The Auburn Tigers handed the UK Hoops team their first loss of the season exactly two weeks ago and earlier this afternoon the Wildcats had the chance to redeem themselves within the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum.
The first quarter mimicked the defensive slog from the team’s first meeting. Auburn turned the ball over seven times and Kentucky opened with six. The Wildcats and the Tigers each opened the game shooting 4-for-12 from the field, but behind four points from Evelyn Akhator and an early 3 to 0 advantage at the free throw line Kentucky led after the first ten minutes, 11-10.
An Akhator layup and a pair of foul shots by Alexis Jennings put the Cats up 15-10 early in the quarter. Auburn’s constant pressure disrupted Kentucky’s flow in their half court offense and Kentucky failed to find the hoop for the rest of the half--save for a five-point mini. outburst from Taylor Murray.
Four first half three-pointers and efficient offense -- the Tigers hit five of their last eight shots of the half -- put Auburn on top by a single point at the break, 22-21.
Each team started the second half hot and the lead changed hands five times in the opening minutes. Following a Makayla Epps jump to put the Wildcats in front 27-26, a scoring drought by the Tigers late in the third quarter gave Kentucky the chance to extend their lead; Kentucky did just that and outscored the Tigers 11-5 the rest of the quarter and entered the fourth leading 38-32.
The Tigers did not fade away in the fourth quarter, even when an Epps converted an old fashioned three point to put Kentucky ahead by double digits, 47-37. A 6-0 swing in under a minute cut the margin to four points with under three minutes to play in the game.
With 1:54 to go, Auburn’s Tra’Cee Tanner made two foul shots to cut the margin to two, 47-45. On the next Kentucky possession Evelyn Akhator found a wide open Taylor Murray and the freshmen hit her second three-pointer of the game, and the biggest of her career, to kill the Tigers comeback.
Kentucky iced the game at the free throw line and earned their 15th win of the season, 54-47.
Taylor Murray lead the way for Kentucky with 14 points. Evelyn Akhator recorded another double-double with 12 points and ten rebounds. Makayla Epps added 13 points, six rebounds and two assists.
- Kentucky struggled against Auburn’s press in the team’s first meeting on January 3rd and turned the ball over 26 times. The Tigers’ pressure vexed the Cats in the rematch as well. The Cats turned the ball over 13 times in the first half, 19 times overall, and could not find any semblance of cohesion on offense.
Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy couldn’t specifically describe why her team’s press gave Kentucky fits but she did say that the way the Tigers play the press might be the key; they like to box the guards in and away certain angles on the court.
During the first half, Kentucky’s guards did not react well to being double teamed on many possessions and several of their passes were badly off the mark.
Makayla Epps said in the post game comments that many of those turnovers were unforced and errors and she thought that Kentucky handled Auburn’s press better than they did two weeks ago.
Coach Matthew Mitchell credited his team’s execution in the second half with solving the riddle of Auburn’s defense.
Mitchell said that Kentucky did a nice job of moving the ball along the baseline which opened up the Tigers zone and allowed for Kentucky to finally attack it after being too passive in the first half.
- The game-clinching three-pointer aside, Taylor Murray would have been Kentucky’s MVP regardless. She finished the game with a team high 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, two rebounds and a single assists in 29 minutes of action.
Murray’s mother was in attendance today and her teammate Makayla Epps joked that maybe that was the reason for her inspired play; Taylor simply stated that she just played basketball and wanted to help her teammates out as much as possible.
The way Murray played on the defensive end was key to Kentucky’s victory.
Coach Williams-Flournoy said Murray’s six steals and quickness gave her team fits, especially in the second half.
- Kentucky finished the game 17-for-25 from the free throw line and while shooting 68 percent from the charity stripe is normally a cause for concern it was the real difference maker in the game.
The Wildcats put Auburn on the line only four times and that was late in the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
In fact, Alexis Jennings was the only Kentucky player in foul trouble; a nice reversal from the previous few games where it seemed as if Matthew Mitchell’s team was one or two fouls away from suiting up one of the managers.
- In the fourth quarter against South Carolina, Kentucky wilted down the stretch and it appeared that would happen for the second game in a row when Auburn cut UK’s lead to two points. This game, however, the team locked Auburn down on the defensive end and executed on offense during critical stretches. Make no mistake about it, while Kentucky did not play a perfect game, their play in the second half was a sign of growth for a young basketball team according to Coach Mitchell.