It's often said how sports can transcend past a game and into society, working as a coping mechanism. Monday was a prime example of that.
The game was already set to be a commemorative night. No. 13 Kentucky was hosting Auburn for the end of the annual SEC “We Back Pat Week,” which shines awareness on the Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer’s. The night, though, had a different somber tone, with focus shifting from one progressive leader amongst the women's basketball game to an upcoming entrepreneur of the game. Kobe Bean Bryant.
Just a couple weeks ago, Kobe was telling media outlets how players like Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore could currently find success in the NBA. One of the growing advocates of the women's game, he was set to be around the court for decades imparting his wisdom, until his untimely helicopter accident Sunday morning.
In Memorial Coliseum, each member of the Kentucky team wore various editions of the “Kobe” Nike shoes in memory.
“It was a stunning blow to just the basketball community, but then the sports community," Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It’s been amazing to see how influential and how many people were inspired by what he did with the game of basketball and what he was doing in retirement. So many of our players were influenced and inspired by Kobe…”
Kentucky (16-3, 5-2 SEC) started off hot in its 68-61 win over the Auburn Tigers. UK made 7 out of its first 10 shots. That included two Blair Green 3’s, a Rhyne Howard steal and score, and a KeKe McKinney bucket in her first minutes back from injury.
McKinney showed no signs of rust as the junior forward shot a perfect 6-for-6 on the night, adding a career-tying 13 points and eight rebounds in her first action back. As a whole, the Cats were shooting 53 percent at the end of the first period.
Kentucky cruised to a 44-28 halftime lead in thanks to its defensive tenacity by winning the rebounding battle as a whole and forcing the Tigers (7-11, 1-6 SEC) to 15 turnovers. Auburn employed a full court press for the entire game, which the Wildcats handled impressively, except for a few ten second violations.
The third quarter was abysmal for the Wildcats as they missed their first eight shots of the half. This was en route to watching the Auburn Tigers mount up a comeback that included a 12-0 run. The first points for Kentucky didn’t come until 2:28 left in the quarter when Sabrina Haines hit a free throw. Haines then went on to knock down consecutive threes in the next couple possessions to score the only seven points of the quarter for the Cats. Haines finished the night with a season-tying 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting.
Much of the Tiger comeback can be attributed to the work of the SEC leading rebounder Unique Thompson. Averaging 12 boards a game, Thompson brought down 15 rebounds while going for a game-high 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting.
Rhyne Howard only finished with 10 points on a 3-of-13 clip. She said after the game that she dislocated her finger and pinky in the second half, causing her to become one-handed, essentially. However, it had no effect on her clutch gene as she knocked down 3-of-4 free throws, along with Jaida Roper knocking down two, to help seal the game for the Cats.
Kentucky travels to Columbia, Missouri next to take on the Mizzou Tigers this Thursday. The game is set for a 7 p.m. tip-off and will be broadcast on SEC Network.