LEXINGTON, Ky. – Junior forward Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.) had a game-high 22 points, senior forward Lydia Watkins (Hopkinsville, Ky.) grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds, and the 25th-ranked Kentucky women’s basketball team used a dominating first half to defeat Arkansas 69-52 Thursday night in Memorial Coliseum.
“It was a great win for us tonight and I thought that the players came out with outstanding energy and effort,” UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They had excellent mental focus tonight. It is tough to play Arkansas because they throw a lot of different looks at you and you have to be in tune with what your responsibilities are. I am very proud of the team. We had a huge night on the boards and were plus-10 in the turnover category. That always means that you are going to have a good night. I am really proud of this victory.”
Kentucky (15-3, 3-2 SEC) executed solid rebounding and used a dominant defensive presence right out of the gate to break open a slim five-point lead less than five minutes into the game. The Wildcats went on a 13-3 run to take a 24-10 lead at 11:56 in the first half, thanks to three offensive rebounds and a four-point scoring spurt by reserve point guard Crystal Riley (Memphis, Tenn.).
“I thought that Crystal was terrific in the first half. She didn’t play a great second half, but, man, she was fantastic in the first half,” Mitchell said. “The way that we were able to build our lead was transition offense and that is where depth and talent really helps you. We are a little bit deeper then we have been and have a little bit more talent. The players were very committed in the first half to running the floor and getting in transition. I was very happy to see that because that was one of the main points before the game that I asked them to do.”
When the Wildcats weren’t forcing turnovers and getting points in transition, they were upsetting the Razorbacks’ offensive rhythm and forcing bad shots. UK held Arkansas (8-11, 0-6 SEC) to 28.6 percent (8-of-28) shooting and just 21 first-half points, the second-fewest points scored by a UK opponent this season. Nine of the 10 Wildcats that saw action scored at least one point in the first half as UK took a 16-point lead (37-21) and never led by fewer than a dozen points the rest of the game.
Sophomore guard Rebecca Gray (Georgetown, Ky.) had eight points and four rebounds off the bench, and freshman guard A’dia Mathies (Louisville, Ky.) and junior point guard Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.) added seven points apiece to help the Wildcats extend their home win streak to 13 consecutive games. The streak ties for the fourth-longest in school history.
“We are building a really special home-court advantage here with big crowds and a lot of enthusiasm in the stands,” Mitchell said. “It makes a big difference. I credit our team. They are really giving the fans something to come out and watch. There were some outstanding plays out there tonight. I am proud of our players for that. I want to really thank the fans though, because this game coming up on Sunday with Auburn is absolutely crucial. It is very critical for us to win that game Sunday. We need a big Sunday afternoon crowd to come out and help us win.”
Although not the tallest team in the SEC, Kentucky used its athleticism and strong will to control the glass, 49-37. The plus-12 margin is the highest against an SEC foe since grabbing 12 more than LSU last season on Feb. 22.
“The hard thing is (Lydia) Watkins and (Victoria) Dunlap,” Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said. “Those kids are just ultra aggressive. I’m going to go back and look at the tape where we had inside position on them and they literally jumped over the top of us and rebounded the ball out of our hands or deflected the ball and went and picked up the loose ball. I give Kentucky credit for that. They are not a big team and for them to rebound the basketball, is a lot of heart on their part. Obviously, Dunlap is extremely athletic and I don’t think there is any question, especially early when they built their lead on us, that they hurt us on the boards.”
Arkansas was led by guard Lyndsay Harris with 14 points and Louisville native C’eira Ricketts added 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
The Wildcats had extra incentive to grab a win as former UK football coach Rich Brooks and his wife Karen were honored prior to the game. The coaching staff and team presented him with the game ball from their win over No. 17/16 Vanderbilt on Jan. 10.
“Coach Brooks gave us a pregame pep talk right there at half court and that was really special for our team to have Coach Brooks and Karen Brooks there,” Mitchell said. “They have meant so much to this university and have meant a great deal to our athletic department and our basketball team. I was just thrilled that we could have a big win with him and Karen here.”
Kentucky concludes its three-game homestand Sunday when it plays host to Auburn for Alumni Day and National Girls and Women in Sports Day. Game time is set for 2 p.m. EST and it will be televised on the SEC Network. Special guests Stacey Reed-Sheppard (former UK women’s basketball player), Mallory Blackwelder (former Wildcat golfer), and Ashley Trimble (former UK track standout) will join student-athletes from each of UK’s female varsity sports teams for a pre-game autograph session that begins at 1 p.m. A special limited edition poster will be available for the first 1,000 fans.