‘It’s OK to be uncomfortable.’ UK’s dedication to conditioning changing its game.

·4 min read

A large amount of the optimism expressed at the Kentucky women’s basketball team’s Media Day on Monday morning centered around the team’s fitness, and simply put, how much better it is this season than last.

Head coach Kyra Elzy said several players on the UK roster are in the best shape of their lives entering the 2021-22 season.

Specifically, Elzy cited redshirt juniors center Olivia Owens and forward Dre’una Edwards, who Elzy said lost about 20 pounds this offseason, as well as senior guard Rhyne Howard as players that had a productive offseason from a nutrition and weight room standpoint.

A direct correlation between offseason conditioning and potential on-court production was drawn by Elzy when discussing Edwards, who averaged 9.7 points and 19.7 minutes per game in her first season in Lexington.

“We probably can keep her out of foul trouble because some of the fouls that she would receive is probably because she was not at the fitness level that she needed to be in,” Elzy said of Edwards, who had the most personal fouls of any UK player last season with 69 and was tied with Howard for the team-high in fouls per game at 2.6.

“There were times where I was super tired and I was like, ‘Ah, I’m just going to foul,’” Edwards said, well aware of the frustration this caused Elzy.

Edwards began her college career at Utah and was named the 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year despite tearing her ACL at the end of the 2019 season. Now, Edwards said she feels like a better version of herself from freshman year.

“Usually she’s really just (at) one speed, but now we let her get the ball and she can go make a play coast-to-coast because she finishes a lot more around the rim,” Howard said of the new-look Edwards.

“Offensively it helps us so much,” Elzy added. “She’s leading the break, she’s shooting the three, she’s crashing the offensive rebounds. You will see a different Dre Edwards this year.”

Following a summer playing with United States women’s basketball team — helping the Americans win the gold medal at the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup in Puerto Rico — Elzy said Howard is also in the best shape of her life, something that’s added to Howard’s confidence and her ability to outlast defenders with extending playing time.

“Her fitness, we really talked about last year, her being able to play 30-plus minutes drawing the best defenders,” Elzy said. “She received a lot of body shots last year.”

Howard’s commitment to the weight room should also help her in the post. Elzy said an offseason focus for Howard was learning how to post up more consistently and finish.

“It’s just an added threat, because she (Elzy) always has the wings in the post working on moves and rebounding,” Howard said. “I can definitely feel that I’ve gotten stronger and faster.”

The man helping spur this development for the Wildcats is Lee Taylor, who was named the head strength and conditioning coach for the UK women’s basketball program in May.

Taylor previously worked with the Auburn and Tennessee women’s basketball programs.

“With Coach Taylor, he’s pushing us out of our comfort zone so much,” Howard said. “Like we really have no choice but to get stronger and faster.”

“Our girls have really responded to him,” Elzy added. “Then we spent a summer also committing to nutrition to make sure that we’re fueling our bodies in order to play how we want to play, up-tempo and aggressive defensively.”

One of the reasons so many Kentucky players have bought in and benefited from Taylor’s strength and conditioning work is because of the example he sets.

When the Wildcats have a 6 a.m. workout, Edwards said Taylor is in the team facility at 3:30 a.m. working out himself and running laps.

“He pushes us and he motivates us to keep going all the time,” Edwards said. “It’s to a point where we see him doing things that he’s not comfortable with. We know that he’s doing that for us to show us it’s OK to be uncomfortable.”

“Coach Lee has worked tirelessly getting us in better shape. Coach Elzy’s worked tirelessly getting us in better shape as well,” senior guard Jazmine Massengill added. “We’re definitely in good shape.”

Important upcoming UK dates

Nov. 4: Exhibition vs. Lee University, 7 p.m. (No TV)

Nov. 9: Season opener vs. Presbyterian, 7 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

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