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Kentucky Kernel

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ANALYSIS: Kentucky women’s basketball is struggling, how did it get here?

Sydney Yonker
Kentucky forward Ajae Petty gets helped up by Kentucky guard Brooklynn Miles during Kentucky vs Texas A&M women’s basketball game on Sunday, February. 11, 2024, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 44-61. Photo by Sydney Yonker | Staff

Simply put, times have been very dark for Kyra Elzy and Kentucky women’s basketball. 

With loss after loss piling up and a prior 62-point defeat to No. 1 South Carolina, it seems that the once proud program has reached a new low.

With another loss in what has been a very hectic last two seasons, serious questions about the future of Elzy’s job are starting to be asked once again.

This is not the first time the status of Elzy’s position in Lexington has been under fire and, to provide a bit of context, the Kernel decided to take a step back in time and see where it all went wrong for the Kentucky native and former Lady Volunteer.

Elzy, while being from La Grange, Kentucky, played her college basketball down in Knoxville under legendary head coach Pat Summitt, where she would go on to win two of Summitt’s eight national championship victories.

After her playing days came to an end, Elzy was an assistant coach at Western Kentucky from 2002-04 where she would help the Hilltoppers to a Sun Belt Tournament triumph in 2003 before heading to Kansas for four seasons.

In 2008, Elzy would return to her home state of Kentucky as an assistant for her first stint in Lexington under Matthew Mitchell.

After two years in Lexington, Elzy would become the assistant head coach and would reach the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012.

Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy coaches her team during during the Kentucky vs. Minnesota women’s basketball game on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 76-57. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff (Travis Fannon)

Elzy, however, in 2012, would travel back down 150 miles south to Knoxville as an assistant coach under Holly Warlick, reaching two Elite Eights before becoming an assistant head coach in 2015 and reaching another Elite Eight.

Following the end of the 2015-16 season, Elzy would come back north for her second stint in Lexington as an assistant head coach once again under Mitchell.

After four years, Coach Mitchell would retire after 13 seasons with the Wildcats in November 2020 following months of recovery after suffering a brain injury from an accident that happened in March of that year during a family vacation in Mexico, which put Elzy in as interim head coach.

Things would start smoothly for Elzy, starting the season 6-0 and having a top-ten AP ranking.

This would lead to Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart announcing that he would remove the “interim” tag and name Elzy as the program’s 20th head coach. Kentucky would finish that season 18-9 and tied for fifth in the SEC and would be knocked out of the NCAA Tournament, losing to Iowa in the second round.

The next season, led by Dre’una Edwards and Kentucky legend Rhyne Howard, would be a very memorable one.

While the Cats finished the regular season at an underwhelming 15-11 record, going 8-8 in the SEC, Kentucky would defeat Mississippi State, No. 6 LSU and No. 18 Tennessee on the way to defeating No.1 South Carolina 64-62 in the SEC Tournament off an Edwards’ game winner to win the competition for just the second time in program history and first time in 40 years.

This success would largely cover up the disappointments of the season including Louisville native Erin Toller being dismissed from the team, which was done due to the former Sacred Heart star allegedly not meeting standards set by the program.

The next season, however, wouldn’t be so kind to Elzy.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Kyra Elzy walks off the court after the Kentucky vs. No. 1 South Carolina womens basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. South Carolina won 95-66. Photo by Olivia Hall | Staff (Olivia Hall)

After losing Howard to the WNBA, where she went first overall to the Atlanta Dream – the first women’s basketball player at UK to ever go No. 1 overall – Elzy would also lose Edwards to the transfer portal to Baylor. This would serve to be the first controversy for Elzy.

Edwards had already transferred in her college career as she came to Kentucky from Utah so she needed Elzy to sign a “No Participation Opportunity Form.” The problem was Edwards claimed in a social media post that Elzy – who had suspended Edwards the season prior – had refused to sign the waiver. 

“I was hopeful Kentucky would sign off to let me compete this season, as they have told me before that they hope nothing but the best for me,” Edwards wrote. “But instead, they will not sign the waiver.”

Elzy would respond by explaining that Edwards would have been eligible if she had graduated from Kentucky and started her time at Baylor as a grad transfer, but this would not help her image as many would take the side of Edwards.

On the court, Kentucky would struggle as the Cats would win just two games in conference play as well as losing to the likes of Murray State for the first time since the 1970s, Florida Gulf Coast and South Carolina by nearly 30 before the SEC Tournament.

In the first round of the tournament with hopes of defending the SEC crown, Kentucky would upset Florida, but the victory would become overshadowed by a brawl that saw eight players ejected.

The Cats, however, would go on to surprise everyone by defeating Alabama by a convincing score of 71-58, but would fall to Tennessee in the quarterfinals.

To make matters worse for Elzy, Kentucky would lose an important piece in starting point guard Jada Walker to, you guessed it, Baylor.

This did not look good for Elzy at all as a key factor for the program would follow another huge piece to the same school, not to mention the previous controversy surrounding that star player’s transfer.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Kyra Elzy speaks during a post-game press conference after the No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Tennessee womens basketball game in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, March 3, 2023, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. Tennessee won 80-71. Photo by Carter Skaggs | Staff (Carter Skaggs)

Now to this season, yet another departure has been announced from the program as Zennia Thomas was dismissed. The reason being? The same reason that Toller was dismissed: “not meeting standards.”

To the present day, in a season that has seen Kentucky without a true home venue, it might be safe to say the rest of the program hasn’t reached those standards recently either as the Cats currently find themselves 9-15 and 2-8 in the SEC with multiple blowout losses in that time.

With success being hard to find on the court in large part due to troubles off the court, serious questions have started to be asked of whether or not Elzy is the right answer for this program both in the present as well as into the future.

In order to silence the critics, results need to start swinging in the La Grange native’s favor because the honest truth is while coach Mitchell was leading this program to Elite Eights, Elzy can barely seem to muster a winning record.

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Ali Cetinok, Assistant Sports Editor

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