Kentucky Begins SEC Play in Knoxville vs. Streaking Tennessee

Maci Morris (Vicky Graff Photo)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – After navigating through the nation’s third-most difficult schedule thus far with nine non-conference wins, the No. 17 University of Kentucky women’s basketball team is set to begin Southeastern Conference play on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET inside Thompson-Boling Arena against the Tennessee Lady Vols, who have won four straight games.

The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2 with Pam Ward on play-by-play and Gail Goestenkors as the analyst. The game can also be seen through WatchESPN on computers, smartphones and tablets. Now in his 12th season, Neil Price will have the call on the UK Sports Network. Fans in Lexington can hear Price’s call of the game on 630 AM WLAP.

Kentucky is coming off a loss at No. 15 Duke to end its non-conference slate. UK trailed Duke by five at halftime and at the end of the third quarter, but went cold from the field in the final 10 minutes, hitting just 3-of-18 from the field to fall 69-54.

Sophomore guard Taylor Murray was brilliant in her return from injury, leading Kentucky with 18 points, adding four rebounds and one assist. Senior guard Makayla Epps had 12 points and three rebounds in the game, while sophomore guard Maci Morris scored 11 points with three rebounds. Senior post Evelyn Akhator – the reigning SEC Player of the Week – recorded 15 rebounds in the game with one point. 

Epps leads Kentucky in scoring by averaging 17.5 points per game, adding a team-best 53 assists. The native of Lebanon, Ky., has scored in double figures in every game but one this season, including five 20-plus point performances. Akhator is second on the team in scoring and is averaging a double-double this season with 13.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. The native of Lagos, Nigeria, has scored in double figures in 10 games and has 10 or more rebounds in nine games. Murray and Morris are also averaging 10 or more points this season. Murray, is averaging 13.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, while Morris is averaging 12.1 points and is hitting .333 from 3.

As a team, the Wildcats are averaging 71.5 points per game, hitting 43.1 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from 3 with a +4.2 rebounding margin and 1.0 assist-turnover ratio. UK is averaging only 12.7 miscues per game this season, ranking 11th nationally and first in the SEC in turnovers per game. The Wildcats also rank top 15 nationally and second in the league in fewest person fouls per game.

Kentucky (9-4) entered the week at No. 17 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 23 in the USA Today/Coaches Top 25. Tennessee (8-4) is the sixth opponent – either ranked or receiving votes – the Wildcats will face this season, entering the game receiving votes in both major polls. UK currently ranks third nationally in strength of schedule according to the latest NCAA RPI report. Kentucky is 2-3 against ranked opponent this season, defeating Miami (Fla.) and Oklahoma before setbacks at Louisville, vs. Arizona State and at Duke.

Tennessee enters Southeastern Conference play with an 8-4 overall record, including a 6-1 mark at home and 2-3 record on the road. The Lady Vols started the season inside the top 25 of both national polls before early season losses to Penn State and Virginia Tech. UT also fell to highly ranked Baylor and Texas to start the month of December, but have won four straight games since, including taking down top-10 ranked Stanford.

The Lady Vols are coming off a 90-54 victory over UNCW on Dec. 29. UT led by eight points at halftime, but outscored UNCW 27-7 in the third quarter to take advantage of the game and roll to a 90-54 victory. Guard Jordan Reynolds paced the team with a triple-double, scoring 11 points with 10 assists and 14 rebounds. Forward Jamie Nared had 21 points, while center Mercedes Russell had 20 points and 11 rebounds.

As a team, UT is averaging 78.2 points per game, hitting 44.0 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from 3. The Lady Vols are out-rebounding teams by 6.7 rebounds per game, adding 4.9 blocks per game. Tennessee is averaging 15.5 turnovers per game with a -1.2 turnover margin. Russell leads the team by averaging 16.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, while Diamond DeShields, who has missed the last two games due to injury, is averaging 15.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Two other players are averaging double figures with Nared at 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, while Alexa Middleton is averaging 10.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.

Sunday’s meeting against Tennessee marks the 65th meeting in school history between the two programs in women’s basketball. The Lady Vols lead the all-time series, 53-11, including a 22-3 mark in games played in Knoxville. Tennessee has won four of the last five meetings between the two teams, including two of the last three games played in Knoxville. Kentucky’s last win in Knoxville came Feb. 16, 2014 when the Wildcats claimed a 75-71 victory.

Last season on Jan. 25, 2016 inside Memorial Coliseum, UK took down Tennessee 64-63. Kentucky was paced by a game-high 23 points from Epps, who added two rebounds and one assist. Akhator had nine points and seven rebounds in the game. UK forced UT into 21 turnovers and scored 18 points off those miscues, while also winning the points in the paint battle, 34-16.

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