The final minutes weren’t the prettiest of the season for the nation’s twelfth-ranked team, but Kentucky did just enough to pull out a 76-71 victory over Auburn in game it led for nearly the entire night.
The Cats were in front for 36:29 of the 40 minutes of action, never trailing after the 3:50 mark of the first quarter. But they never could quite put away the Tigers either, consistently staying up by six to nine but not pushing beyond double digits for any significant stretch of game time.
“We’re excited to get any win in the SEC,” head coach Kyra Elzy said in her postgame press conference. “It’s the best conference in college basketball.”
Kentucky had seven different players score in the opening quarter, with no one totaling more than four points as they pulled ahead 22-17. Each of the nine Cats that saw playing time found the bottom of the net.
“We preach team basketball. We want to take not a good shot, but a great shot,” Elzy said right after the game when speaking with the SEC Network. “We have a lot of different people who can score in different positions, which keeps the defense honest.”
One of the two Wildcats to see the floor but not dent the scoring column in that first frame was Blair Green, who paced the team in the category for a second straight contest. She ended with 18 points on a spectacular 7-of-9 from the field, including 2-of-3 from behind-the-arc.
“She’s so much more calm and confident… she practices non-stop,” Elzy said about the junior guard. “The biggest thing is she’s taking rhythm shots. She’s found where she can score in our offense.”
Green noted that finding weaknesses in opposing defenses has been a big part of her game. As a result, she took a higher number of jumpers in the ten-to-fifteen-foot range than what fans may be accustomed to seeing.
“Teams have been zoning us,” she said. “I’ve just been trying to move and get open… the middle was wide open for me.”
Rhyne Howard, Robyn Benton both returned following absences against Vanderbilt on Sunday. Howard notched 14 points, five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals, while Benton totaled ten points in her first appearance in Auburn Arena since she transferred in the spring.
“For Robyn, it was just another game,” Elzy told reporters. “I told her to come in and compete.”
The game took place almost exactly one year from when the two schools last met, and played out in a very similar fashion. The Tigers overcame a 20-point deficit to tie things in the fourth quarter, but the Cats eventually prevailed by seven. Had it not been for two free throws in the final seconds after a steal where Kentucky appeared to be letting the clock run out, tonight’s margin would have been the same.
Kentucky is back in action on Sunday afternoon, when they’ll take on No. 25 Tennessee. It’s Jazmine Massengill’s turn to return, as she’ll play in Knoxville as a visitor for the first time since transferring, a la Benton this evening. It will also be coach Elzy’s first game as Kentucky’s leading lady against her alma mater. Tip is set for 2:00 p.m. E.T. on ESPN2.