miss in previous games was on the brink of doing it again. The Lady Vols opened up a 15-2 run in the third quarter and eventually took its first lead since the first quarter, 41-39, not even five minutes into the half.
They were able to keep the momentum going, extending its lead to 45-39 with under four minutes left in the third quarter--riding a 14-0 run at one point. But just before it looked like Kentucky might get run out of its own gym, Chasity Patterson
hit a huge triple and Tatyana Wyatt
followed it up slipping to the rim for a layup. A pull-up jumper by Jazmine Massengill
with 24 seconds left in the period had Kentucky trailing 47-46 as we went into the final 10 minutes of action.
The Lady Vols shot 50 percent from the floor during the third frame, compared to just 23.5 percent for the 'Cats. After keeping the rebounding battle close in the first half, UT snagged 12 boards in the third quarter while UK hauled in just six. The energy levels were evaporating right in front of the Rupp Arena crowd's eyes.
Kentucky was in need of an adjustment that would confuse the suddenly potent Tennessee offense. It came in the form of a 2-3 zone.
Head coach Kyra Elzy
broke out a zone-look to open the fourth quarter and it immediately paid dividends. Wyatt started the period with a made jumper that gave UK the lead back--the first basket of a quick 7-0 run for the 'Cats that forced Tennessee into a timeout. The defensive intensity ramped back up as the entire team was crashing the glass and fighting for loose balls.
Tennessee managed to trim the Kentucky lead back down to just two points, 55-53, with roughly five minutes to go, but that was as close as they would get. From there, the 'Cats poured in 16 points compared to a mere three from the Lady Vols, resulting in a landslide final score of 71-56.
Howard finished the night shooting just 4-13 from the floor and 0-2 from long range, but made a significant impact elsewhere, posting seven rebounds, six assists, seven steals, and just one turnover to go along with her eight points.
Patterson led the 'Cats with 21 points and five rebounds while Massengill contributed 11 points and three assists, including three made triples. It was the first start of the season for Massengill, who transferred from Tennessee during the offseason, as she assumed point guard responsibilities alongside Patterson. The two proved to be a workable pairing, with Massengill preferring to run the show and Patterson playing more off-ball as a scorer.
Wyatt added seven and seven rebounds for UK while Dre'Una Edwards
went for seven points, six rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in 22 minutes. As a team, Kentucky shot 42 percent from the floor (28-67) and 10-20 from beyond the arc while losing the rebounding battle by only four, 42-38.
Tennessee exploded for 44 points in the paint in the first meeting but was held to just 30 on Thursday night. After scoring a mere 14 paint points against the Lady Vols a few weeks ago, Kentucky added 26 in the win. 17 of the 'Cats 28 made baskets came via an assist as they produced several fastbreak scoring opportunities thanks to 16 UT turnovers. UK also had 16 more fastbreak points than UT.
The Lady Vols were without its star player, Rennia Davis, who stayed in Knoxville due to COVID-19 protocols. Tennessee could have used her, as well, after shooting a season-low 35 percent overall in the loss. UT was led by 22 points from Rae Burrell while Tamari Key added nine points and six rebounds before fouling out.
Kentucky will take a short break before hitting the hardwood again this coming Monday as they'll face the Florida Gators on the road at 7 p.m. EST on the SEC Network.