Entering Monday night's game against Vanderbilt on a three-game losing streak, the Kentucky Wildcats needed to bounce back with a victory to keep pace in a tight Southeastern Conference race.
To do so, Samarie Walker and the No. 13 Wildcats took to the glass.
Kentucky outrebounded the visiting Commodores 40-29 en route to a 70-61 victory to move to 11-3 in SEC play, 22-5 overall. Walker posted her first double-double as a Wildcat with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
"I really like the way that we practiced the last couple days," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We were in a tough spot clearly and had not played well and had suffered some losses. For us to be able to come out and stay focused and not get down, I was so proud of these players and I thought they played to win tonight."
Senior Keyla Snowden added 14 points and freshman Bria Goss had 12 to pull the Wildcats back into a tie for first place in the SEC with the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. On the strength of 21 second-chance points, UK led by as many as 20 points in the second half as Walker had eight of Kentucky's 22 offensive rebounds in playing a career-high 35 minutes.
"Coach always gets on me about rebounding," Walker said. "That's the first thing that was on my mind and scoring just comes."
Using a shortened rotation that had six players on the floor for 24 or more minutes, UK shot just 23-for-62 (37.1 percent) against a Commodore defense that shifted from zone to man-to-man to pressure, but the way the Wildcats attacked consistently opened up opportunities on the glass.
"We tried not to focus on what they were doing and focus more on what we were doing and how we moved and how hard we cut and screened," Mitchell said. "I just thought the aggressive play by everybody got Vanderbilt in a lot of rotation situations and that opened up a lot of offensive boards and Samarie was a monster on those."
Walker's tireless rebounding helped UK to that big lead, but an extended second-half drought nearly made it disappear. After Walker hit a pair of free throws to give Kentucky a 17-point lead with 6:44 remaining, UK would not score for the next 5:25. Vanderbilt (20-7, 8-6 SEC) capitalized, scoring 11 unanswered points to close to within 61-55 with 1:21 left.
Tiffany Clarke scored four of her game-high 19 points during the run, while Christina Foggie, the SEC's leading scorer, had four of her 16.
"The six-minute drought in the second half really turned a game that we had firmly in control into a real tough game that we had to grind out so I was real proud of the players," Mitchell said. "Sometimes those are harder to close out when you start to lose the momentum."
Goss ended the run with a jumper as she and Kastine Evans combined to score Kentucky's final nine points.
"Anybody can score at anytime if we go through droughts," said A'dia Mathies, who had nine points and seven rebounds. "We can easily break the drought. Whether it be me, Keyla with a 3, Samarie with a put back or anything, we just find ways to score."
After fouling out with 1:21 remaining, Maegan Conwright was not on the floor as Kentucky closed out the victory in front of 4,624 fans in Memorial Coliseum, but she played as big of a role in the win as any Wildcat. Starting at point guard in place of Amber Smith, who sat out to rest for the season's home stretch, Conwright had a quiet night according to the box score with six points, two rebounds and four turnovers, but she was anything but quiet according to her coach and teammates.
"(Maegan) is very talented," Mathies said. "She can play a lot of positions and she just came in and did her job. She ran the team and she got us into the offense she needed to and she played great defense. I applaud her for the job she did today."
Whether Conwright or Smith gets the call at point guard for Thursday's Senior Night game against South Carolina, the Wildcats will be looking to carry forward the momentum gained by getting back in the win column.
"Hopefully this is going to give us a big boost. We have a very difficult opponent to play," Mitchell said. "South Carolina's one of the best teams in the league and we'll have to get ready, but like I said earlier, however we could get it, we needed to get it. If it was one point, it would have been fine. I'm just really proud of our team."