No. 10/9 Kentucky Hosts Alabama in SEC Home Opener Thursday
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Looking to get back in the win column after sustaining its first loss of the season last Sunday at Auburn, the No. 10/9 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team will play host to Alabama on Thursday night in its Southeastern Conference home opener at 7 p.m. ET.
The game will be broadcast on SEC Network’s Whip Around coverage, highlighting all seven SEC games, as well as on SEC Network+ with Jeff Piecoro on play-by-play and Christi Thomas serving as the color analyst. SEC Network+ is available exclusively on SECNetwork.com and on WatchESPN via computers, smartphones and tablets. The game can also be heard live on UK Sports Radio Network with Neil Price.
The Wildcats have started the season with an 11-1 record, going undefeated for the nonconference portion of the schedule for the first time since joining the SEC in the 1982-83 season before falling to Auburn in the conference opener on Sunday afternoon. Despite a 17-point lead over the Tigers in the first half, the Wildcats were unable to stave off the upset in Auburn, falling in a 66-61 decision.
Thursday’s meeting will be the 43rd meeting between Kentucky and Alabama in the history of the two programs. UK holds a 25-17 advantage in the all-time series, and has won 10 of the last 12 games against the Crimson Tide. Kentucky’s last loss against Alabama came on Jan. 23, 2014, when the Wildcats dropped a tight matchup at home, 57-55, the first win for the Crimson Tide in Lexington since 2002.
The last time the two teams met was in Kentucky’s SEC opener in 2015, in which UK secured a 78-66 victory in Tuscaloosa. The Wildcats trailed 42-32 with 16:54 remaining, but outscored Alabama 42-13 to go up 74-55 at the 4:08 mark. UK was led by Alexis Jennings’ 21-point effort and a double-double from Janee Thompson with 12 points and 10 assists.
The Wildcats currently have four of their starters averaging 10-or-more points per game. Preseason All-SEC First Team member Makayla Epps leads the way with 16.69 ppg, which ranks fifth in the SEC, along with 5.9 assists per game to lead the league. Thompson has dished out the most assists for the Wildcats, with 67, and is second on the team in scoring with 13.3 ppg.
Right behind the guard duo is Evelyn Akhator with 12.0 ppg and 10.5 rebounds per game. Her rebounding tally leads the SEC, as she is the only player in the league and just one of 25 players in the nation averaging a double-double. Rounding out the double-digit scorers for the Wildcats is Jennings, who is putting up an average of 10.2 ppg and is second on the team in rebounds per game with an average 6.8 boards.
Alabama enters Memorial Coliseum with a 12-2 record, with road losses to Tennessee-Martin (83-65) and Georgia Tech (70-58). The Crimson Tide most recently downed SEC foe LSU, 62-45, to start the young conference slate off in the upper half of the standings. The Alabama offense leads a balanced attack, with six different players averaging above nine points per game. Hannah Cook leads the team with 13.2 points per game, along with a team-best 24 steals and 6.1 rebounds per game.
Alabama ranks nationally in several statistical categories. It holds the No. 11 field goal percentage defense at 33.1%, just one spot below Kentucky, and is No. 12 in scoring margin at 20.9 points more than its opponents on average. Alabama’s defensive prowess is aided by the team’s high number of blocked shots at 86, which is good for seventh in the NCAA.The Crimson Tide has also created opportunities for itself behind the charity stripe, going to the free throw line 310 times so far. Its 227 made free throws rank 10th in the nation.
Alabama is coached by Kristy Curry, who has compiled a 39-37 record in her three season as the head coach of the Crimson Tide.
For more information on the Kentucky women’s basketball team, visit UKathletics.com or follow @UKHoopCats on Twitter and Instagram, or Kentucky Women’s Basketball on Facebook.
Head Coach Matthew Mitchell
“Well, it will be a tough game tomorrow against Alabama. They are off to a really good start this year and have an outstanding team and won big in their SEC opener. So we have a lot of work here to do yesterday and today to try to get ready for a good Alabama team. We really have to keep the focus on us though. We need to play a lot harder and a lot better than we did Sunday and I believe that we will. I thought the team really bounced back well yesterday and we just have to keep working and see if we can get better. Tomorrow night will be a big test. Alabama is very aggressive. I think they will probably look at that Auburn game and find some areas where they believe they can be successful, so we will have to be ready for them trapping us like Auburn did and we will have to handle the pressure better than we did last Sunday. Alabama is a very good offensive rebounding team and we didn’t handle that very well on Sunday either, so a lot of challenges await us tomorrow night. But we are glad to be back at home and would love to have a big crowd there to put the energy in the building. Every little bit helps and we will need to play well to see if we can go earn a victory tomorrow night.”
