Kentucky women’s basketball has its first signature win of the season.
The Wildcats used a scoring surge at the end of the first half to establish a lead over West Virginia that didn’t slip, eventually leading to an 83-60 Kentucky win on Wednesday night inside Memorial Coliseum in a game that was part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. UK is now 3-1 all-time in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
The Mountaineers were ranked through the first three Associated Press polls of the season, but fell out of this week’s rankings after a weekend loss to BYU.
Nonetheless, Wednesday night marked a quality win for head coach Kyra Elzy’s team — which welcomed back sophomore forward Nyah Leveretter for the first time this season from a non-COVID illness — against what will likely be an NCAA Tournament team in West Virginia. It was a triumph that could pay dividends for UK come March.
The star: Dre’una Edwards had her second straight double-double for the Wildcats with 19 points and 10 rebounds. It’s her second double-double of the season and the 13th of her college career.
The stats: Rhyne Howard led UK in scoring with a season-high 27 points and was joined in double-figures scoring by Edwards (19) and freshman guard Jada Walker (13).
The status: Kentucky improved to 5-1. West Virginia fell to 4-2.
1. DRE’UNA EDWARDS CONTINUES TO BE A FORCE ON BOTH ENDS.
For the second straight game, and the second time this season, Edwards recorded a double-double for UK with 19 points and 10 rebounds. She also had six of UK’s 10 blocks in the win.
Edwards was a steady presence across all quarters on Wednesday night, scoring at least five points and grabbing at least three rebounds in each of the first three quarters of the game.
Edwards entered the West Virginia contest averaging 19.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, and she has been a consistent presence at both ends of the court, a reflection of the offseason work she put in to get in better shape.
Edwards has failed to score in double figures only once this season, during a foul-plagued outing on the road at No. 6 Indiana.
Her scoring (at least 19 points scored in the non-Indiana games) has come in a variety of ways this season, with points coming from shots in the lane as well as from three-point range, not to mention Edwards’ ability to lead the fast break.
2. KENTUCKY DEFENSE STIFLES WEST VIRGINIA.
While the Wildcats on offense shot better than 50% from the field, West Virginia was stifled not so much by the full-court press of UK’s defense, but its ability to eliminate quality shots in the halfcourt.
UK forced only 15 West Virginia turnovers, but the Mountaineers shot just 37% from the field and 33.3% from the floor during the second quarter when Kentucky established what became an insurmountable lead.
“We really focused this week on our halfcourt defensive execution, helping outside the paint, getting the rotation, finishing our defense with a box out,” Elzy said. “Our ball screen defense, West Virginia runs a lot of ball screens, so staying in the right coverage, which was a step forward for us.”
Kentucky’s defensive system is based around being fast-paced and frenetic and pressuring the opponent into turnovers, but on Wednesday the Wildcats showed they could also simply just force a quality team to take bad shots.
Elzy is rarely more fired up on the sideline than when UK forces a 30-second shot clock violation, which has been a common sight in recent games.
“I just feel like we took pride in our defense today,” said senior point guard Jazmine Massengill.
At the opposite end of the court, Kentucky’s halfcourt offense also looked crisper and that included the Wildcats making a bevy of shots from distance.
UK went 11-of-19 from behind the three-point line, with Howard, who scored a season-best 27 points, making five of her seven attempts and Edwards making three of her four shots from deep.
“It’s really hard to guard. We’re very versatile and it’s dangerous when your five (Edwards) on the floor can step out and hit threes,” Elzy said. “We got some threes in transition, but also off dribble penetration and kick.”
“They hit a lot more threes than I thought they were going to hit,” West Virginia head coach Mike Carey said, while calling Howard a top-five player in the country. “Howard is a great player, we knew (about) her coming in. But we didn’t expect those other (players) to hit all those threes. That kind of surprised us.”
How did Kentucky’s players respond to that statement?
“If you come out focusing on one person when the other four can do stuff (then) it’s never going to go your way,” Howard said.
“I think everybody on the team can shoot,” Edwards added.
3. JAZMINE MASSENGILL PROVES VALUE AS DISTRIBUTOR.
For the third straight game and the fourth time this season, Massengill had at least six assists in a game.
Massengill finished Wednesday night’s contest with six points on 2-for-3 shooting from the field to go along with a season-high nine assists, four rebounds and only one turnover. Massengill hasn’t committed more than two turnovers in a game this season and is shooting better than 52% from the field through six games.
“I pride myself on not turning the ball over and putting my teammates in positions to score,” Massengill said.
Massengill isn’t shooting that frequently though, having only attempted more than five shots in a game once this season.
“We want Jaz to shoot more, we tell her that all the time,” Edwards said. “But I love that she’s a pass-first point guard. I just know I’m not going to get any dumb plays from her ... we know at the end of the day she’s not going to shoot any dumb shots ... she’s going to get us the ball where we need the ball.”
Elzy is still looking for the Wildcats to strike the correct balance in their halfcourt offense, as UK has at times gone too fast and at other times gone too slow when cycling through its offense.
Elzy said Wednesday night she thought the Wildcats slowed down and hit a “good, medium speed” in their halfcourt offense.
Massengill — a second-year UK player who spent her first two college seasons at Tennessee — was deputized by Elzy this offseason to run the show on offense after joining the starting lineup to close last season.
Through good decision-making and an understanding of when to push and pull the strings of the offense, Massengill is beginning to repay that faith shown in her.
“She’s a veteran point guard, she understands the pace, she understands the offense, what we’re looking for,” Elzy said of Massengill. “She is the coach on the floor. She has a calming presence about herself.”
Following its biggest win of the season to date, Kentucky will face Merrimack College on Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum. The game will be another tune-up opportunity for the Wildcats ahead of a Power Conference opponent next Thursday night, when UK faces DePaul in Rupp Arena. Merrimack, out of the Northeast Conference, is 2-4 and has played exclusively against other Northeast-based colleges this season.
Merrimack at No. 16 Kentucky
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)