NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Kentucky women's basketball team was confident they could make a deep run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament heading into Thursday.
The confidence might have been there, but on Thursday, the shots were not.
Thursday's first round SEC Tournament between UK and Georgia came down to one glaring weakness: the Lady Bulldogs were hitting shots; the Wildcats were not. Behind a 63.3 percent shooting afternoon, Georgia defeated UK 82-64 in the first round at the Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark.
“I’m very disappointed in this game,” UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We came down here with the intention of winning this tournament.”
Georgia (18-12, 7-7 SEC) used the same stingy 2-3 zone that plagued the Wildcats (15-15, 5-9 SEC) a week ago at Memorial Coliseum, forcing UK to take shots far beyond its comfort zone. Despite taking 13 more shots – thanks in large part to 20 offensive rebounds – UK made 10 fewer shots than the Bulldogs.
“Georgia really pushed our offense out and made us stay very high,” UK assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. “It took us a long time to get in our offense. They were very aggressive at the top which really bothered us.”
Close games plagued UK in the regular season, and for a while, the Wildcats appeared they were going to take another opponent right down to the wire.
The Wildcats fell behind by eight points late in the first half, but that’s when the Wildcats started to turn up the pressure. Six Georgia turnovers in the final 6:54 kept the Lady Bulldogs off the scoreboard for the rest of the half and the Wildcats went into the locker room with a 30-29 lead.
Despite shooting just 25 percent in the first half, it appeared UK was going to ride its late first-half momentum to a win. Seven straight points from UK capped by an Eleia Roddy (Columbus, Ohio) jumper pushed the Wildcats’ lead to 37-29.
“I was very pleased with the way we ended the first half because I didn’t think we played our best basketball, but I did think we were working really hard and fight really hard and able to make some hustle plays,” Mitchell said.
But the one thing that has plagued the Wildcats in close games is that they've been unable to deliver the knockout blow when the other team makes a run. It hasn’t happened often this year, but when Georgia made a run in the second half, UK was unable to respond.
“When we came out with a hot start, I was feeling good about our team, and then they just inexplicably had a drop in energy level and defensively,” Mitchell said. “(It’s) been the most curious thing as a coach (because) that’s been our hallmark all year, that’s been our side of our team.”
A 9-0 Georgia run midway through the second half capped by a Christy Marshall layup gave the Lady Bulldogs a 44-42 lead, an advantage they would never relinquish.
“They were making shots and they were finding open players,” Roddy said. “It was just a breakdown of our defense.”
UK cut it to one point twice on a pair of layups from seniors Carly Ormerod (Louisville, Ky.) and Roddy, but the Lady Bulldogs started to pull away around the eight-minute mark.
Christy Marshall, who scored 17 points, hit back-to-back jumpers to extend the Georgia lead to 53-48, and her jump shot at the 6:37 mark to pull away by 10 points all but broke the Wildcats' back.
“She didn’t play against us a week ago,” Elzy said. “She’s very athletic. I think she really tried to pick on certain players on our team. She can just elevate and shoot over us, and I think that was a big problem today.”
Playing in their final SEC Tournament, Roddy and Ormerod went out in grand fashion. Roddy led the Wildcats with 20 points and five rebounds, and Ormerod chipped in with eight points and a team-high five assists.
Georgia’s Ashely Houts, who burned UK for 26 points in the teams' last matchup, torched UK from behind the arc again. The junior guard nailed 3-of-5 treys and finished with a game-high 22 points.
The loss basically assures the Wildcats will not be making a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Mitchell said UK would likely have to gain the automatic berth by winning the tourney to get into the Big Dance.
With the NCAA Tournament out of the picture, the Wildcats will wait to hear if they get a WNIT bid, which will be announced on March 16.
“We will try to regroup and if there is more basketball to play for us, we will take this game, try to learn from it and try to improve upon it,” Mitchell said.