UK women’s basketball has dominated Auburn. On Thursday, the Tigers turned the tables.
The University of Kentucky women’s basketball team has had a rough go of things since Southeastern Conference play began, but Thursday night promised a potential return to solid footing.
Entering their game against Auburn in Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats had defeated the Tigers eight times in a row and 15 out of the past 16 meetings.
In this season of rebuilding for Kentucky, not even a date with Auburn could restore order. Aicha Coulibaly scored 20 points, Sania Wells added 16 and Auburn forced 20 Wildcats turnovers on the way to a 71-68 victory.
The win ended Auburn’s 20-game SEC road losing streak as the Tigers scored their first league win away from home since topping Missouri on Feb. 27, 2020.
The loss dropped Kentucky to 9-11 overall and 1-7 in conference play. Auburn improved to 12-8 and 2-6. Now, only Vanderbilt (0-7) is keeping UK out of the SEC cellar.
“Obviously, this is a new team,” UK head coach Kyra Elzy said after the loss. “And, you know, we have to find a way to finish. I talked about it in pregame to them. It’s not what you want to do or how you think you should do it. It’s what we need to do. And all of the intangibles. In this league, every possession matters. We can’t take any possessions off, whether it’s hitting a free throw, whether it’s getting a box out, whether it’s finishing a layup. We need all of the intangibles to finish. As you see, these games are coming down to one possession. And you never know which possession it’s going to be.”
Five of Kentucky’s eight SEC games have been decided by six points or less. The Wildcats entered this season with 10 new players — four transfers and six freshmen on their 15-player roster.
UK began this one with the familiar lineup of Robyn Benton, Blair Green, Jada Walker, Maddie Scherr and Nyah Leveretter — for the 14th game this season — a grouping that has produced a 6-8 record.
But the first half saw multiple lineup combinations. Elzy tried 11 separate players in the first 20 minutes but, regardless who was on the floor, UK could not find lasting momentum.
Communication issues plagued the Cats on offense all game, with unforced errors paving the way for a Tigers lead. Despite Kentucky’s struggles, UK trailed Auburn only 38-35 at halftime. In the second quarter, UK leaned on Adebola Adeyeye on both ends of the floor. Her four points, three rebounds and tight defense against the 6-foot Coulibaly kept the Wildcats within striking distance.
In the first half alone, UK gave up 21 points off its 12 turnovers, while failing to capitalize in a similar fashion. On the Tigers’ 12 first-half turnovers, UK only gained six points.
Kentucky went a stretch of 6:48 in the third quarter without a point and by period’s end trailed 59-50.
But the Cats clawed back. Benton made a three-pointer, a pull-up jumper and a free throw to spark a 10-3 Kentucky run at the outset of the fourth quarter as UK trimmed the Auburn lead to 62-60.
UK mounted its comeback behind the continued strong defensive effort of Adeyeye, who helped limit Coulibaly to three points in the final quarter. When Adeyeye had to sub out with her fourth foul, the Buffalo transfer was rewarded with a standing ovation by fans around Memorial. Adeyeye later returned but eventually fouled out.
Walker, who leads the Wildcats in steals this season, kept Kentucky in the fight with a swipe and layup with 1:02 to play that made it 68-66. Following a pair of free throws from Auburn’s Wells, Walker answered with two made foul shots of her own, and it was 70-68.
UK then forced a turnover, Auburn’s 16th of the night, and called a timeout with 15.5 seconds remaining.
Kentucky barely beat a five-second count in inbounding the ball, freshman Kennedy Cambridge missed a leaning shot in the paint with six seconds to go and Auburn forced a jump ball in a scramble for the rebound. The Tigers tacked on a free throw to close out the win.
“We were in the bonus,” Elzy explained. “We rearranged the lineup. Obviously, I want the ball in Maddie, Jada or Robyn Benton’s hands, so we shuffled the alignment. We needed something quick and going downhill because we were in the bonus, trying to turn the corner and get to the rim, shoot a layup, or get fouled. You’re only down by two. The ball went back to Robyn — which, we want it in her hands — and then we didn’t read it from there. The ball went to a freshman, and she was trying to make a play downhill, which we needed, but we can’t put her in that position.”
Benton led the Wildcats with 19 points. Scherr delivered 16 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. Walker contributed 14 points, three rebounds and a steal.
Adeyeye finished with six points, six rebounds, two blocks, two steals and an assist in 16 minutes off the bench.
“I was so proud of Ade, and our whole post group. ... ” Elzy said. “I thought Ade brought the defensive energy that we needed. She made some big buckets down the stretch. Huge defensive plays. And then Nyah Leveretter: 11 boards, six of them offensively, five points. So, I thought today, they brought what we need to continue to move this team forward.”
This was the Wildcats’ annual We Back Pat game, honoring the Pat Summitt Foundation and its quest to put an end to Alzheimer’s. During the first half, the Pat Summitt Foundation awarded UK’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging with a $25,000 grant for its extensive research.
Missouri at Kentucky
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Missouri 14-7 (3-5 SEC), Kentucky 9-11 (1-7)
Series: Kentucky leads 10-5
Last meeting: Missouri won 74-71 on Dec. 29, 2022, in Columbia, Mo.