Seeking their first conference win of the season Sunday, the Kentucky women’s basketball team did what they do best: get the ball to Victoria Dunlap down low early and often and let Amani Franklin take over late.
Dunlap, a sophomore forward, scored 15 points, pulled down seven boards and tied a season-high with three blocked shots, and Franklin scored a game-high 16 points to lead UK (11-6, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) over Arkansas 72-63 on Sunday in front of a season-high crowd of 5,570 at Memorial Coliseum.
“I get very excited this time of the year because I have so much respect this conference that we get to compete in and it is very difficult to win games in this conference,” UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “I am very proud of our team today and everybody played hard and overcame adversity at times to get the win. That is the name of the game and we are thrilled with this victory.”
After snapping her six-game double-digit scoring streak with just six points in a near upset at No. 7/11 Tennessee on Thursday, Dunlap turned in one of her best performances of the year to give the Wildcats their sixth win in the past seven games.
The game plan was simple. After struggling to find her shot at Tennessee, the Wildcats pounded the ball inside to Dunlap. The sophomore from Nashville, Tenn., responded with 13 first-half points, all coming inside the paint.
Dunlap opened the game with a personal 5-0 run, but the Wildcats went cold from the floor. Thanks to nearly a six-minute UK scoring drought, Arkansas (11-6, 0-2 SEC) grabbed hold of the lead with eight straight points.
UK remained close on the back of Dunlap, but it took some clutch outside shooting to take control. Trailing 21-20 UK ripped off an 11-2 run a pair of 3-pointers from sophomore guard Carly Morrow and junior forward Brittany Edelen, helping UK to a 34-31 halftime lead.
But when UK's key cog in the first half went to the bench with foul trouble, the Wildcats needed another scoring option.
“I did a poor job recognizing how many fouls I had,” Dunlap said. “When I got the fourth foul, I wanted my teammates to know that I was there for them. I was cheering off the court, and I wanted them to keep making shots and scoring.”
The Wildcats had their teammates' back.
Franklin led the second-half effort with 11 points after halftime, but she had plenty of help. Morrow continued her hot shooting behind the arc, finishing with 13 points, and senior guard Carly Ormerod provided a much-needed lift off the bench in her longest outing since the Xavier game on Dec. 2.
“I think that she played very good today and she was a steady influence on us at time,” Mitchell said of Ormerod, who finished with nine points and three assists in 23 minutes. “She made, what I like to call, experienced, senior-type plays today. She got a big offensive rebound, got fouled and went to the line when we were trying to score. Those types of plays show you her court savvy.”
UK continued its late first-half rally with a 14-0 run early in the second half, holding Arkansas without a point for 7:23. The Wildcats roared to the 48-34 lead thanks to a couple of key three-pointers and finished with a season-high eight three-pointers.
“We have more confidence,” Franklin said of the Wildcats' perimeter shooting. “Me, Carly Morrow and the rest of the team have the mentality that the shot will go in. Early on, if we missed our first shot, then we would think we were having a bad shooting night. We need to keep believing the shots will go in.”
The game appeared to be in full control after another Morrow three-pointer and an Ormerod steal midway through the second half – the Wildcats finished with 11 steals, just three short of their season-high 14 takeaways – but Arkansas got it as close four points with a minute to go.
Arkansas guard and Louisville, Ky., native Ceira Ricketts, who finished with 13 points, led the late second-half run, but it wasn't enough. The Wildcats closed the game at the charity stripe, making 9-of-10 free throws down the stretch for their first conference win.
“The bottom line is that we found a way to win and that is great because in this league they are tough to come by,” Mitchell said. “I think that mental toughness and having enthusiasm for what we are doing is our blueprint for success and I look forward to us to have more success in the conference season.”