[caption id="attachment_279903" align="aligncenter" width="600"] (Eddie Justice | UK Athletics)
The Kentucky Women's Basketball team saw far more ups than they did downs in the 2019-20 season. The ladies posted a 22-8 record, made it to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, and featured the best player in the league. They were a lethal outside shooting team with intimating defensive pressure. Head coach Matthew Mitchell always found a way to motivate his team when pessimism began to creep in.
But they did lose a handful of games they were supposed to have won. They were likely to receive a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament, a few spots below the preseason goal. Minor injuries throughout the season put a strain on chemistry and consistency. They hardly outrebounded any of their opponents. Overall, the season felt like a mixed bag of results with just a few more M&Ms than raisins, and losing the postseason to COVID-19 sure didn't help.
Yet here we are, with five (well, technically six) games from this past season that are sure to excite you about the future of the UK Hoops program. We're going to take a look back at the best outings of the year, starting with Rhyne Howard doing what she does best.
Four days after she went and set her own personal scoring-high, Rhyne Howard still wanted more. 37 points in a huge home win over Tennessee *spoiler*
didn't seem to satisfy her appetite. She was hungry for a 40-burger - and made sure to sprinkle a little extra something on top.
Howard's career-high 43 points came in enemy territory against the Alabama Crimson Tide. She tied Jennifer O'Neil's (2013) Kentucky program record for most points in a single game in the process. This wasn't a matter of chucking up as many shots as she could, either; Howard went 14-21 from the floor, drilled seven of her 11 attempts from deep, and shot 13 times from the free-throw line. And oh yeah, she also snagged six boards and recorded five steals.
This game was her official coming-out party to the rest of the country. The Big Blue Nation knew how good she was, but 43 points against a fellow SEC team put her on another level. The 81-71 win over the Crimson Tide marked Howard's fifth consecutive game of at least 25 points - establishing a new school record.
As a team, the 'Cats were on fire from beyond the arc. UK shot an insane 16-31 from 3 after a dreary 2-9 mark in the first 10 minutes bogged them down. It seemed like Howard's teammates were feeding off the second-quarter energy that saw her make all five of her shot attempts. She was on fire and everyone knew it. You can hear the helplessness in the voice of the Alabama play-by-play man as he watches Howard incinerate his team.
"Unreal..... Absolutely unreal."
Following a heartbreaking loss to the Lousiville Cardinals the game before *geez, another spoiler*
, the ladies had less than a week before they would fly all the way out to Berkeley, CA to take on the University of California in a midseason West Coast matchup, just a few days ahead of Christmas. A MASSIVE fourth quarter from Rhyne Howard and a legendary last-second shot allowed the 'Cats to push through to 2020 on a winning note.
Howard poured in 19 of her 29 points in the final 10 minutes alone, bringing UK back from a slight deficit before drilling the go-ahead game-winning bucket with under four few seconds left on the game clock. It wasn't her most impressive shooting night of the year (10-24 from the field) but she came up clutch when her team needed her the most - a common trend for Howard in her sophomore season. Thanks to a series of crossover moves on a helpless Cal defender, Howard rose straight over the defense's outstretched arm and knocked in a pull up jumper to give Kentucky a 63-61 lead and ultimately the win.
Point guard Chasity Patterson
made her Kentucky debut in this outing, as well, immediately showcasing what fans would quickly learn about her: she could put points in a hurry. Patterson finished with nine points while Howard added 29. The 'Cats hardly gave it their best showing, but still managed a cross-country win in dramatic fashion.
The only loss on this list is easily the most emotional game among the group. Kentucky was hosting an in-state showdown against the Louisville Cardinals - who were ranked No. 7 in the country at the time - that came on the hardwood of the famous Rupp Arena. Head coach Matthew Mitchell and the crew had just made light work of Winthrop in the same building a few days beforehand as senior guard Jaiada Roper
popped off for a career-high 30 points.
The atmosphere inside Rupp during the Winthrop game compared to when UL came to town, was like being in an entirely different arena. There was hardly an empty seat even in the deepest corners of the stands. It was a matchup between two top-15 teams and the first real chance for this group of Wildcats to prove that they were a contender as conference play loomed. The actual game met every expectation that was placed upon it.
