For the second time this season, the Kentucky women’s basketball team had to play a crucial home game without one of its best players due to a team suspension.
UK lost to DePaul at Rupp Arena in December when the team’s second-leading scorer — redshirt junior forward Dre’una Edwards — was suspended for not upholding the academic standards of the program.
On Thursday night in a Southeastern Conference home game against Florida, Edwards was again suspended by UK head coach Kyra Elzy as the result of a disciplinary matter.
Without Edwards available, and with an already-injured Robyn Benton getting hurt again in the first half, the No. 23-ranked Wildcats suffered a comprehensive home defeat on Thursday night, losing 77-52 to the Gators.
Kentucky never led against Florida, with a 24-10 second quarter scoring advantage in favor of the Gators putting the game firmly out of UK’s reach.
Kentucky has now lost three straight games by at least 20 points to No. 1 South Carolina, No. 5 Tennessee and now Florida.
Thursday night’s 25-point home loss for UK against Florida was Kentucky’s largest margin of defeat at home since Tennessee defeated UK 65-40 on Jan. 17, 2008.
“Right now, we just go back to blue collar … my message to the team (is) ‘We are not victims,’” Elzy said. “Obviously we’re dealing with some adversity, but so are other teams in the country. We just have to bow up, step up to the challenge. That’s what we’ll do.”
The star: There weren’t many positives for UK on Thursday night, but Rhyne Howard led the team in scoring with 17 points. Florida had four players in double-figures scoring: Kiara Smith (25), Alberte Rimdal (15), Zippy Broughton (13) and Jordyn Merritt (10).
The stats: Jada Walker (12 points) and Jazmine Massengill 10 also scored in double figures for UK.
The status: Florida improved to 14-5 overall and 4-2 in the SEC. Kentucky dropped to 8-6 and 1-3.
1. UK ALREADY HAD LITTLE DEPTH, ON THURSDAY IT WAS EVEN LESS.
Kentucky played Florida on Thursday night with just eight players in uniform.
In addition to the suspended Dre’una Edwards, UK freshman walk-on guard Kristen Crenshaw-Gill was not in uniform for the game and was seen with a walking boot on her right foot.
Furthermore, senior guard Robyn Benton was questionable for Thursday’s game with an ankle injury but still suited up and played eight minutes. She was injured in the second quarter on a defensive play at the rim and limped off the court.
Benton didn’t play in the second half.
Elzy said Benton is day-to-day with an injury.
Edwards has started all 12 games that she’s appeared in for Kentucky this season, and is the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder: She averages 15.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest.
Edwards’ suspension particularly hurt UK in the frontcourt, leaving only redshirt junior center Olivia Owens and sophomore forward Nyah Leveretter as the only recognized frontcourt players on the roster. Owens started Thursday night for only the second time this season, and the first time since the season opener on Nov. 9 against Presbyterian College.
It’s also fair to now question Edwards’ reliability given the fact she’s been twice suspended this season for issues within the UK program.
After the game, Elzy said “it’s a disciplinary action that we’re dealing with and we’re dealing with it internally” regarding Edwards’ suspension.
Elzy would not comment further on the suspension or clarify if Edwards would play Sunday afternoon at home against Ole Miss.
Elzy also would not comment when asked by the Herald-Leader if her relationship with Edwards has been affected after suspending her for the second time in less than two months.
Edwards’ suspension Thursday night marked the third disciplinary action taken by Elzy against a player since October. Prior to the start of the season, sophomore guard Erin Toller was dismissed from the team for failing to uphold the standards of the program.
2. UK GETS CRUSHED ON THE GLASS AND INSIDE.
In addition to being an omnipresent part of the UK starting lineup this season, Edwards is central to UK’s inside scoring and interior defense.
Both of those fell apart Thursday night.
Florida enjoyed a 40-16 scoring advantage in the paint and a 48-31 rebounding advantage.
Second-chance points favored the Gators, 12-8, and Florida also had nine blocks to UK’s six.
Three-point shooting also skewed heavily toward Florida: The Gators were 7-for-15 from distance. UK was 4-for-18.
“I think our problems started defensively. We did not have the intensity that I was looking for,” Elzy said. “Offensively, I thought their physical play really bothered us. I didn’t think we handled it early on.”
While Howard is well known for scoring exploits that often power the UK team, Edwards helps the engine run by offering a secondary scoring option and a physical presence that opponents must game plan for.
Taking her out of the lineup has now played a big part in UK’s only two home losses this season.
3. RHYNE HOWARD COULDN’T GET GOING.
With Edwards not playing and Benton’s effectiveness limited, Florida’s defense was able to focus near exclusively on shutting down Howard.
Howard shot a team-high 11 times in the first half, making three of those shots as UK shot just 35.5% from the floor during the opening 20 minutes.
In front of representatives from several WNBA teams, the projected No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft finished with 17 points to go along with 10 rebounds and three assists.
Given the fact UK was down to just seven available players in the second half Thursday, not to mention the quality of the players that were injured, one of Kentucky’s few routes to victory was a standout offensive performance by Howard, the kind of outing she displayed against both Georgia and Tennessee.
But the attention and defensive pressure on her was too much to overcome.
A beleaguered UK team will find little respite in its upcoming schedule. Starting Sunday, Kentucky will play four games in the next eight days. That daunting stretch features three consecutive road contests on Jan. 25 (at Auburn), Jan. 27 (at Vanderbilt) and Jan. 30 (at LSU). But first is Sunday’s home game against Ole Miss (16-2 overall, 4-1 in SEC play) in Rupp Arena. Ole Miss won Thursday night at Texas A&M.
Ole Miss at No. 23 Kentucky
When: Noon Sunday
TV: SEC Network