Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell likes to call them winning plays. They happen once or twice a game, and often times they're the difference between a win and a loss.
Coming into UK's matchup with Louisiana State on Sunday, the Wildcats knew they would have to make a couple of those plays if they hoped to end the Lady Tigers' now 15-game winning streak over them. The Wildcats made a few of those game-changers during a 12-2 run midway through the second half, but they were unable to make them down the stretch when it counted.
As a result, the Cats (12-8, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) dropped their second straight game with a 59-56 loss Sunday afternoon (10-7, 3-2 SEC) in front of a “Pack the House” crowd of 5,027 (second-largest attendance of the season) at Memorial Coliseum. It's the first time UK has lost back-to-back games since dropping a pair of games to East Tennessee State and Louisville in mid-December.
“We just missed opportunity after opportunity,” Mitchell said. “Two Sundays in a row we've been in competitive games where you have to make what I call ‘winning plays.’ LSU made those plays and we didn't.”
UK did have a chance to tie the game after LSU's Allison Hightower made a pair of free throws with seven seconds left, but Amber Smith's (Winter Haven, Fla.) last-second three-pointer grazed the front of the iron and bounced harmlessly to the hardwood. Mitchell said the Wildcats got the look they had hoped for.
“There are not a lot of options right there and obviously they aren't going to let you shoot a three so we told Amber to drive and kick,” Mitchell said. “A lot of times when you drive it, there is a natural instinct for them to come off of you and that can be your best look. It looked clean but I will have to go back and see.”
But UK's last-second opportunity to end a decade-long streak didn't come without capitalizing on a couple of chances earlier in the game.
Senior Eleia Roddy (Columbus, Ohio) continued her dominant play on the interior with a game- and career-high 22 points and nine rebounds. With the help of sophomore Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.), who notched her 10th career and third straight double-double, UK outscored LSU 28-16 in the paint.
“Our perimeter defense was excellent, but on the post we couldn't guard Eleia Roddy,” LSU Coach Van Chancellor said.
Roddy scored 12 of UK's first 23 points, but the Wildcats were unable to take a lead heading into halftime (23-27).
The Wildcats trailed by as many as seven early in the second half, but UK went on a 12-2 run behind the interior play of Dunlap. After a relatively quiet first half by her standards, Dunlap ripped off five straight points inside the paint to put UK within two.
UK took the lead on the following possession when junior guard Amani Franklin (Stone Mountain, Ga.) drilled a three-pointer from the right wing, but the Wildcats’ lone trey on the afternoon would prove to be the ultimate difference.
While UK struggled to find its mark from the outside – the Wildcats made just one of their 15 three-point attempts (.067 percent) – while LSU got production from the perimeter from an unlikely source.
Junior guard Andrea Kelly, who entered Sunday with just 14 career treys, knocked down a career-high five three-pointers to tie a career-high 15 points. Kelly's three-pointer with 5:37 left in the game gave LSU a 49-45 lead, an advantage they would never relinquish.
“We just had too many breakdowns and Kelly got too many open looks,” Mitchell said. “We knew that she was really their only three-point threat and she really shot well today.”
LSU got 18 points from Hightower and 10 from another unlikely source in senior Kristen Morris – she scored 10 after averaging only 2.8 points per game all season – but the winning plays Mitchell referenced came from the perimeter.
“It was the difference in the game today,” Mitchell said. “We had some good looks from three-point range and we have to try to take advantage of those opportunities and we didn't.”
The Lady Tigers now lead the overall series 27-7, including a 10-3 advantage when the game is played in Lexington. UK will face LSU again on Feb. 22 in Baton Rouge, La.