Hoops falls to Tennessee in SEC semifinals

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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The UK Hoops team won two games in the SEC Tournament in North Little Rock, Ark., over the weekend but came up short in the semifinals match. The Cats beat Vanderbilt 67-61 on Thursday and Mississippi State 76-67 on Friday, but fell to Tennessee 75-64 on Saturday. The loss to the Lady Volunteers marks the fourth time in six years Tennessee has ousted UK in the SEC Tournament.

UK vs. Vanderbilt

The Cats jumped out to an early 14-point lead over the Commodores, but Vanderbilt bounced back, going on a 21-6, 10-minute run to erase the deficit. UK trailed 24-25 at the half.

The teams battled with each other in the first seven minutes of the second half, exchanging the lead five different times. But UK went on another run, again stretching its lead out to double digits. The Commodores responded with a run of their own, cutting the Cats’ lead to 65-61 with just 45 seconds remaining. In the ensuing possession, Vanderbilt guard Rebekah Dahlman drove through UK senior guard Jennifer O’Neill for a quick layup, but was called for an offensive foul. O’Neill would make both of her free throws to seal the win for the Cats.

O’Neill finished with a game-high 19 points and made four of her 10 three-point attempts. Sophomore guard Linnae Harper also scored in double figures, finishing with 18 points while collecting seven rebounds.

UK vs. Mississippi State

UK trailed often against Mississippi State and was down by as many as 15 points in the second half. But the Cats stormed back, going on a 22-4 run to take their first lead of the game with 7:27 remaining. The comeback was capped off with a three-pointer from sophomore forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, which was one of her only two made shots on the night.

The Cats never trailed again, using clutch free-throw shooting from senior guard Bria Goss, who made all six of her final free throws, to put away the Bulldogs. The win marked the sixth straight year that UK has advanced to the semifinals in the SEC Tournament.

UK’s huge comeback win was due to a heroic effort from sophomore guard Makayla Epps. Playing with a strained Achilles, Epps scored 31 points on the night, 11 of which came in the midst of the 15-point deficit trimming. The Lebanon, Ky., native recorded 73 total points against Mississippi State this season, including her 42-point effort in the Cats’ double-overtime win over the Bulldogs in February.

Epps was named to the All-Tournament Team after scoring 49 points in the tournament.

UK vs. Tennessee

Tennessee missed its first seven shots to start the game as UK had a 7-1 lead over the Lady Volunteers in seven minutes of play. But Tennessee heated up as the Cats turned the ball over 11 times in the first half and trailed 31-24 at the break.

UK was able to cut the deficit to five two different times in the second half but didn’t come any closer to Tennessee. The Cats shot 29 percent from the floor in the second half while the Lady Volunteers made 12 of their 28 attempts. Tennessee also hit 17 of 18 second-half free throws, including 10 in the last minute, to hold on to the win.

Tennessee senior forward Cierra Burdick finished with 20 points on Saturday, bringing her total to 50 in the three wins over the Cats this season. Burdick was named to the All-Tournament Team for her performance.

UK is now 1-7 all-time against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament.

The Cats await to hear what seed they will receive in the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced on Selection Monday (March 16). With a 23-9 record, its run through the conference tournament and the upset win over then-No. 2 South Carolina on Senior Day, UK has a high chance of earning a 4-seed. The top 16 seeded teams will host the first two rounds of the tournament, beginning on March 20.