Kentucky womens basketball prepares for SEC Tournament


Kentucky Wildcats guard Jazmine Massengill (3) drives the ball during the UK vs. Auburn womens basketball game on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 90-62. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

With its final regular season game in the books, Kentucky womens basketball looks ahead to the SEC Tournament to prove it belongs within the field of 68.

Kentucky, despite being far from the field during its 1-8 skid to start SEC play, now finds itself projected as an 11-seed in Autumn Johnson’s bracket prediction for the NCAA.

Being an 11-seed would force the Wildcats into the first-four games, currently projected to face Northwestern as of March 1.

Finishing the season with a six-game win streak, Kentucky righted a few of its mistakes, getting revenge on Vanderbilt, blowing out Auburn after winning close on the road and getting quality wins over potential NCAA Tournament teams such as Arkansas and Missouri.

“I have a lot of confidence in this team,” Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy said. “I believe in them. I’ve seen what they can do in practice and it showed in spurts in different games but didn’t show up in the win/loss column. We hit a tough road but it’s paying off for us now. We’re seeing the fruits of our labor. It’s good to see our team come out on top.”

While the effort earned them a path back into the tournament, Elzy’s Cats will be looking to make a splash in the SEC Tournament in the coming week, determined to potentially earn a true spot in the field.

“This team always had great potential,” Elzy said. “We are peaking at the right time. I’m so proud of this team for their resilience and their toughness. We could’ve laid down when things were not going well for us but we didn’t, we found a way to get the job done. This team is really close. We’ve had a lot of meetings, a lot of talks, a lot of tears, but we figured out a way to get it done and we hope to stay here.”

Kentucky, as the No. 7 seed in tournament, is currently set to face-off with No. 10 seed Mississippi State, who it previously beat as part of its season-ending win streak, notching the largest fourth quarter comeback in program history.

“We go back and watch [the film]; there’s always areas to grow,” Elzy said. “We do not want to come back from 15 down again, but it’s going to be a great game. Mississippi State is a tough team led by Anastasia Hayes.”

The bracket would then project the Cats to face off with No. 2 LSU, who it fell to in Baton Rouge on Jan. 30 by nine points, with the loss being one of Kentucky’s closest of the 1-8 period.

Though the overall record still shows wear-and-tear from the infamous skid, Kentucky has been on fire in its last six games, winning by an average of 13 points, including three blow-out victories.

Star guard Rhyne Howard, who was projected as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft for much of the year, dropped out of the No. 1 spot after some passive play down the stretch, and since then has averaged 26 points per game during an average of 32 minutes played.

Howard also dropped 32 points during “Rhyne Howard Day,” a tribute to the star in her final home game inside Memorial Coliseum, the most ever by a UK senior on their senior day. 

In the process of scoring 32 points, Howard also connected on a school record eight 3-pointers while wearing the jersey of her teammate Blair Green, UK’s usual 3-point shooter who missed the season with an injury.

“It meant a lot to both of us,” Howard said after the game. “I have her powers, she’s the one that usually shoots the threes. She wasn’t able to play my last home game with me, but her jersey deserves to be worn – she’s always been there [for me].”

Howard is far from the only Wildcat to erupt in recent games, as junior forward Dre’una Edwards has also been a spark plug off the bench for Kentucky, averaging 23 points with three double-doubles during the win streak.

“Inserting Dre does make us a different team,” Elzy said. “I like Dre on the floor at any time whether she starts or comes off the bench, she’s going to play. We need her energy. She has that fire and that passion that we need on both ends of the floor.”

Other notable players such as lone freshman Jada Walker have also come into their own during the winning stretch, with Walker averaging 26 minutes played this season, scoring double-digits 14 times, including 21 in Kentucky’s aforementioned loss in Baton Rouge.

Walker also earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team for her efforts, with the teams being voted on by league coaches.

“She’s a fearless competitor,” Elzy said. “I’m so proud of her. One of the first things we told her when she got on campus was, ‘Don’t back down, we’re going to need what you bring.’ I think she did that, she definitely puts in the work and she deserves it.”

While not contributing as much on the box score, previous bench players such as Nyah Leveretter and Emma King have earned solid minutes on the court, with the former even starting in Kentucky’s last five games.

Though the Cats still have an uphill battle ahead of them in the SEC Tournament, the team has proven to be much more of a contender than previously thought.

Kentucky will certainly be a team to look out for in March, with the team ready to pull off some upsets and perhaps even winning the league’s auto-bid on its path to the big dance.

“It’s going to be a fun tournament,” Elzy said. “It’s a great experience and I want them to take in the moment, that’s the fun part of being an athlete in March. They understand what’s at stake. We have to be focused and locked in on what we need to get done while we’re there.”.

Kentucky’s first matchup against Mississippi State is currently scheduled to tip-off at 7 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 3, from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.