Kentucky actually led by nine at the half and was clicking as they went into the locker room. 20 of Rhyne Howard's 26 points came in the first half. But the Cards showed why they were ranked so highly, taking control in the final period. Howard had a chance to pull off an epic game-winner, although her stepback jumper from deep right before the buzzer sounded clanked off the back of the rim. Kentucky lost, 67-66, but there was no denying it anymore; this group of ladies was legit and Howard was a real superstar.
Kentucky battled back from an early hole when the shots weren't falling. The fourth and final quarter was more of an intense, defensive battle, as opposed to the first three quarters where it felt like both teams were trading double-digit runs. There was constant excitement and sweaty hands throughout. If Howard's final shot found its way in, this is easily the best game of the year and it would have cemented her legacy in Lexington before she even turned 20 years old.
But even still, watching the highlights from this game gives me goosebumps. In terms of pure atmosphere and emotion, this was one of the top two or three best sporting events that I have ever attended in person.
This spot on our list is a two-for-one, as Kentucky pulled off two wins over Tennesse this past season - one during the regular season and then again in the SEC Tournament. Beating the Lady Vols is special for many reasons, mainly because they were a weaponized juggernaut for close to three decades, but also because of coach Mitchell's past coaching connections to the UT program. Beating Tennessee is extra special for everyone involved, from the players to the fans to the other members of the coaching staff who also share links to Tennessee.
So to do it twice
in a single season? Well, they should both be recognized.
The first matchup was one we referenced earlier, where Howard's star started to shine brighter than the rest with a 37-point outing in Memorial Coliseum back on Jan. 5 - just a few days before her 43-point showing against 'Bama. At the time of the first meeting, Tennessee was ranked in the top-25 and came in as one of the nation's premier rebounding teams, a common weakness for Kentucky over the past several seasons.
Despite being oversized, the 'Cats made sure to play to their advantage, shooting with efficiency from beyond the arc. UK would convert on close to 50 percent of its 3-point looks while the Vols went just 3-11. What made the win more impressive was the fact that Kentucky had just come off a demoralizing 27-point loss to the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks.
Win number two came in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tourney, and Kentucky knew exactly what to expect. UK held a four-point lead after the first quarter but exploded in the second to take a commanding 16-point lead into the intermission. It would end up being the final win of the season for the 'Cats, and arguably the most well-rounded game they had played up until that point in the season. They ended up blowing out UT, 86-65, sinking every open look while playing lockdown defense on the other end. It just seemed like, during the two games UK played against the Vols, they couldn't miss a shot from anywhere on the floor.
I don't think there will be much of an argument as to what the best game of the year for Kentucky was: beating a top-10 Mississippi State Bulldogs team has to be the highlight of the season. Sure, the two wins over Tennessee and one against Texas A&M were nice, but MSU was a whole different beast. They were one of the best teams in the country and came to Memorial Coliseum with the No. 6 ranking in the nation. I don't believe there were many - myself included - that thought Kentucky would play as well as they did, especially
when you consider they had just lost by 18 points on the road against Arkansas the week before.
All Kentucky did was play up to their full potential. In reality, the 'Cats dominated MSU from the middle of the first quarter on. There were only a few pockets of time throughout the 40-minute game where the Bulldogs had UK on the ropes. Outside of maybe five total minutes, Kentucky, behind Howard, was cruising. The sophomore added 26 points while Patterson and Roper combined for 29 points. But UK didn't shoot the ball at an abnormal rate. They didn't force 30 turnovers or outrebound the Bulldogs. They just went out and played basketball with more fight than they had all season. Their ability to withstand adversity became a piece of their identity.
Kentucky was clearly playing with an increased fire of emotion following the bad loss to Arkansas. Howard was appearing in just her second game back since breaking her pinky. Kentucky took immense pride in winning that game in the style they did - as they should have. It was easily the most impressive win of the season and a sign to the rest of the SEC that they were capable of winning the conference.
Unfortunately, Mississippi State would get the better of the 'Cats in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. When it came down to it, Kentucky didn't have enough pure talent to contend with a team of their reputation. That won't be the case going forward, however.
Kentucky went 22-8 in the 2019-20 season, it's not like they were a national title contender, and fans were still able to witness all of these high quality, competitive games. The 2020-21 season, depending on future decisions
, could feature the most talented group Matthew Mitchell has ever brought to Lexington. Imagine what this list might look like next year...