(GREENVILLE, Sc.) – For the Kentucky Women’s Basketball team, the march through the gauntlet of the SEC is never easy. Come tournament time, the path becomes even more arduous. Take down rival Tennessee on quarterfinal Friday, and you’ve got 2nd-seeded Mississippi State waiting in ambush less than 24 hours later. Win that one, and the South Carolina juggernaut will be staring you in the face. Winning three games in three nights is almost too much to ask.

Well, at least Kentucky got one out of three. The Mississippi State Bulldogs withstood another quick Kentucky start to defeat the 3rd-seeded Wildcats 77-59. Thus, the team from Starkville will be the one moving on to face the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks in the finals on Sunday afternoon. It’ll be State’s 5th consecutive SEC Tournament final, a rather impressive feat in and of itself. 

Kentucky jumped out to a 22-10 lead over the Bulldogs behind the play of Rhyne Howard. During the early going, the Wildcats got the ball intentionally and frequently to their star SEC Player of the Year. The Bulldogs—not one to roll over and play dead—took Kentucky’s best punch, chipped away, and eventually captured a 32-30 lead of their own. A Chasity Patterson 3-pointer at the buzzer temporarily restored a 35-32 lead for Kentucky at the half.

Unfortunately for the outnumbered Cat fans in the building, the second half was all Bulldogs. Vic Schaefer’s team ratcheted up their defensive intensity and kept Howard in check. UK’s sophomore guard ended up with 26 points and 7 rebounds but was only 10-of-26 from the field (2-of-12 three-pointers). Chasity Patterson was the only other Wildcat in double figures, finishing with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. 

Kentucky played the entire 2nd half without their starting point guard, Sabrina Haines, who sustained a leg injury late in the second quarter. The real damage, however, was done by the Mississippi State ‘bigs’ inside, as the Bulldogs outrebounded Kentucky 40-29 and outscored the Wildcats 48-26 in points in the paint. 

It didn’t help that Kentucky’s shots just would not fall. For the game, the Cats hit only 22-of-64 (34%) from the field and only 6-of-24 (25%) from behind the arc. With Kentucky being consistently undersized in the paint, shots had to fall to give them a fighting chance to win.

“Just didn’t shoot the ball well enough today,” said Coach Matthew Mitchell in the postgame presser. “I thought that deflated us some there in the fourth quarter. It’s just hard to keep getting stops when you can’t get the ball in the basket.”

Nevertheless, Coach Mitchell was proud of the team’s effort.

“When you make it to Saturday and you’re one of the last four teams standing in the conference tournament, you know you’ve got a good basketball team,” he said. “I’ve always felt like this tournament with the back-to-back games is in many ways harder than the NCAA tournament where you at least get a day of rest in between.”

Kentucky will now have some time to rest and recover before learning their NCAA Tournament fate on Monday, March 16. With the loss tonight, their chances of hosting one of the early rounds took a bit of a hit. Still, that shouldn’t diminish what this team has accomplished.

I just wish a few more of their shots would have fallen tonight.

Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com, or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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