Ahead of another significant non-conference test later this week, the Kentucky women’s basketball program took care of business Sunday inside Memorial Coliseum with a 34-point home victory over Merrimack College.
It was a win over a team UK should easily handle, although there were periods of the game when UK head coach Kyra Elzy wasn’t pleased with the way her team operated its offense or took care of the basketball.
Nonetheless, it was an expected win for Kentucky that turned out as such ahead of the team’s first game at Rupp Arena this season on Thursday night against DePaul.
The star: Rhyne Howard led UK in scoring with 21 points, just a couple days after having her high school jersey retired at Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tennessee. Howard now has 1,799 points for her UK career, and Howard passed Makayla Epps on the UK scoring leaderboard on Sunday. Howard is now fourth all-time in UK women’s basketball history in points scored.
The stats: Joining Howard in double-digits scoring for Kentucky was Dre’una Edwards with 17 points, Jazmine Massengill with 13 and Robyn Benton with 12.
The status: Kentucky improved to 6-1. Merrimack fell to 2-5.
1. BALANCED SCORING EFFORT LEADS WILDCATS.
While Howard led Kentucky in points Sunday afternoon with 21, it was a balanced scoring day across the board.
Eight different UK players scored in the win, and they had all scored by halftime. The 30 assists recorded by UK were the most for the team in a game since 2015.
Four different UK players finished in double-digits scoring, including senior point guard Jazmine Massengill.
It was a season-best scoring output for Massengill, who finished with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field. It was the first time this season Massengill attempted more than six shots in a game.
Massengill has described herself as a pass-first point guard, but has said that her teammates frequently encourage her to shoot more. Elzy also wants Massengill to shoot more.
“It’s an everyday battle, everyday conversation,” Massengill said of talking with Elzy about shooting more. “It’s not that I don’t want to shoot, it’s just I’m pass-first and I want to get my teammates so involved that sometimes it kind of hurts me.”
Massengill leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and recorded eight assists and two turnovers Sunday in 27 minutes. Elzy said Massengill is cognitive of her assist-to-turnover ratio, but she wants Massengill to take the same approach to hunting shots.
“She’s really efficient when she shoots the ball,” Elzy said. “She just doesn’t shoot them enough.”
As far as UK’s leading scorer, Howard said she didn’t cry this week when returning to Bradley Central for her high school jersey retirement ceremony, but that it was great to return home.
“Being around everyone who supports me and (is) happy for me, then to see my jersey be up there it’s great,” Howard said. “It’s always great to achieve something that big.”
2. UK GETS SLOPPY WITH THE BALL, THEN CORRECTS ITSELF.
The final result was never truly in question Sunday, as the Wildcats led by at least six points from the 7:50 mark of the first quarter onward.
But that didn’t mean Kentucky’s performance was without faults. UK committed nine first-half turnovers against Merrimack, and there were several moments during the opening half when Elzy yelled from the bench for UK to show better effort or positioning when going for loose balls.
“I thought we were playing careless. We did not take care of the ball, did not have the intensity in which I was looking for offensively or defensively,” Elzy said of her team’s first-half effort.
The Wildcats corrected themselves in the second half. UK committed just three turnovers in the final 20 minutes.
Rebounding was another spot of bother for Kentucky against what should have been an overmatched Merrimack team in that area.
After out-rebounding a larger West Virginia team, 43-28, in Wednesday’s win, UK was out-rebounded by Merrimack on Sunday, 34-32.
Elzy said the team’s poor showing on the glass would be addressed in practice this week.
3. KENTUCKY CONTINUES TO FIND CONTINUITY WITH STARTING LINEUP.
For the sixth straight game, Kentucky used the same starting lineup of guards Massengill, Benton, Howard, Treasure Hunt and Edwards at forward.
Hunt has worn a face mask while playing in the last two games after suffering a facial injury in the second half against La Salle on Nov. 27.
Kentucky is now 5-1 this season with that starting lineup, which Elzy has said affords the Wildcats versatility on both ends of the court.
The Wildcats have also settled into a familiar substitution pattern, with freshman guard Jada Walker usually the first player off the UK bench, followed by redshirt junior center Olivia Owens. That was the first-quarter substitution pattern for UK again on Sunday, with sophomore forward Nyah Leveretter also entering her second game of the season, followed by junior guard Emma King.
Despite being down a projected starter in Blair Green after she ruptured her right Achilles during the preseason, Kentucky is now back to having nine scholarship players available to play.
Kentucky will carry the momentum of a four-game winning streak into another marquee matchup on Thursday night when UK faces DePaul in Rupp Arena. That game will be one of two contests that the UK women’s basketball team will play in Rupp Arena this season, with the other coming Jan. 23 against Ole Miss. DePaul, out of the Big East Conference, was 6-2 entering a game against Xavier on Sunday night. The Blue Demons had already defeated one SEC team this season (Vanderbilt) and lost to another (Texas A&M). DePaul has already begun conference play.
DePaul at No. 16 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
TV: SEC Network