On if he was surprised to see the team have so many turnovers against Auburn …
“Yeah, I was. I thought that we would have handled it better but we didn’t. I thought once it was 30-13, I thought we really relaxed and didn’t put them away there at the end of the first half. The end of the first half really affected us in a lot of ways. We just completely went away from what we had practiced doing, which means I did not do a good job of practicing enough what we were going to need to do in the game. That is one thing that we know about this team is that if you emphasis the right things they will try to get that done. I obviously as the coach did not have them ready to weather the storm that hit down there. So, it was a learning experience for us. We had a great film session yesterday of seeing what we look like when we let negativity envelop the team. We were rolling right along with a 17 point lead and the one thing that we have talked to the team about is we have had tremendous first periods this year and we have scored I think over 100 points in the first period and our second period has really been bad from a production standpoint. I think that is the sign of an inexperienced team that maybe when you get some big leads they relax a little bit. So we have to battle our way out of that. So a good opportunity to learn a lesson at Auburn and we need to take heed of that and see if we can improve. So I was expecting us to handle their pressure better and I thought that we would be able to score, but give them credit. They played so much harder than we played. You can talk about what you could’ve done or what you should’ve done, but what happened was that Auburn just outplayed us. Credit to them and a great lesson for us. We are a very average team if we don’t play with great tenacity and very positive attitude and great resilience because we have plenty of flaws, but we have also shown when we play well and carry out our assignments with some level of precision we are a good team. You have to bounce back from the disappointment Sunday and see if we can learn from it and get a good victory tomorrow night.”
On Makayla Epps calling the film study eye-opening and embarrassing …
“I just wanted them to see what happened. It was reality and it was embarrassing because we have really built a program to be one that values honesty, hardwork and discipline. When we talk about honesty in the context of basketball, we talk about your effort and giving your best effort and that clearly didn’t happen, even when we were up 30-13 it was sort of fool’s gold. We did not attack the game the way that we needed to. Auburn was having some difficulties taking care of the ball and we were benefiting from that. Once we didn’t put them away and they started to have their confidence go up and their team sort of take control of the game with effort and energy – and that has always kind of been our calling card. We did not give our best effort and did not work hard to execute and our discipline was very, very poor. So it was embarrassing. I was embarrassed and I am glad that the players were embarrassed because that is not how we want to represent our program and our university and ultimately that is not how we want them to be as people and we talked about that this morning in our first practice. If you are not honest and work hard and have some discipline in your life you are not going to be very successful as a basketball player and you are not going to be very successful in life. Folks that don’t work very hard and aren’t honest normally don’t do very well. I am glad that was her response and I could sense that in the film room. There was no excuse making, it was just there for you to see. We just stood around and did not play like a Kentucky team is expected to play. To their credit, they responded well yesterday afternoon and it was a very tough practice, not to punish them, but because the things that we are going to have to do to be successful in the league are built around toughness. It was an embarrassing moment, but if we all live long enough we will have more of those at times and it is how you bounce back from them. We will see tomorrow night. I think you will see a better effort, I certainly am going to work hard this afternoon and tomorrow in practice to make sure that they understand what we need to do.”
On whether adversity reveals more about the team’s coachability …
“Absolutely. And also, what I have to make sure of is my patience level has to be such that I have to understand we will be a work in progress for a few more weeks here. Taylor (Murray), Maci (Morris), Batouly (Camara), Evelyn (Akhator), Ivana (Jakubcova), that was five players, it was their first taste of SEC play and none of them played how they’re capable of. Evelyn played with great energy but she was on the bench with foul trouble and that’s just not a good situation for us. From that standpoint, we gotta teach Taylor, Maci and Batouly how they can contribute as freshmen because they’re a big part of our team and Ivana and Evelyn as junior-college transfers, they’re a huge part of what we do. I think they’ve already shown to be coachable. Unless they just have a huge character breakdown here, I think I already know that they’re coachable. And their response yesterday I think signaled that they’re coachable. Now I don’t know that that’s going to mean we’re going to win every single game. Maybe it will. Maybe we will win the rest of them. I don’t know. We’re just trying to win tomorrow night, but I think it’s a coachable group and they’ve shown that so far and they need to stay that way.”
On the reaction of the team’s leaders …
“Well, I was so disappointed after, because we had an hour drive from Auburn to Columbus, Ga. So I was able to watch the first half by the time we got to the airport and I got them off the bus at that point in time and just told them it was really effort-based. And I think before I had even gotten to them, I think it was pretty clear that Janee (Thompson) and Makayla (Epps) were talking to them about how that was not what we were looking for and did a good job of recognizing that and taking responsibility immediately, not pouting. And those are good signs. The thing that both of those players have to understand is that they can’t lose their cool mentally and they can’t be lackadaisical and they can’t lose focus because it’s so hard for our other backcourt people. Maci and Taylor and then sort of our fifth guard is either Ivana or Batouly have the versatility to move over there. So all of those are brand-new players in the conference. And so those two, Makayla and Janee, if they can just stay locked in it’ll help a lot of things. It was a tie ballgame down the stretch with all the poor plays we had made. We had hustled enough, just enough, to have it tied down at the end and I thought our spirits were way too low. I thought that we had reacted way too negatively throughout the game. And then I think by the time we sort of got ourselves right, it was too late and we didn’t make enough plays. But Makayla and Janee will have to do a good job helping us lead the team and they know what we’re looking for. They did a great job yesterday. They were really low-energy and didn’t play the way we wanted them to on Sunday. They were the absolute opposite yesterday. That was a painful film session for them because it was not how they play, but they were fantastic with their energy and leadership yesterday afternoon. Hopefully they will be this afternoon and I expect that they will. All of us need to do a good job being the best leaders we can be and certainly those two will be key for us.”