Kentucky womens basketball demands your attention


Kentucky Wildcats guard Rhyne Howard (10) passes the ball during the UK vs. South Carolina womens basketball on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK lost 59-50. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

After dropping below .500 in early February, Kentucky womens basketball was written off by most as a broken team beyond repair. Checking in around two weeks later, that is far from the case.

The Wildcats entered the season ranked No. 13 in the preseason AP Poll, looking to rebound after a second-round upset in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky started the season as expected, blowing out the likes of North Alabama, Presbyterian and Lee University in an exhibition, but the first slash to the team’s resume came on Nov. 15, as the Cats fell by 20 points at then No. 8 Indiana.

Rebounding from the loss, Kentucky blew out West Virginia, who, at the time, was supposed to be a quality win for the Cats.

Kentucky went on to drop back-to-back games against DePaul and then No. 7 Louisville, but followed it up with its best win of the season, knocking off then No. 15 Georgia inside Memorial Coliseum.

What followed after the win can only be described as a disaster, as the Cats went on to lose eight of their next nine games, including three losses by 20 or more points.

The skid was bad enough that Kentucky even fell below .500 following a loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 6, despite still being ranked as a top-25 team initially.

While the Cats played some tough competition during that period, the skid could mostly be blamed on a plethora of injuries to several key pieces, as well as a multi-game suspension to junior forward Dre’una Edwards.

Despite the losses, Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy refused to give up confidence in her team.

“Being short-handed has shown that we have a lot of resilience,” Elzy said after Kentucky’s loss to LSU on Jan. 30. “Yes, we have come up short, but I can see their confidence continue to grow. I told them, ‘We are going to be a dangerous team when we have our pieces in place.’”

Elzy’s confidence proved not to be misplaced; in its first game back with a full roster, Kentucky battled close with No. 1 South Carolina, losing by single-digits after having been blown out by 20 points by the Gamecocks to start the skid.

Since that loss, Kentucky has gone on a four-game winning streak, including recording its largest fourth quarter comeback since 2014 to defeat Mississippi State.

The injuries to the team that sometimes forced Elzy to travel with only six players available seems to have built character for several athletes who had formerly been primarily bench players.

Most notably, sophomore Nyah Leveretter saw her minutes increase from eight per game, when she even saw the court to roughly 25 minutes per game as well as earning a starting role in all three of Kentucky’s recent matchups.

Junior guard Emma King earned similar treatment, seeing her minutes increase as the Kentucky native developed a reputation as a scrappy and aggressive player, even if her contributions didn’t show up on the box score.

“Emma has been solid in what we need,” Elzy said after Kentucky defeated Alabama on Feb. 13 to start its four game win streak. “Obviously it’s not filling up a stat sheet, but it’s the intangibles. She’s done everything I’ve asked of her.”

The team has also thrived with the return of Edwards, who put up three consecutive 20-plus point performances as well as two double-doubles in the win streak.

“Dre is just so versatile,” Elzy said after Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt on Feb. 17. “Inserting Dre makes us a different team, I like her on the floor [as often as possible]. Whether she starts or comes off the bench, she’s playing.”

Most recently, Kentucky earned a statement win on the road against Arkansas, defeating the Razorbacks 78-55 for Kentucky’s largest win since defeating SC Upstate on Dec. 19.

Elzy reflected on the team’s prior skid after the win, feeling that it was more indicative of the potential of the team than the losses were.

“I have a lot of confidence in this team, I really believe in them,” she said. “We hit some tough roads, but it’s paying off for us now. I’ve seen what they can do in practice and now we’re seeing the fruits of our labor. I see this team and I know everybody expected something different earlier and that didn’t happen, but it’s good to see our team come out on top now. This was a signature win for our program that we needed.”

Looking ahead at what is to come, Kentucky has two games remaining in the regular season: a road game against Missouri and senior night in Lexington against Auburn.

Kentucky defeated Auburn on the road for its lone win of the losing sequence, leaving little doubt that a series sweep is in the cards if the Cats keep their feet on the gas.

Focusing on Missouri, while the Tigers do have a win over No. 1 South Carolina, they are 1-4 in their last five games, with little momentum coasting into the matchup with UK.

Kentucky will then take part in the SEC Tournament in Nashville, where its NCAA Tournament dreams will hang in the balance.

Though UK’s best outcome is 8-8 in conference play, its recent stretch, notably the Arkansas win, forces one to think that Kentucky is capable of knocking off anybody in the conference.

Regardless of prior results, Kentucky is not the same team that went 1-8 from early January until mid February; this Kentucky team is one that demands attention as it desperately claws its way back into the field of 68 as an at-large candidate.

Kentucky would need a miracle to earn that spot in the big dance, but if the Mississippi State comeback was any indicator, miracles are not impossible for Elzy’s Wildcats.

UK travels to Columbia, Missouri, on Thursday, Feb. 24, in its biggest remaining test of the regular season. The game is currently scheduled to tip-off at 8 p.m. EST.