Cats Ace Duke Test with Balance between Offense, Defense

Duke is the kind of opponent that has typically troubled Kentucky in late March.

With elite talent, size and athleticism, Matthew Mitchell had the Blue Devils and teams like them in mind thinking about ways to take his program to the next level this summer.

If Sunday’s performance against those Blue Devils is any indication, Mitchell’s decision to place an offseason emphasis on offense is looking awfully wise.

No. 8/8 UK overcame No. 13 Duke (9-3) with an efficient offensive performance on Sunday night in Rupp Arena. The Cats shot 28 of 58 (48.3 percent) in spite of a fourth-quarter cold spell, 5 of 9 from 3-point range and 10 of 11 at the line to take down the Blue Devils, 71-61, and move to 10-0 for the fourth time in school history.

“I tell them this all the time: We have a lot of flaws,” Mitchell said. “We are by no means a perfect basketball team, but we are working to try to be our best and I am really happy to be captaining this ship. I can tell you it’s a good ship to be on.”

UK might have trouble in a game like Sunday’s in past years, as the Blue Devils slowed the tempo to 71 possessions and allowed the Cats to grab only six offensive rebounds. Instead, the Cats had no trouble getting good looks in the half-court, getting outside shooting from Janee Thompson, who hit three 3s and scoring 17 points, and post scoring from Evelyn Akhator, who poured in a game-high 18 points.

Getting the ball to Akhator in the early going was a clear priority after the Cats shot 2 of 24 from 3-point range in a blowout loss at Duke last December. 

“What you must do is you must establish a paint presence,” Mitchell said. “You have to. You have to go right at them. They’re very big and athletic, but you cannot quick-shoot the basketball. And so ‘attack the paint’ early was on the board.”

Akhator responded by scoring 10 of UK’s first 14 points. 

“I think Evelyn was key to the way we started," Thompson said. "She was almost unstoppable. It was almost automatic. Every time we gave her the ball, she was able to score in the first half.”

Makayla Epps was her typical dynamic self in spite of attempting just one first-half field goal. She had 17 points – 11 after halftime – and eight assists against only two turnovers.

“I feel like my assist game is what got me flowing tonight,” Epps said. “I wasn’t overly aggressive or looking to score early. I was dishing the ball and I love when I get an assist to Janee or Maci (Morris) on a big 3. That really excites.”

She’s had plenty reason to be excited this season. Epps ranks second in the Southeastern Conference in assists, trailing only Thompson.

Thompson and Epps have been the primary driving forces behind an offensive pace unprecedented in the Mitchell era. For the season, the Cats are shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and better than 40 point from 3, but the defense that has been UK’s calling card has done anything but disappear.

“It was a great, great performance by our defense,” Mitchell said.

Duke never did find an offensive rhythm, shooting 36.7 percent from the field. Duke stars Azura Stevens and Rebecca Greenwell combined to 6 of 21, including Greenwell’s first-ever game without a made field goal. Greenwell was hounded throughout by Maci Morris and Taylor Murray.

“That’s two freshmen,” Mitchell said. “Two freshmen. Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. All 40 minutes, two freshmen. Nobody else. They are hard workers, they are battlers and they are smart.”

UK is now a game away from an unblemished run through nonconference play, made more impressive by the fact that the Cats just completed a week of final exams leading up to the Duke game. Final grades for the Cats’ classes aren’t in yet, but the mark for Saturday sure is.

“This was their last final they needed to take and we really tried to prepare hard for a very good Duke team and you see the result,” Mitchell said.

“The hustle was great. The energy was great. Outstanding victory. Real proud of our team. I give them an ‘A’ on their final exam.”