Photos by Vicky Graff
By LARRY VAUGHT
The last two months have seen some amazing performances by University of Kentucky athletes.
Start with what quarterback Lynn Bowden did the final eight games of the season to take UK from 2-3 to 8-5 and a Belk Bowl victory. Remember the 26-point opening game Tyrese Maxey had against Michigan State or the 27-point outing against Louisville. Then there were the back-to-back games Nick Richards had against Louisville and Missouri.
Now add the game Rhyne Howard had Sunday against Tennessee in an 80-76 win. She had a career-high 37 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks. Whatever she wanted to do, it seemed like she did except in the second quarter when she made only one shot. The rest of the game she was 11-for-17 from the field.
“I didn’t even know she had 37 until before I walked in here (for postgame interviews),” UK guard Sabrina Haines said. I was like, ‘You had 37… like 3… 7…”.
“She’s an amazing player and it is really an honor to be able to play with her. The fact that she’s also so unselfish along with that, like she had 37, but she will just make the best play for whoever and whatever is available.”
Howard, named the espnW National Player of the Week after also scoring 28 points at South Carolina in the previous game, is a willing passer and could have easily had more assists Sunday if teammates had finished plays.
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper called Howard a “terrific scorer” with the ability to score in various ways. She hit a career-high seven 3-pointers, scored off two steals, rebounded and ran the court Sunday — just like she always does.
“If you leave her open you can mark it down two points or three points. I thought we had some breakdowns and left her open and she’s going to capitalize on those because she can score with you guarding her,” Harper said. “I think she understands how to play without the ball. She knows how to play to get herself the opportunities to score.”
Harper said anything Howard does rebounding or defending is due in large part to her “size and athleticism.”
It has to hurt Harper, a former Vol in her first year as Tennessee’s head coach, to know that former Tennessee coach Holly Warlick basically ignored Howard during her splendid prep career in Cleveland, Tenn. Howard said Tennessee was the last school to recruit her and she “didn’t want to go there.” The reasoning by the UT staff at the time was that Howard was not the “right fit.”
Well, she’s the right fit at Kentucky and it’s not outrageous to think she could challenge Valerie Still’s all-time scoring record at UK. Still has 2,763 points in 119 career games — an average of 23 per game — in four years at UK. Howard has 841 points in 46 games — an average of 18 per game — midway of her sophomore year.
Kentucky has 14 more regular-season games and at least one SEC Tournament game and one NCAA Tournament game barring a total collapse. Play two games in each tournament and Howard would have 18 more games. That could give her another 324 points this year at her current scoring pace and nearly 1,200 points in two years. Still had 1,269 points her first two seasons before having a monstrous junior year when she averaged 25 points per game and scored 794 points.
A’dia Mathies is the only other UK player with 2,000 points as she scored 2,014 from 2010-13. Victoria Dunlap had 1,846 from 2008-11, Leslie Nichols 1,797 from 1982-86 and Makayla Epps 1,790 from 2013-17.
Howard is the first UK player in 19 years to score at least 25 points in four straight games and has hit at least one 3-pointer in 41 of her 46 games at UK, a big plus for a prolific scorer.
Coach Matthew Mitchell also never quits asking her for more — and did Sunday in her astonishing 37-point game.
“She really did a good job, and we were still getting on her to play a little more defense there at the end,” Mitchell said. “We just ask her to do everything. It’s amazing. Amazing performance.
“It’s a really talented player who wanted to win today and wanted to help her team and she did it in so many other ways than scoring.”
But never doubt that she can score like few female players have done at Kentucky and if anyone is ever going to have a chance to reach 2,000 points or get to Still’s record, Howard seems to be the player who could do it.