Year two: Kyra Elzy looks to improve on unexpected first season as head coach


Kentucky Wildcats head coach Kyra Elzy talks to her team before the University of Kentucky vs. Tennessee women’s basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 71-56. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Barkley Truax

Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Kyra Elzy knows what success looks like in Lexington.

Elzy has brought a much-needed facelift to the program after her successful first season at the helm. She jump-started her head coaching career in 2020, taking over for former head coach Matthew Mitchell after his sudden retirement post-brain surgery. Prior to landing the head coaching gig, she was an assistant on Mitchell’s staff for eight years from 2008-2012 and 2016-2020.

She was tagged as interim head coach in November last year. After a 6-0 start to the season, Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart removed her interim title and offered Elzy a contract extension through the 2025-26 season as head coach. The six-straight victories to start the season are the second most for a first-year coach in program history — her efforts awarded her the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Spaulding Maggie Dixon NCAA Division I NCAA Rookie Coach of the Year.

Kentucky remained in the Associated Press Top 25 all season long, never dipping below No. 20. With Elzy calling the shots, the Wildcats also took down five ranked opponents (Indiana, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Georgia) — back-to-back wins against Arkansas and Mississippi State in late December and early January were the program’s first against top-15 teams since 2013.

Those wins earned Elzy her first espnW National Coach of the Week while Kentucky earned United States Basketball Writers Association Team of the Week honors in the same week. 

Kentucky was also one of 10 teams with at least four victories over ranked teams entering the NCAA tournament, where they entered as a four seed and eventually fell to the No. 5 seeded Iowa Hawkeyes in the second round.

While 2020 was Elzy’s first time entering the tournament as a head coach, she’s been to seven different NCAA tournaments in her nine seasons with Kentucky, including two Elite Eight appearances and was a part of Kentucky’s 2012 SEC Championship staff. 

In her two stints with Kentucky, six of Elzy’s teams have won over 20 games and has an overall record of 205-87 with the Wildcats. Those nine seasons have seen three SEC Players of the Year (Victoria Dunlap, A’dia Mathies and Rhyne Howard) come through Lexington with 42 total players earning SEC honors.

Most of those accomplishments came with Mitchell at the helm, and Elzy will look to carve out her own legacy as head women’s basketball coach. 

Despite not compiling a top-25 recruiting class for Kentucky’s 2021-22 season, it’s obvious athletes want to play under her. Elzy played a pivotal role in bringing high-profile transfers into the program such as 2019 PAC-12 Freshman of the Year Dre’Una Edwards and former five-star recruits Chasity Patterson, Olivia Owens, Robyn Benton and Jazmine Massengill and sending Evelyn Akhator and Makayla Epps to the WNBA in 2017 — the first time Kentucky had two players selected in the same draft in program history.

The fact that recruits and transfers want to play under Elzy stems from her own playing days. An Oldham County-native, Elzy scored over 3,000 points and 1,700 rebounds in her career before taking her talents to Knoxville, Tennessee, to play under the most successful women’s basketball coach of all time, Pat Summit. 

While playing for Summit, Elzy was a part of the 1997 and 1998 NCAA Championship squads and was the first Lady Vol to ever earn her master’s degree while still playing — which in some cases, is more important to parents of recruits than the on-court successes. 

Her history in Lexington and throughout her playing career, for that matter, have given her the winning mindset needed to lead a program like Kentucky as she heads into year two of her head coaching career.