Milestones conclude 2016-17 season for Kentucky women's basketball

Published: Apr. 20, 2017 at 2:12 PM EDT
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Label the 2016-17 Kentucky women’s basketball season as a success as the Wildcats, paced by 10th-year head coach Matthew Mitchell, continued several milestones that have helped separate the program as one of the nation’s best.

Kentucky finished the season with a 22-11 record, earning its 18th 20-win season, including its eighth straight under Mitchell, which is a program record. The solid season led the Wildcats to another school record as UK played in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth straight season and hosted the first and second rounds of the event for the fourth straight year.

The strong finish led UK to a No. 18 final ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 and a No. 25 final ranking in the USA Today/Coaches Top 25. It is the eighth-straight season the Wildcats have been inside the top 25 of both final listings. UK started its season ranked inside the top 20 of both polls for the seventh straight year.

Kentucky earned its high postseason ranking after defeating some of the best teams in the country during the regular season. The Wildcats took down three ranked opponents during the year, defeating then-No. 14 Miami (Fla.), then-No. 12 Oklahoma and then-No. 3 Mississippi State. UK also earned wins over Belmont, Missouri, Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida, who were either ranked or receiving votes at some point during the season. This was the sixth-straight season that Kentucky has defeated three or more ranked opponents.

Mitchell’s squad, which finished with the No. 14 overall RPI in the final NCAA RPI report, played the second-toughest schedule in the nation in 2016-17 with 25 of its 33 games being played against teams that finished in the top 100 of the NCAA RPI report. The Wildcats played 13 games against top-25 RPI teams with four wins, while it had six wins against RPI top 50 teams. In its 43 years of varsity basketball, the Wildcats have won 87 games against ranked foes with 47 of those wins coming during Mitchell’s tenure.

UK earned nine regular-season non-conference wins and 11 wins in Southeastern Conference play, which was its most league wins since posting 13 in 2012-13. The Wildcats finished 11-5 in conference play and earned a top-four seed in the SEC Tournament. Under Mitchell, Kentucky has finished top four in the league 10 times. The 11-win league season marked the fifth time in program history that UK has won 11 or more conference games, with all five seasons coming during Mitchell’s tenure. The 2016-17 season marked the first time in program history that a UK team won games at Auburn, Ala., at Baton Rouge, La., at Athens, Ga. and at Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Wildcats ended the league slate with one of the biggest wins in program history, taking down third-ranked Mississippi State on Senior Night, 78-75 in overtime. The win was Kentucky’s eighth straight on Senior Night and the second time in the last three seasons the Wildcats have defeated a top-three team on Senior Night.

Kentucky advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament for the eighth-straight season, which is the longest active streak in the league. UK started the tournament run with a 65-55 victory over Alabama. Top-seeded South Carolina got the better of the Wildcats in a thrilling semifinal game, but seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator were named to the SEC All-Tournament Team.

A majority of the season, Kentucky used the starting combination of Epps, Akhator, junior Alyssa Rice and sophomores Taylor Murray and Maci Morris. UK was 18-8 on the year with that starting combination. Although the starting lineup was full of familiar faces, Kentucky’s bench was mostly inexperienced as six of UK’s 11 eligible players played their first career game in a UK jersey during the 2016-17 season.

Even with the inexperience, the Wildcats played disciplined basketball and ranked high nationally and in the league in several statistical categories, including 12th nationally and first in the SEC in fewest total turnovers, 10th nationally and first in the SEC in fewest turnovers per game and 31st nationally and second in the SEC in fewest personal fouls per game.

Akhator and Epps put together All-America type seasons for Kentucky leading the Wildcats in nearly every statistical category. Akhator finished the season averaging 15.9 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game with a team-best 29 blocks, while Epps led the team with 17.7 points per game and finished tied for first with 118 assists, tied for third on the team with 4.5 rebounds per game, third on the squad with 34 steals, second in three-point field goal percentage at .355 and third in overall field-goal percentage at .459. For their efforts, both players were named first-team All-SEC by league coaches and were AP All-America Honorable Mention honorees.

Murray and Morris were the only other Wildcats to average double-digit points during the season. Murray had a breakout year sitting third with 12.2 points per game, while also ranking second with 4.9 rebounds per game with a team-best 61 steals and tied for the team lead with 118 assists. Morris had a strong season, starting all 33 games and finishing fourth on the team with 11.8 points per game. The guard led Kentucky in 3-point field goals made with 53, shooting 32.3 percent from long range.

Several other players played key roles on the team with Rice starting 30 games averaging 21.8 minutes per game, 4.2 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. Junior guard Makenzie Cann played in 32 games with four starts, averaging 5.8 points per game and hitting 42 3-pointers, which ranked second most on the team. Guard Jessica Hardin played in 16 games before sustaining an injury that caused her to miss a majority of the second half of the season. Hardin averaged 12.3 minutes per game and hit a team-best 36.4 percent from long range. True freshman guards Jaida Roper and Paige Poffenberger gave the Wildcats depth with Roper playing in 32 games with two starts, averaging 12.0 minutes per game and 2.6 points per game. Poffenberger, a walk-on that joined the team in the fall, played in 21 games averaging 5.9 minutes per game.

The Wildcats return nine of its 11 eligible players for next season and will add Stony Brook transfer and 2016 America East Conference Rookie of the Year Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who practiced with the team this season. UK also adds five newcomers in true freshmen Dorie Harrison (6-2, F/C, Nashville, Tenn.), Keke McKinney (6-1, G/F, Knoxville, Tenn.), Kameron Roach (5-6, G, Hopkins, S.C.) and Tatyana Wyatt (6-3, F, Columbus, Ga.), and junior college transfer Amanda Paschal (5-6, G, Brooklyn, N.Y/Gulf State College).