Kentucky powers past Tennessee 83-74 to earn spot in SEC Championship


Kentucky Wildcats guard Rhyne Howard (5) is swarmed by teammates after 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

No. 7 seeded Kentucky defeated No. 2 Tennessee 83-74 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, punching its ticket to its first SEC Title game since 2014.

The win extended the Wildcats ongoing winning streak up to nine games, with it being the second straight win over an AP Top 25 opponent.

Rhyne Howard led the Wildcats to victory in the contest, finishing the game with 24 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, nearly securing her second triple-double of the season.

“It’s good to see her having success, but also having fun,” Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy said. “She started the year stressed out and pressure filled and I thought she played that way. She and I met and I told her, ‘What you have done for womens basketball and what you have done for Kentucky, if you don’t do another thing, your accolades speak for themselves’. I knew in the back of my mind what the end game was but wanted to free her to let her have fun and enjoy her senior year because these are memories that she will never get back.”

Howard was far from the only Wildcat to have a strong showing offensively, however, as three other Wildcats also notched double-digit point totals in the win.

Freshman Jada Walker and senior Robyn Benton finished the battle with 16 points each, with Walker finishing the game running the offense for the Cats after veteran point guard Jazmine Massengill departed with pain in her ankle for the final minutes.

The Wildcats set a new season high for 3-pointers made in a game with 12 made shots from beyond the arch, shooting 50-percent from deep.

Sophomore Treasure Hunt and Benton combined for seven made 3-pointers on their own, with Hunt being the fourth and final Cat to secure double-digits.

Despite Tennessee giving the Wildcats their closest fight in the tournament thus far, Kentucky led the Vols for nearly 39 minutes, once again taking the lead early and refusing to look back.

“We knew we needed a good start,” Elzy said. “We needed to come out and be aggressive offensively, I was more worried about the defensive and I wanted to make sure we brought the defensive heat and pursued the basketball.”

Kentucky’s bench secured 24 points in the win, outscoring the Vols’ bench by six points, further pointing to the depth of the Wildcats team since its 1-8 skid that saw just six healthy players on the court at times for UK.

Though the final margin of victory was nine points, Kentucky had its largest lead of the night with just 59 seconds left to play, controlling the game by 12 points.

With the exception of the second quarter, Kentucky outscored Tennessee in every period of the game, even if by just one point as was the case in the third and fourth quarters.

“I’m so proud of this team.” Elzy said. “When we were taking our hits down the stretch, I could see us getting better even though it wasn’t showing up on the scoreboard. We worked a lot on our offensive execution, so when teams make runs I thought we stepped up and answered them so it’s good to see that.”

Looking ahead to the SEC Championship game, Kentucky squares off with No. 1 South Carolina, hoping to get revenge on the Gamecocks.

South Carolina blew out Kentucky by 20 points in early January to start the down period for the Cats and won again by nine points in February to end the skid.

The second game against South Carolina was the first game since mid-January that Kentucky had its entire roster healthy, keeping the No. 1 team in the country within single digits after a big comeback.

Since that loss, Kentucky has gone 9-0 and now, having beaten the Volunteers who also crushed UK by 26 during the skid, hopes its momentum and development will be enough to secure its first SEC Championship since 1982.

“Day four, that’s just part of March Madness,” Elzy said. “We’ve played four games in eight days twice, so when you get to the championship game, you leave it out there. You rest after the game is over, you’re there to give everything that you have.”

No. 7 Kentucky takes on No 1 South Carolina inside Bridgestone Arena on Sunday, March 6, with the game set to tip-off at 1 p.m. EST.