The margin of error in college basketball is always razor thin, and in March it is particularly the case. One defensive lapse, one poorly timed shot or one missed free throw is enough to send a team packing earlier than anticipated.
Against the 13 seed, Belmont Bruins (27-8) the 4 seed Kentucky Hoops team (22-10) danced near the razer's edge and survived, 73-70, to advance to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament earlier this afternoon at Memorial Coliseum.
HIGHLIGHTS: What a finish! @KentuckyWBB survives a scare from 14-seed @BelmontWBB on its home court! #ncaaW pic.twitter.com/3aQPUqvDRD— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) March 17, 2017
Belmont entered the game on a 21-game winning streak, but with little buzz surrounding their ability to pull the upset. Early on that appeared to be the case. Eight straight points from senior forward Evelyn Akhator and a ten point quarter from Makayla Epps fueled Kentucky to an early 23-13 advantage.
Then, behind a 16 point outburst from Vandy transfer Kylee Smith, Belmont surged back into the game and served notice Matthew Mitchell's team was on full upset alert. The Bruins take a slim 36-35 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
Kentucky used a 13-0 run early in the third quarter and built a double-digit lead. However, a pair of 3's from Belmont's woman in the middle, Sally McCabe, brought the Bruins back to life.
Defense and rebounding were big in the second half for @KentuckyWBB. Here's what @UKCoachMitchell had to say post game. pic.twitter.com/DVvFCRtC4s— KYwildcatsTV (@KYwildcatsTV) March 17, 2017
Cold shooting by the Wildcats down the stretch allowed the Bruins to make it a one-possession in the final minutes. Despite a hard charge, a clutch shot from downtown and free throws from Maci Morris gave Kentucky enough of an edge to hold the Bruins at bay.
The Seniors Don't Want the Ride to End
Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator have carried Kentucky in key spots all season long. Today's game was no exception. The two combined for 18 points in the first quarter and helped Kentucky build a lead.
Belmont had no answer for Akhator early, and though the ferocious forward struggled with McCabe's defense in the second half, she persisted to score several key baskets when her team needed them. Akhator finished with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting (4-of-5 from the charity stripe) and ten rebounds for yet another double-double.
Epps felt it from deep from the get go, hitting a career-high five 3's. She pushed the pace for Kentucky when they needed it the most and provided leadership in several tight spots. She finished 11-of-18 from the field (3-of-6 on free throws) for 30 points, five rebounds, and two assists.
Make no mistake about it, Belmont would have pulled the upset. When both are clicking simultaneously, it makes the Wildcats difficult to defend and opens the floor up for their equally as lethal teammates, such as Maci Morris. Kentucky needs both to continue this high level of play especially when the rest of the team struggled as they did today.
The Second Quarter Almost Became A Cat Killer
In his post game comments, Kentucky Head Coach Matthew Mitchell stated that his team's effort level in the second quarter stunk, and it is easy to see why.
A 6-of-8 stretch by Belmont cut Kentucky’s lead from 23-13 to 32-29. Kylee Smith scored 16 points of her 23 in the quarter, including two huge 3’s.
The Bruins also outrebounded Kentucky 13-4 during the frame, including four extra possessions off of offensive rebounds. They had a 20-9 advantage on the glass by the end of the half.
Kentucky cannot afford another lackadaisical effort like this happen due to the difficult draw they received from the selection committee. Their late season resurgence hinged on their ability to win hustle battles. If Epps or Akhator has an off day, a blue-collar effort may be the only thing that extends the Cats' season.
Maci Morris Had a Lucky Touch on St. Patty's Day
The Bell County native's stat line wasn't pretty; she finished 3-of-9 from the field and 2-of-5 on 3's. Poor effort on defense on her part contributed to Smith's second quarter scoring bonanza. However, when Kentucky needed a hero, Morris was their girl.
The sophomore drilled a clutch 3 with 5:28 to go and more than redeemed her poor play on the other end of the floor by helping hold Smith without a field goal until there were 37 seconds to play. Morris hit 7-of-8 foul shots, including the two to ice the game after a massive miss only seconds earlier.
As written earlier, Kentucky will lean on the seniors the most in crunch time, but Morris' performance under pressure reveals her not only as a third scoring option, but positions her as the squad's rock next season.