Kentucky women’s basketball was all about the guards last season. But in Wednesday’s 88-71 exhibition victory over Division II Kentucky State, it was senior forward Ajae Petty who took over in front of a crowd of 5,457 fifth graders and fans on Rupp Arena’s Education Day.
And every time Petty found the basket, the school children went wild.
By halftime, the 6-foot-3 Petty had 18 of the Wildcats’ 45 points, when no other player had more than six. Petty finished with a team-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting in addition to leading all players with 13 rebounds in a team-high 28 minutes and 15 seconds of playing time.
“I think the main thing that we focused on was coming out and playing hard,” Petty said after the win. “And we had a lot of people out there and fans, we were grateful that they came out to watch us play. So I think the best thing that we can say we focused on was just going out and giving everything that we have.”
Petty — left the de facto frontcourt leader after the graduation of Adebola Adeyeye and the sidelining of Nyah Leveretter due to ACL rehab — easily worked through the Thorobreds’ defense. Kentucky State coach Amani Williams told her roster early in the exhibition that they’d be forced to double-team Petty, “and hope for the best!”
“Ajae Petty is huge, in a good way though,” Williams said. “She’s super-duper talented, like her footwork is superb and just her touch around the rim is really, really good, so kudos to her. But I mean, we don’t have an Ajae Petty in our conference or pretty much who we’re going up against. So I mean, it’s kind of just new for them.”
Petty averaged 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game in her first season at Kentucky last year after transferring from LSU.
Even when surrounded by KSU defenders, Petty helped guide the team to 56 points in the paint — serving as the heart of an inexperienced UK offense that took a bit to warm up. Had this game counted toward Kentucky’s official record, four of UK’s five starters Wednesday: Petty, guards Brooklynn Miles and Saniah Tyler and forward Zennia Thomas would have registered their first career starts. They were joined by last season’s third-leading scorer, Maddie Scherr.
The Wildcats, who finished the 2022-23 campaign looking the best they had all season (back-to-back dominant wins in the SEC Tournament), struggled to find their footing for much of the first half Wednesday. Not until the final minutes of the first quarter did UK secure a confident lead, closing out the period on a 13-2 run to take a 24-13 advantage.
UK head coach Kyra Elzy said, in an attempt to get set up in their offense early, her players missed out on running the planned transition attack. Jitters-induced missed rebounds and allowing “easy drives” early on, Elzy said, left the team plenty to study in the film room. The Wildcats committed 15 turnovers, three more than Elzy’s goal maximum.
Several miscues plagued UK’s guards as the result of errant passes, something Elzy said she spoke to her roster about ahead of tip-off.
“How we can cut back on some of our turnovers,” Elzy said. “Meet the pass, shorten the pass, make the easy pass. And if it’s not an easy pass, don’t make it. So we’ll continue to get better, but still trying to learn how to play with each other in front of people, so it’ll be a journey.”
As the guards work to ensure clean, easy passes, the goal will remain the same — run the offense through the post by finding Petty, or whoever else happens to be holding down the paint. Petty emphasized the importance of playing for one another to the Wildcats’ success, and gave credit to Miles for always looking to make the assist.
“It feels good to have a point guard that’s looking for you when you’re running,” Petty said. “And it makes me want to work harder because I know she’s working hard for me.”
Miles, a Franklin County High School graduate, finished with nine points, three rebounds, one steal, three turnovers and a team high-tying five assists in her Kentucky debut after transferring from Tennessee. She clocked 28 minutes and 11 seconds, and was the only Wildcat outside of Petty and Scherr to play at least 25 minutes.
Miles was one of two Kentucky-born Wildcats who got to play in front of fifth graders attending her alma mater. Fifty-five elementary schools showed up for Education Day, including Miles’ Bridgeport (Frankfort) and Emma King’s Highland (Lincoln County). Cassidy Rowe’s alma mater, Valley Elementary (Virgie) cheered via Zoom.
Scherr joined Miles in tallying five assists. She also posted seven points, two steals, one rebound, one block and a turnover.
The Wildcats also received offensive help from King, Tyler and Eniya Russell, each of whom scored 12 points. Tyler, who went from the least-played Wildcat as freshman to starting in Wednesday’s exhibition to open her sophomore season, was UK’s only player receiving meaningful minutes who didn’t commit a single turnover.
Elzy praised Tyler’s growth, and noted a return to form following a difficult period during Tyler’s freshman year when she “lost her confidence.”
Tyler’s 12 points landed in the form of 4-of-9 from the field, including a pair of three-pointers, and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line. She added a pair of rebounds, two assists and — standing at a roster-listed 5-foot-6 — even recorded a block.
“One of the things I challenged her with,” Elzy said. “‘We need you to score the basketball.’ She can score at all three levels, and her ability to defend, so proud of her growth. And we need more of that.”
The Wildcats open their 2023-24 season with a matchup against East Tennessee State on Tuesday at Transylvania University’s Clive M. Beck Center (7 p.m., SEC Network Plus).
This season, UK women’s basketball will play most of its home games at Rupp Arena amid the ongoing $82 million renovation of traditional home Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats will also play home games at Transylvania and Georgetown College when Rupp is unavailable.
Kentucky vs. East Tennessee State
When: Nov. 7 at 7 p.m.
Where: Transylvania University’s Clive M. Beck Center
TV: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Series: Kentucky leads 2-1
Last meeting: Kentucky won 73-56 on Dec. 15, 2013, in Lexington