CINCINNATI – Senior forward Lydia Watkins (Hopkinsville, Ky.) came off the bench to record a career-high 18 points and grab a season-high nine rebounds and three steals in helping the Kentucky women’s basketball team advance to 8-0 and survive a scare by Cincinnati, 68-57 on Friday morning.
UK is 8-0 for the first time since 2005-06 and is just one win shy of tying the school record set by the 1980-81 squad at 9-0.
“I’m very proud of our team today as we overcame very difficult segments in the game to get a really tough win against a team that a highly-motivated team in Cincinnati, UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. We anticipated a tough game and that’s what we got. I am proud of our players for bouncing back and getting the win.”
Watkins had a near perfect game, hitting 6-of-7 from the field, 6-of-6 from the charity stripe, while grabbing a game-high nine rebounds, including seven defensive boards, a career-high tying three steals, a block and an assist. Junior Carly Morrow (Chattanooga, Tenn.) followed with 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-9 from three-point land while fellow juniors Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.) and Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.) added 11 and 10 points, respectively.
“Lydia Watkins came to play,” Mitchell said. “She had an incredible practice on Wednesday and I was so happy to see her come out and play the way she did today.”
It was a hard-fought battle from the start and once again UK had to rely on its defense prowess. The Cats forced 25 turnovers which resulted in 30 points. The Cats have now forced 20-plus turnovers six times this season, including five in a row.
Despite hitting just 13 of 39 attempts (33.3 percent) in the first half, the Wildcats’ aggressive defense forced 17 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. UK seemed to be taking command of the game as it led by 10 (28-18) with 4:41 to go in the half. However, the Bearcats’ hot shooting kept them close. UC, which shot 47.6 percent (10-of-21) in the first half, pulled back within four points after back-to-back three-pointers from Shanasa Sanders and Stephanie Stevens. UK held a slight 32-26 lead at the break and the momentum had shifted to UC’s favor.
The Bearcats (2-5) picked up where they left off after the half, jumping out to a 21-7 run in the opening minutes of the second stanza. Carla Jacobs sparked the comeback, scoring six of her team-high 15 points in the run. The Bearcats had their first lead of the game at the 15:48 mark and their largest lead at eight (47-39) with 12:51 to go.
“We came out and uncharacteristic of us, didn’t play good defense,” Mitchell said. “It’s good for our team to learn that defense is where our energy and intensity comes from. Our offense will work itself out but I thought we were hanging our head early in first half. Cincinnati got motivated and took a lead and we finally started playing defense again. That’s what made things happened and I’m proud of the way we finished defensively.”
The Cats responded with an 11-0 run to regain a three-point lead (50-47) with 7:33 left in the game. During that run, the Cats’ defense was the difference. UK forced two shot-clock violations and Dunlap swatted one of her game-high three blocks.
Again UC had an answer as Jacobs tied the game with a three-pointer in the corner, knotting the score at 56 apiece with 3:06 to go. From there, it was all Kentucky. The Wildcats went on a 12-0 run in the final three minutes sparked by crucial jumpers by Smith and freshman A’dia Mathies (Louisville, Ky.). Watkins also scored three consecutive points and Morrow recorded a steal and a layup to seal the 11-point victory.
“Cincinnati had a good game plan and that was to send a lot of attention Victoria’s way,” Mitchell said. “We have other people that can step up and make shots so we can’t panic offensively. At times we got in a hurry and took bad shots but I was pleased to see us bounce back on road against a great opponent.”
UK’s offensive production greatly improved in the second half as it shot 51.0 percent and 40.9 percent for the game. The Cats held Cincinnati to 44.4 percent shooting and has now held all eight opponents to under 50 percent this season.
After a short break, UK returns to action Sunday, Dec. 13 vs. Florida A&M at 1 p.m. EST in Memorial Coliseum. The game will be televised live on the Big Blue Sports Network and FSN South. It will mark the first of three straight home games for the Cats.