Last season the Kentucky Hoops team downed the Oklahoma Sooners in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum in the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky blasted the Sooners by over twenty points.
However, the rematch tonight between the No. 17 Wildcats and the No.12 Sooners featured two vastly different teams. Gone for Kentucky were several key contributors from last season’s Sweet 16 run.
In comparison, the Sooners return several key cogs, starting four seniors, and are one of the top defensive teams in the country, and presented the toughest test the rebuilding Wildcats have faced thus far.
Despite the difference, the result remained the same as the Wildcats picked up their sixth win of the season, 82-68.
The game got out to a blistering start with five lead changes in the opening ten minutes. Four first quarter three-pointers by OU nullified a sensational quarter by Makayla Epps. The senior shot 5-of-8 from the field and was perfect from the stripe to net 12 points, but ended the quarter trailing 20-19.
Kentucky rode four second quarter triples and a stifling 2-3 zone to an eight-point lead in the second quarter before a 10-0 run (fueled by a trio of shots from deep) by Oklahoma put the visitors ahead at the half, 39-37.
The second-half proved to be as contentious as the one that preceded it. Behind hot shooting from Maci Morris, Kentucky built a slim lead that timely Sooner threes whittled down every time it looked like the Cats were about to blow the game open. Thanks to the Sooners not being able to buy a bucket late in the third and a pair of key defensive stops, Kentucky went into the final frame leading by eight, 63-55.
The Wildcats finally outpaced the Sooners in the fourth, and they blew the game open to win going away.
UK’s bigs got into foul trouble in the first-half. Alyssa Rice picked up her first foul at 3:04 mark in the first quarter. Evelyn Akhator went to the bench with her second barely two minutes into the second quarter. Forced to play small ball, Kentucky put four players behind the three-point line or had two guards break out of the paint towards the corners. A style of play reminiscent of the methods employed by Kevin Stallings’ Vanderbilt teams in the mid-2000’s. Kentucky’s zone kept the Sooners out of the paint as well. Even when OU brought in their 6-9 center, Nancy Mulkey, who was of course guarded by Makayla Epps who gave up over a foot in height. In their first crisis due to limited depth, Kentucky played remarkably well and showed an aptitude for an unfamiliar style of defense. This is an encouraging sign going forward for the ladies in blue and white.
Three-pointers kept Oklahoma in the game. The Sooners kept within striking distance due to 15 points worth of treys in the first quarter. Their run to take the lead in the closing minutes of the half was fueled by three-pointers as well. Kentucky has struggled to defend the perimeter all season, long and it kept them from pulling away from a quality foe in the first-half.
Of course, another scoring drought did not help UK’s cause either. With OU on the ropes late in the first half, Kentucky’s nasty habit of not being able to put the ball in the basket popped up. The Cats failed to capture a single point over the last three minutes of the half. The occasional dry stretch will happen, but this is a recurring issue that Matthew Mitchell and his staff need to correct as soon as possible.
To be fair, they did not help OU much either. A late scoreless period in the third and an equally as dry fourth gave Kentucky the opening they needed to open up a double-digit lead as the game winded down.
Maci Morris was magic. The fan-favorite Kentuckian’s trademark stroke from deep lagged through the first six games of the year. Against OU, Morris reconnected with the strongest part of her game just when Kentucky needed it when they lost their front court. Her bombing continued in the third quarter with a cool nine points that helped UK establish a slight lead over the Sooners. Morris finished with a career high 19 points, eight rebounds, and an assist. A number four at the top of her game takes Kentucky to a whole nother level. Hopefully, her hot hand continues into conference play.
Makayla Epps finally hit her stride in the early going. The super senior already had a few gigantic second-half this year after unusually slow starts. Epps started hot in the first quarter ad ever let up. She scored 18 points in the first half and led all scorers with 30 to go along with five assists and three rebounds. With another clutch performance in a big game, Epps cemented her place as perhaps the best player in the Matthew Mitchell era. Enjoy watching her while you can Big Blue Fans because players of her caliber do not come along very often.
Just like they did against Miami, Kentucky floored another Top 25 opponent in the fourth quarter. Behind an iron wall of defense and a steady diet Akhator in the post the Wildcats were able to build an insurmountable lead. With a murder’s row of games forthcoming, the Wildcats ability to close out games will be critical.