Kyra Elzy’s patience and perseverance pay off in Nashville


Kentucky Wildcats head coach Kyra Elzy celebrates with fans during the team’s return from the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday, March 6, 2022, at Joe Craft Center in Lexington, Kentucky. UK defeated No. 1 South Carolina 64-62 with a 3-pointer by Dre’Una Edwards in the last seconds of the game in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

“Where do we go from here? We go back to work. There’s nothing else you can do.”

These were the words from Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy after her Wildcats lost 74-63 to Texas A&M on Feb. 6, the seventh loss of what was UK’s plunge down the SEC ranks, losing eight of nine games.

Even then, Elzy never wavered. Neither did her players.

The Cats would take one more loss to No. 1 South Carolina before a season turnaround ensued. Ten games and 10 wins later, Elzy and her crew were hoisting the SEC Tournament championship trophy.

To understand the magnitude of UK’s improbable inversion, you must take it back to the beginning.

Kentucky was faced with a multitude of problems throughout the 2021-22 campaign, in and out of the program.

Before game one of the season began, guard Blair Green was ruled out for the entire year due to an achilles tear. Green, a senior, was expected to play a vital role for the Wildcats.

As it turns out, losing Green would be just the beginning of a long line of injury issues that Elzy and her staff would face over the following five months.

Superstar Rhyne Howard and guard Jada Walker would be the sole Wildcats to play in all 30 games for Kentucky. The slender 10-woman roster was anything but full-strength, as they often struggled to field a so-called “bench rotation.”

This was personified on Jan. 27, when only six Cats were able to suit up against Vanderbilt.

Senior guard Robyn Benton, UK’s fourth leading scorer who missed six games this season, was out with an ankle injury. She joined Green and freshman walk-on Kristen Crenshaw-Gill on the injured list. Just before tip-off against the Commodores, another guard, Treasure Hunt, was ruled out due to an injury she sustained in the game prior.

The four guards, along with forward Dre’una Edwards, who did not travel with the team due to a disciplinary suspension, left Kentucky with just one substitute in Nashville.

All six players played 26 minutes or more, just two days after they took on Auburn in Alabama, and just three days before they traveled to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.

Kentucky would fall 65-57 in a valiant effort, despite setting a new program record with 25 turnovers.

With every excuse in the book at her disposal, Elzy took the high road and kept her chin up and her coaching hat on.

“We have to be able to handle adversity. At the end of the day, we still had chances. It wasn’t a lack of heart or effort or want to win, we just didn’t execute down the stretch and the turnovers cost us,” she said.

As UK hobbled through SEC play, talks about Elzy’s job security began to surface.

Elzy took over as the interim head coach in November 2020, as former coach Matthew Mitchell, the winningest coach in program history, resigned before the beginning of the season due to a brain injury he suffered that forced him to step away.

With big shoes to fill, Elzy entered her first full year as head coach this season with confidence and high expectations. She made her grand entrance to the Kentucky faithful at Big Blue Madness, rappelling down from the rafters of Rupp Arena.

Just a few months later, some were calling for her to rappel out of Lexington and for UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart to find a new head coach.

But Elzy never paid attention to the background noise. She, just like her coaching staff and players, kept her nose to the grindstone.

Slowly, the fruits of their labor began to pay off. Edwards returned from suspension following the Vanderbilt loss, and Benton eventually returned from injury. As pieces made their way back into the team, the wins began to pile on.

Game four of the 10-game win streak signaled a change in the direction of the season, as the Cats traveled down to Fayetteville to take on a well-respected Arkansas team, who they would blast for a 23-point road win.

Elzy knew then, what she knew at the beginning of the season, that staying the course was the only option.

“I do have a lot of confidence in this team and I believe in them,” she said. “I’ve seen what they can do in practice, and they showed it in spurts in different games, but it didn’t always show up in the win/loss column. That’s part of figuring out where to go next.”

Kentucky would finish the regular season winning its final two games, trouncing both Missouri and Auburn. The six-game stretch brought the Cats back to a seven seed in the SEC Tournament, with hopes for a berth into the NCAA Tournament hanging in the balance, as bracketologists had the Cats as one of the final teams making the Big Dance.

Unsurprisingly, Elzy wasn’t worried about her team’s forecast in a bracket.

“I try not to pay too much attention to the projections. My focus was, along with this staff, one game at a time. Get the job done. Play for this program and stay focused on the task at hand,” she said.

One game at a time. Get the job done. Stay focused. As it turns out, it really was that simple.

The Cats thrashed Mississippi State 83-67 in the second round of the tourney behind 21 points from Walker, essentially locking up a spot for UK in the NCAA.

Next up, a date in the quarterfinals with LSU. Howard poured in 32 points on 11-18 shooting as UK made it eight wins on the trot, surging into the semifinals.

Awaiting them was the No. 2 seed, Tennessee. The Lady Vols thwacked the Cats by 26 points in January, the worst loss during UK’s abysmal 1-8 stretch.

The grizzled duo of Howard and Walker combined for 40 in an 83-74 win, propelling the once forgotten Wildcats to the SEC Championship, where they would then take on the role of David against the Goliath No. 1 South Carolina.

USC, who entered the game with just one loss, defeated Kentucky twice in the regular season, leaving little reason to believe that anything would change in round three.

The Wildcats’ Cinderella story would come to fruition, as Edwards would nail a 3-pointer with seven seconds left to play, giving UK a two-point lead. The Gamecocks’ halfcourt heave was no good, cementing an all-time run by Elzy’s Cats.

Four games in four days against some of the stiffest competition in the country, and Kentucky stepped up to the plate and knocked out home run after home run.

As improbable of a run as it may have been, it wasn’t a surprise to Elzy.

“We’re competitors, and basketball is pressure filled. We’ve done it our whole life. We had been put in situations where our back was against the wall, and we had enough to step up,” she said. “We’re a talented team, I was confident in them.”

Just one month ago, the program was in shambles, at least from the perspective of an outsider. Loss after loss, injury after injury, problem after problem, Elzy could’ve given up.

Instead, she etched her name into Kentucky coaching history, leading one of the greatest ever charges into March Madness, with a lot left to play for.

While celebrations were in order for the mission they accomplished, Elzy was quick to note that something bigger was on the horizon.

“We do have to have some recovery and rest, but we always do that coming off the SEC Tournament trying to get people healthy,” she said. “Then we get back to work. We’re going to celebrate this SEC Championship, but our job is not yet done, we still have work to do. We look forward to playing in the NCAA Tournament and making a run.”