After a rough first quarter in Kentucky’s season opener at Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, Coach Matthew Mitchell cautioned that the return of his once signature full-court pressure would be a work in progress.
But whatever doldrums UK suffered early, the Cats shed them in a furious rush reminiscent of those “40 minutes of dread” days of a few years ago and an 87-35 dismantling of Alabama State.
“We just have to stick with it, there might be a night or two where it doesn’t look very good, but we’ve got to remain committed, because we are athletic enough to do it,” Mitchell said. “The potential to have strong enough character to stay in there and do it. You have to have both of those things: you have to have athleticism and you have to have the will to embrace that style of play.”
UK’s will was tested in the first quarter after an initial 7-0 run by the Cats. Alabama State, although in the midst of nine first quarter turnovers, found its footing against UK’s pressure and rallied to take a 14-13 lead at the 1:55 mark on a layup by Ayana Emmanuel.
Moments earlier, Alabama State’s Areleatha Gipson discarded Taylor Murray’s shoulder-to-shoulder pressure and kicked out to Emmanuel for a wide-open three-pointer on the wing. It was the first time Alabama state handled the press easily and could have signaled hard times ahead.
“We were very sluggish in the beginning,” said Murray, UK’s senior point guard. “In this type of a game, your first game, you get a little nervous, but as the intensity went up, we picked it up.”
Part of those struggles included shooting 6-for-19 from the field and just 1-for-6 from three-point range in the first quarter.
“We started missing layups and some people spent time thinking about that instead of hustling on defense,” Mitchell said. “We’re already not as cohesive as we need to be (on defense) because it just takes some time, but when your mind is divided and you’re distracted, ... it just makes it look worse.”
After the quarter break Kentucky refocused and started hitting the offensive boards.
A Maci Morris miss became a Tatyana Wyatt set of free throws after she was fouled on the put-back attempt. Consecutive misses by Wyatt and Morris turned into a KeKe McKinney three-pointer on the next possession. A McKinney steal led to a Murray layup on the break and what was a slim 15-14 lead ballooned to 24-15 in under two minutes.
ASU Coach Freda-Freeman Jackson called a quick timeout to try to stall the momentum, but it only delayed the inevitable.
After a Shmya Ward jumper cut the UK lead to 24-16 with 6:27 till half, back-to-back Jaida Roper steals led to back-to-back Morris three-pointers to extend the lead to 30-16 less than midway through the period.
In all, Kentucky forced 43 Alabama State turnovers, including 23 UK steals, led by Murray with six.
Kentucky would go on to outscore the Hornets 24-8 in the second, 25-8 in the third and 23-5 in the fourth period, holding Alabama State without a bucket in the final frame until only two minutes remained in the game.
Murray led UK in scoring with 16 points, and freshmen Rhyne Howard and Blair Green became the first pair of freshmen to score 13 or more points in their debuts, according to UK. Howard had 15 points, including three three-pointers.
Howard capped an 11-2 UK run in the third period with a three-pointer off the left wing that put the Cats up 56-27.
“The first-game jitters kind of got to me at the beginning, but toward the end I kind of picked it up,” Howard said.
Green had 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting and a three-pointer. Morris was the fourth player in double figures for the Cats with 11 points, including 3-of-6 from behind the arc after missing her first three shots there. Eleven players got into the game for the Cats, with nine of them logging more than 15 minutes.
“The second quarter was great for us, because things were not going well and there are upsets all the time early in the year,” Mitchell said. “That was really big for us ... just to get some separation and impose our will on Alabama State and let them know what kind of night we wanted to have.”
Southern at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network Plus)