After last week's 67-57 victory at Alabama, UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell stressed the importance about winning ugly and finding a way to win in the Southeastern Conference when then Wildcats don't play their best ball.
Mitchell must have seen what was coming.
Trying to beat Mississippi State at home for the first time since 1998, the UK women's basketball team (12-7, 2-2 SEC) dropped its second conference game of the season, losing to the Lady Bulldogs 52-45 on Sunday in front of 4,672 fans at Memorial Coliseum. It was just the second Wildcat loss in the last nine games.
“It's a terribly disappointing day for our team,” Mitchell said. “We played very poorly. I would like to congratulate Mississippi State on their good effort. They made the necessary adjustments in the game and we did not. They came back from a big deficit to really put it on us so it's a very disappointing day for us. I feel terrible about the game.”
If UK was going to beat Mississippi State at home for the first time in more than a decade, it wasn't going to be as easy as the first six minutes appeared.
The Wildcats opened the game on a 12-0 run, holding the Lady Bulldogs without a point until the 14:10 mark. As stingy as the UK defense was, the offense got things rolling early behind the passing of Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.).
The sophomore point guard dished out three early assists, all which led to uncontested layups. But everything was contested from there on out.
“They switched to a zone defense and we just couldn't crack the code after that,” Mitchell said. “It was like we were in a mystery novel and couldn't get out of it.”
Playing against the nation's best shot blocking team, the Wildcats had trouble even getting their shots off much less find the rim. Mississippi State, which came into Sunday averaging 7.5 blocks per game, rejected seven UK shots and held the Wildcats to just 31.6 percent shooting from the floor, including a dismal 15.4 percent from behind the arc.
Mitchell said MSU's shot-blocking presence definitely was a factor in UK's cold shooting.
“I would think that would be a logical conclusion to make,” Mitchell said. “Victoria (Dunlap) missed two one-foot shots in there. I don't have any other explanation other than she thought her shot was going to get blocked. She's one of the most athletic players in the conference and for her to miss those tells me their shot-blocking presence definitely had an effect on us.”
After hitting their first four shots, the Wildcats managed just four more buckets over their next 22 shots. Yet, UK clung to a lead for most of the first half and even headed to the locker room with a 23-21 halftime lead.
The Wildcats' shooting woes finally caught up with them in the second half. After MSU forward Chanel Mokango drilled a 15-foot jumper from the right baseline to go up 33-31, the Lady Bulldogs never looked back.
UK rallied in the final minutes on a couple of baskets from sophomore forward Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.) and a three-pointer from sophomore guard Carly Morrow (Chattanooga, Tenn.), but UK never got it any closer than three.
Senior forward/center Eleia Roddy (Columbus, Ohio) paced the Wildcats with a game-high 18 points and Dunlap notched her ninth career and second straight double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds, but it was Mokango who proved to be the difference.
The junior forward came up with timely jumpers throughout the evening and gave UK fits in the paint. Mokango finished the game with 15 points, nine rebounds, including four offensive rebounds, and three blocks.
“They definitely weren't weak and brought it to us,” Dunlap said. “They were strong down low getting offensive rebounds and pushing us around the basket and we didn't do a good job of pushing them out down there.”
As much as the Wildcats struggled on offense, they did finish their end of the bargain on the defensive end. UK held MSU to just 35.7 percent shooting and kept the Lady Bulldogs' best scorer at bay all game long.
Junior guard Alexis Rack, who came into Sunday averaging a team-best 14.2 points per game, didn't score her first points until nailing a huge trey with only 4:44 left to go in the game. She finished with just five points.
Still, the Wildcats' worst shooting night since netting just 31.3 percent of their shots against Western Kentucky on Dec. 4 ultimately cost them their five-game home winning streak.