UK Hoops enters SEC Tournament as 5-seed, faces LSU on Thursday

Lamar Smith

The month of March means one thing: March Madness. Before the NCAA Tournament, though, there is conference tournament week, the preview to March Madness.

As the SEC Tournament is set to begin, UK Hoops (21-6, 10-6) is poised for another deep conference tournament run. The Cats have made the semifinals of the SEC tournament the last four years, including the championship game twice. The team has also had a problem beating Tennessee in the SEC tournament, losing to the Volunteers the last two years including the 2014 SEC tournament title game.

Competition definitely will not be lacking during the tournament either. The SEC has five teams currently ranked in the top 25, including the No. 13 ranked Cats. The Cats are 6-2 vs ranked teams with the team’s both losses coming to No. 3 South Carolina.

During UK’s first matchup against the Lady Gamecocks, the team was up four points in the first half and down only a point heading into the fourth quarter. But strong play from A’Ja Wilson led to an 11-point loss for the Cats. Wilson had 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks in the game and dominated inside, especially in the second half.

UK will need to correct this problem should the team hope to win its first SEC Tournament title since 1982. The Cats and Gamecocks could collide once more before all is said and done, as a possible meeting in Saturday’s semifinal looks probable.

The Cats will look for production from their four players who earned All-SEC honors: junior Makayla Epps, junior transfer Evelyn Akhator, fifth-year senior Janee Thompson and freshman Maci Morris. Epps made the All-SEC First Team and leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.3 ppg. She is also a strong rebounder and passer, averaging 4.7 rpg and 4.5 apg.

But before UK can look ahead to a rematch with top-seeded South Carolina, it’ll have to pass by a Florida team that has won three of its last four.

The Florida Gators could also be a possible obstacle for the Cats in the tournament’s quarterfinals. The Cats lost to the now No. 25 ranked Gators 85-79 in Gainesville in January. During the loss, UK turned over the ball 30 times, and this will be an area of concern should the two teams meet again.

Turnovers have been a problem for a team that ranks second in the SEC in scoring and 34th in the nation. The team averages 15.8 turnovers a game, a stat that cripples a UK offense that features two strong offensive threats in the backcourt in Epps and Thompson.

Epps and Thompson, who have also struggled with turnovers at times this season, will be asked to help the team to minimize the turnover problem. The two have shown they can fill up the scoreboard, but will need to do more than score come tournament time.

Inside, UK will lean on the combination of Alexis Jennings and Akhator. Akhator averages 11.6 ppg and leads the team in rebounding with 9.4 rpg. Jennings averages 10.2 ppg and 7.1 rpg. Akhator and Jennings combined for 30 points and 34 rebounds in the team’s last win against then ranked No. 11 Texas A&M, which led to Akhator to become the SEC Player of the Week.

The Cats head into the tournament on a six-game winning streak, which pulled the team to 10-6 in conference play after a dismal 4-6 start. The team will face 13-seeded LSU in the second round, a team UK beat 70-58 in Memorial Coliseum last month.

Tipoff is set for approximately 2:25 on Thursday, and will be aired live on the SEC Network.