By LARRY VAUGHT
Last season was disappointing from a result standpoint to Kentucky women’s coach Matthew Mitchell. But don’t call it a disappointing season.
“We had a great run of eight straight NCAA Tournament, so it was disappointing not to do that again,” said Mitchell. “Our record was disappointing but it was not a disappointing season from a developmental view.
“We had a great summer talking about the lessons we learned last season. We certainly have things to correct but we also made progress against a difficult schedule. We just did not have quite enough experience to get it done by Kentucky standards against a very brutal schedule.
“I can’t explain how well our players have prepared all summer. Having the exhibition trip to Italy really increased our focus. I could not be more proud of how the players immersed themselves in getting all they could out of the trip from educational and cultural experiences but also the great benefits we got as a team. We really have a lot of possibilities this year.”
Kentucky was 15-17 last year and 6-10 in SEC play. However, UK returns senior guards Maci Morris (17.3 points per game, nation’s best 47.5 3-point percentage) and Taylor Murray (11.5 points per game, team-high 136 assists and 67 steals) to lead this year’s team.
“I think we can play more to what our identity has been this year,” Mitchell said. “Play full-court defense, attack on offense.”
He’s excited about freshmen Blair Green of Harlan County and Rhyne Howard of Cleveland, Tenn.
“Blair Green has blown me away from day one with her preparation,” Mitchell said. “She came in prepared. Her motor is running all the time. She can be a major factor on this team if she keeps doing what she has been doing. I do not know how we would keep her off the floor.
“Rhyne was a high school All-American, participated in USA Basketball and was MVP of the FIBA (under 18 Americas Championship) last summer. She is an incredible player with great talent. Both Blair and Rhyne have great length and the versatility to play multiple positions. Both can also really shoot the ball. I see a tremendous contribution coming from both.”
Ogechi Anyagaligbo of Miami is not a freshman, but the 6-1 forward is still a newcomer of sorts. She was the America East Conference Rookie of the Year for Stony Brook in 2015-16 when she led the team in rebounds and blocked shots and was second on the team in scoring and steals. She transferred to UK, sat out the 2016-17 season and then suffered a season-ending knee injury in an exhibition game last season.
“I thought she was poised to play and be a great help for us last year,” Mitchell said. “She has looked great as she has progressed through her injury. Her and Blair and Rhyne along with the added improvement of the returning players have changed the dynamics of this team to where we can go back to a fun style of play. Not having Ogechi hurt us last year from a record standpoint but it might be a blessing in disguise for this year.”
That’s because her injury forced Mitchell to play sophomores Dorie Harrison, Keke McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt more than he probably would have last year if Anyagaligbo had been able to play.
“Our young post players had some great nights last year but also some nights when they had a hard time and they just had to keep playing,” Mitchell said. “Losing a veteran post player we were counting on did force us into playing three freshmen and that was not a great year in the SEC for that to happen because it was a deep and veteran post group in the SEC.
“That was hard on those kids. The results were what they were but those kids grew up from being in the fire because they had no choice but to stay in there. I think you will see the benefits of that difficulty this year and now we also have Ogechi back. So while last year wasn’t what we wanted, there were some benefits of what we went through I am convinced will pay off this year.”