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If the start to last season for the Kentucky women’s basketball team was frenetic, then the build-up to this season has been focused.
The uncertainty of playing college basketball during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the promotion of Kyra Elzy to head coach less than two weeks before the start of last season, meant there wasn’t time for the Wildcats to build cohesion and trust ahead of the 2020-21 season.
According to Elzy, this showed in key moments.
“We didn’t really have time to gel. So you saw during points of the season when we hit adversity, the trust factor, understanding each other in different ways, it really showed itself,” Elzy said Monday inside Memorial Coliseum during Kentucky’s Media Day ahead of the 2021-22 season. “So this summer, we made a big commitment of making sure we’re doing team bonding on and off the court.”
That team bonding has taken different forms, from games of human tic-tac-toe and game nights, to a grueling visit to Fort Campbell along the Kentucky-Tennessee border that featured coaches and players going without their cell phones for 24 hours.
“That was an activity that forced us to be our best physically and mentally,” Elzy said of the Fort Campbell trip. “All year we talked about getting over the hump. ... There’s going to be things that happen to us that might derail our mental psyche for a minute that we will have to bounce back (from).”
“During it, nobody liked it,” senior guard Rhyne Howard said of the Fort Campbell experience. “It really brought us together and it showed how resilient we can be and how we can fight together. It really helped me be a better leader.”
“Just knowing that we can lean and depend on each other. They’ll (my teammates) pick me up when I fall down and vice versa,” senior guard Jazmine Massengill said of what she learned from Fort Campbell.
For a team with nine returning players from last season’s team that finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats have a significant number of unknowns entering Elzy’s second season as head coach.
The Wildcats will have to use a brand-new starting lineup this season after the departure of star guard Chasity Patterson, who started all 27 games a season ago.
The three listed front-court players on the UK roster — redshirt juniors forward Dre’una Edwards and center Olivia Owens and sophomore forward Nyah Leveretter — have combined for just 16 starts in their UK careers and comprise a position group with increased roles asked of all three players following the departures of KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt.
New roles are also being asked of Massengill, who Elzy refers to as the team’s starting point guard, and senior Robyn Benton, who appears likely to start at guard for UK after playing 26 times last season, all off the bench.
This comes alongside the continuity provided by Howard, the two-time defending SEC Player of the Year and likely top pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
During Sunday afternoon’s Blue-White scrimmage in Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats used what could be projected as the starting lineup for this season of Massengill-Benton-Blair Green-Howard-Edwards.
To get UK players ready for their new roles this season, Elzy said she had honest communication flow both ways between coaches and players.
“We have those conversations all year, not just when basketball season starts. ... ‘These are the things I need, how do you think you can help this team?’” Elzy said while referencing the program’s “Commit To It” slogan. “In order for us to be our best, everyone has to commit to their role.”
This commitment is paramount given the defensive intensity and up-tempo basketball Elzy wants the Wildcats to play this season.
“I want to play faster than we played last year. We play position-less basketball, we play fast. We talked about all summer that our defensive intensity must be there,” Elzy said. “No matter where we go, our heart and intensity on defense and rebounding should travel with us at all times ... playing faster defensively, more disruptive and being able to run will really help us play the tempo that we want to play.”
Elzy said Monday the UK women’s program has met the 80% threshold for COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I feel comfortable with where we are right now. We have met the 80% threshold, so we are doing good,” Elzy said. “Our trainer Courtney Jones makes sure that we are really diligent and following COVID protocols to stay safe. Our administration and Jim Madaleno do a phenomenal job to make sure that we are educated and safe.”
Hunt back at practice
During Sunday’s Blue-White scrimmage, 10 of the 11 players on the UK roster saw playing time, with sophomore guard Treasure Hunt being the lone player left off the hardwood.
Hunt spent most of the scrimmage on an exercise bike behind the UK team bench.
On Monday when asked about Hunt’s absence from the scrimmage, Elzy said Hunt was “not feeling her best” because of an illness.
Hunt returned to practice Monday.
In late September, the NCAA announced that the women’s college basketball tournament will now also use March Madness branding and marketing, which previously had just been used for the men’s tournament, starting with the 2022 event.
“We always want to move the women’s game forward. We’re talented, and we want to make sure that we receive the same exposure,” Elzy said Monday of the NCAA’s new branding for the women’s tournament. “Once people watch the women’s game, they usually fall in love with it ... and it’s our job to make sure that we put the product on the floor that people want to come see.”
Important upcoming UK dates
Nov. 4: Exhibition vs. Lee University, 7 p.m. (No TV)
Nov. 9: Season opener vs. Presbyterian, 7 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)