UK women open SEC play with win

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Senior guard Samantha Mahoney (Detroit) scored 22 points and freshman point guard Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.) added a career-high 13 as the Kentucky women’s basketball team squeaked out an exciting 60-58 thriller over the visiting Florida Gators in the Southeastern Conference opener Thursday night in Memorial Coliseum.

“It is good to know we can win a game - that is important to this group,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They needed to get that proverbial monkey off their back - we needed to get that done. I thought our defense there at the end was pretty dog-gone good and we are still struggling some offensively. I thought if we had shot our free throws differently it would have maybe been a different game but we are not going to complain about anything tonight.”

It was a back-and-forth battle from the start as the 40th meeting between the conference foes produced nine ties and three lead changes, including six ties in the second half.

The Wildcats (7-8, 1-0 SEC), who trailed just once in the second half, regained a three-point lead (59-56) with 1:15 remaining in the game. Mahoney missed a layup with one minute left before Florida’s Marshae Dotson pulled down one of her game-high 12 rebounds. She added two of her game-high 26 points to pull the Gators (11-5, 0-1 SEC) within one, 59-58, with :49 seconds to go. Another missed jumper by Mahoney with :17 seconds on the clock was rebounded by Florida’s Sharielle Smith but the Gators committed a turnover on their next possession with just :06 ticks left. The game still wasn’t over, however, as UK committed a turnover on its press break, giving Florida the ball back with :03.7 seconds left in the game.

The Cats remained calm and senior Chelsea Chowning (Berea, Ky.) stepped up to take a charge on a Dotson layup attempt, sending her to the free throw line for two shots. Chowning hit the first free throw to put Kentucky up 60-58. With 1.5 seconds remaining, she intentionally missed the second shot and it was rebounded by Smith of UF who was awarded a timeout with :0.7 seconds to go. The Gators’ final shot attempt was tipped by Chowning at mid-court and UK held on for the win.

“We just thought that if she missed it and they tipped it with a second left then we didn’t think there was any chance of their being any time left,” Mitchell said. “We missed it, Florida caught it and held it for about a second. They called timeout and somehow were awarded the ball. What we were trying to do was catch them off guard. If we miss it then they can’t set it up and can’t throw long. It did not work tonight, so we will have to rethink that.”

Chowning finished with seven points after hitting two clutch three-pointers in the second half. She also grabbed three rebounds, two blocks and two steals in just 19 minutes of play. Freshman Catina Bett (Gadsden, Ala.) came off the bench to contribute six points while sophomore Lydia Watkins (Hopkinsville, Ky.) and freshman Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.) added five points each.

“Chowning has become the heart-beat of this team,” Mitchell said. “She got everyone fired up on the locker room after the game and she is just a great player for us.”

The Wildcats, who led 30-25 at the half, led by as many as eight points twice in the first half and were paced by Mahoney and Smith with 11 points apiece. UK limited Florida to its lowest output in the first half with just 25 points. It also marked just the third time this season the Gators trailed at the half.

“That was the Sam Mahoney that we needed,” Mitchell said. “At the end of the game when we were looking for a play, she came up and said that she wanted the ball run through her and that was a great sign for me. I love to see that she wanted to ball at the end. She produced for us tonight, she was very aggressive and got us going and she finished it off for us. I was very happy with Sam’s play tonight. We could not have won the game without her effort tonight.”

With the 22 points tonight, Mahoney moved ahead of Kristi Cushenberry (1988-92) for No. 10 on UK’s career scoring list with 1,376 points.

UK shot 39.0 percent from the field (23-of-59) compared to Florida’s 35.7 percent (20-56). The Wildcats scored 32 points off 24 Gator turnovers and charted a season-high tying seven blocks.

UK, which snapped UF’s seven-game winning streak, is now 12-15 in conference openers. Florida now owns a 21-19 lead in the all-time series but UK leads 10-9 when the game is played in Lexington.

The Wildcats will travel to Starkville, Miss., Sunday, Jan. 13 to take on Mississippi State at 3 p.m. EST.