Change and community key factors for women’s basketball

Kentucky players huddles up during the game against Auburn on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 68-61. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Eric Decker

Change is the only constant in life and is exactly what shocked the Kentucky Women’s basketball just 13 days before its season.

On Nov. 12, head coach Matthew Mitchell suddenly retired. The decision came amid his recovery from a traumatic brain injury suffered in the summer.

“This was a difficult decision… I know the timing is not ideal, but I do not feel I can give the job what it requires at this time,” Mitchell said via press release on Nov. 12. “I have been open about the fact that the surgery and recovery process has been life-altering… my priorities towards my family and my faith has grown even larger than before and that has led me to make this decision.”

The 13-year charismatic leader is the winningest coach in school history and was set to have arguably the most talented team of his tenure. The personal relationship he created and sustained with Rhyne Howard has proved essential to the university’s progression into a national contender once again.

Howard, an AP Preseason First-Team All American selection, is the program’s figurehead. You’d think this puts more weight on her shoulders, but if you asked her, she wouldn’t agree.

“I don’t really feel a reason to be pressured,” she said in a press conference on Oct. 26. “I have my teammates behind me, and we have a great team… I got Chasity [Patterson] on the point… I got [Keke McKinney] and Olivia [Owens] and the newcomers; we got all them… they are there to lift the pressure off of me.”

“If I do get pressured, I know I can go to them or my coaches and they will make it easier for me,” she continued. “They can make sure I am staying focused.”

Despite the loss, the Cats won’t lose familiarity among their ranks. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart immediately promoted associate head coach Kyra Elzy to the interim position when the news came down.

Elzy, who played under Pat Summit at Tennessee, has been with UK for the last four years and proved crucial in recruiting of the transfer portal, luring the likes of Chasity Patterson and 2018-19 Pac-12 Freshman of the year, Dre’una Edwards, to Lexington.

“Coach Mitchell means so much to me… I owe him an enormous amount of gratitude for his guidance throughout my coaching career. This is not an easy day,” Elzy said in her introductory press conference on Nov. 13. “Coach Mitchell has set this program on a path for distinguished success… as interim head coach, I promise that our staff will work tirelessly to make sure the program continues to build upon the success [he] has had.”

The Wildcats have a pretty good foundation to build upon coming off an abruptly ended season. Before COVID-19 forced cancellations, this team had high expectations for the NCAA tournament. With the entire starting frontcourt returning and skilled prospects ready to fill the remaining backcourt voids, things have not shifted all that much.

Forwards KeKe McKinney and Tatyanna Wyatt return as seniors with years of starting experience. If the two defensive anchors can each expand their offensive game, they’re likely to retain significant minutes.

“Last year, I was working on my consistency at the three,” McKinney, a Knoxville native, told reporters on Oct. 26. “[I’m]still working on that, but I’m also going to try to put it on the floor, get to the cup more… also crash the boards [and finish] through contact, through the bigs… hopefully it will show.”

While the veteran stalwarts are proven commodities, the Cats have added a number of quality options to its frontcourt. McKinney pointed out a couple new teammates in particular who have flashed in practice.

“The two people that are standing out so far for me are [Dre’una Edwards] and Nyah [Leveretter],” she said.

Edwards is a redshirt sophomore who spent her freshman season in Salt Lake City as a member of the Utah Utes. She recorded 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 54% shooting in her debut campaign, earning Pac 12 Freshman of the Year before missing last year due to injury.

“She is doing very well, McKinney said. “She looks great; she is running great.”

Leveretter, a true freshman from Blythewood, South Carolina, looks to bring youthful to break into the rotation with youthful invigoration and energy, which she provides endlessly.

“[Nyah] just never runs out of gas,” McKinney told reporters.

Olivia Owens, a former five-star recruit and Maryland Terrapin, also joined the team in the offseason. The talented trio make the Wildcat frontcourt more well-rounded and extremely deep.

In the backcourt, Chasity Patterson should slide into the starting spot vacated by Sabrina Haines. Patterson isn’t the same archetype – more scorer than facilitator – but believes she can provide a boost on both ends regardless.

“We are going to need somebody that can help out Rhyne… we need more scoring overall,” she said Oct. 26. “I am ready to go on each end of the court.. [defense] is something that is going to separate me this year.”

Five-star freshman Treasure Hunt could also claim a starting position, especially if the Cats employ a three-guard lineup. The Chattanooga, Tennessee native, who was one of the top guards in the nation, has a real chance to leave her mark early on.

Having chemistry between Hunt, Rhyne Howard and fellow newcomer Jazmine Massengill already established is another advantage for this team, according to Kentucky’s superstar.

“We know how we play, where we want to get the ball and how we want to get the ball,” Rhyne Howard said. “We know what the others are thinking before they even do it. BBN can expect buckets and hard work from the both of them.”

While some things are different for this iteration of Kentucky women’s basketball, many are the same. The team isn’t lacking for confidence as game one approaches. Taking the court each night in honor of their former coach could be exact the motivation needed to push this program to new heights.