From (Hunt)ed to (Hunt)er: Cats hold off Gators to advance to SEC Quarters


Kentucky Wildcats guard Treasure Hunt (12) shoots a three pointer during the UK vs. Florida women’s SEC Tournament basketball game on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. UK won 73-63. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Braden Ramsey

It proved to be anything but easy, but No. 17 Kentucky managed to beat Florida courtesy of an 18-6 run in the final 4:14 of game time to advance beyond the SEC Tournament’s second round. The 5-12 matchup is a common upset prediction come March, but the Cats were nearly victim of it a tournament ahead of the typical time.

“We knew we had to come back together and keep the energy we had in the first half,” Wildcat junior guard Rhyne Howard said postgame. “Stay focused and stay poised.”

Howard stuffed the stat sheet once again (27 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals) to lead her team to a quarterfinal appearance. She sparked the biggest portion of the aforementioned extended run not with flash and flair, but through grit. Her assist to Tatyana Wyatt at the 3:02 mark – that ultimately put Kentucky ahead for good – was followed by a steal where she dove on the floor and wrestled the rock away from Florida’s Kiara Smith. The sequence further proved the back-to-back SEC Player of the Year’s extra gear is not solely limited to filling the hoop.

“She has a great feel for when it’s time to take over,” head coach Kyra Elzy said. “‘Rhyne Time’ doesn’t always mean just scoring… to me, [it]’s that she’s going to will her team to victory [by] whatever it takes.”

Another area this was on display is the defense of Smith down the stretch. The redshirt-senior absolutely shredded the Wildcats to the tune of a new career-high 36 points. Coach Elzy even called her game “unbelievable”. It certainly was, until Howard put a stop to it. Smith was held scoreless over the last 5:07 of action, and coughed up two turnovers in the last four minutes with the Kentucky leader as her primary defender.

“She was getting too many easy looks,” Howard said. “[I] took it upon myself to get up there, make things tough [and] uncomfortable for her.”

Howard’s former AAU teammate Treasure Hunt played a big role for the second straight week as well. The top Wildcat recruit was Howard-lite in this one, recording nine points, seven rebounds and four assists along with two steals and a block in 24 minutes.

“Treasure’s extremely talented,” Elzy said of the Chattanooga native. “The transition to the college game was difficult… but the light has gone off.”

Howard echoed her head coach’s sentiment.

“We all know [Treasure] can play… she can produce [and] do great things for us,” she said. “[She just] had to stay ready because her number if going to get called… we need her to come in, not be scared, not be nervous or anything.”

Blair Green has seen her role shift with the implementation of Jazmine Massengill into the starting five – fifteen minutes or less in the final five games of the regular season – but stepped up when called upon today. The Harlan Co. product’s four points came as part of a 6-0 Wildcat stretch early in the final period after the Gators ended quarter three with all the momentum.

“[Blair] hit two huge shots to get us going [in the fourth],” Elzy said. “So proud of… her hustle defensively as well.”

“She shoots those in practice… we know she’s going to knock it down,” Howard said. “We tell her to keep shooting… ‘That’s what you do.’”

Now with their opening opponent in the rearview, the Cats switch gears to tomorrow afternoon, when they’ll battle the team directly in front of them in both the AP poll and conference ranking: No. 16 and fourth-seeded Georgia. The Bulldogs represent Kentucky’s only road win over a currently-ranked foe this year (62-58 on Feb. 25, exactly one week from tomorrow) and will surely have vengeance on the mind. The Cats, meanwhile, will watch film and rest up.

“We already have an idea of what they do offensively and defensively,” Howard said. “We have to focus on our game.”

The Kentucky-Georgia matchup is set to go down 25 minutes after the conclusion of the LSU-Texas A&M semifinal contest, which tips at 11:00 a.m. E.T. Barring overtime, this means the Cats and Bulldogs will take the Bon Secours Wellness arena floor at approximately 1:30 p.m. E.T. on SEC Network.