NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rhyne Howard shook off a right ankle issue in the opening minutes and losing her right shoe in the fourth quarter to keep the Kentucky Wildcats streaking.
Howard scored 32 points, and Kentucky never trailed beating No. 6 LSU 78-63 Friday night in the Southeastern Conference women’s tournament quarterfinals for their eighth straight win.
“Usually I don’t have that much space to get my shot off,” Howard said. “So when I see it, I’m taking it and it was just going in tonight.”
Kentucky (17-11) reached the semifinals for the second time in three seasons and 17th overall. The Wildcats will play either No. 18 Tennessee or Alabama in the semifinals Saturday.
Dre’Una Edwards scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Kentucky. Treasure Hunt also had 13 points, and Robyn Benton added 11.
LSU (25-5) saw its eight-game winning streak snapped.
The Tigers will have to wait for the NCAA Tournament bracket announcement after Kentucky spoiled coach Kim Mulkey’s SEC Tournament debut. She came dressed for the occasion in a sparkling top with a tiger face after overseeing a 16-win improvement in her first season as LSU earned its highest seed since 2008.
“They just came out on fire,” Mulkey said. “I watched them play the previous games, and they have all their parts back. They have everybody healthy.”
Mulkey drew a technical with 1:36 left. She came onto the court yelling at an official as players went back up-court, insisting Jazmine Massengill fouled LSU guard Khayla Pointer on a 3-point attempt. Howard hit both free throws, then hit a short jumper on the ensuing possession to pad Kentucky’s lead to 74-58.
The LSU coach explained afterward she believed Pointer was fouled after the shot. Mulkey said that’s been a point of emphasis called on her Tigers two or three times this season.
“I thought after the contest she just laid on top of Khayla,” Mulkey said. “And that’s what I saw. I haven’t seen the replay.”
Pointer led LSU with 27 points, and Ryann Payne added 13.
Kentucky opened with a bang, scoring the first six points. When Howard came up limping, the Wildcats’ hopes looked in danger. She got her right ankle re-taped on the sideline. Once back on the court, the two-time SEC Player of the Year started shooting away. Howard knocked down a trio of 3s.
“She’s pretty tough,” Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said. “For her at this juncture of her career, she’s going back in the game if she’s capable. But I’m glad. I thought she stepped up in a big way and got us started early, and we needed it.”
Benton capped the spurt with a 3 of her own. Howard capped the 14-2 run with a pullup jumper, and Kentucky led 25-13 after the first quarter. The Wildcats kept shooting and outscored LSU 20-12 in the second quarter, taking a 45-25 lead into halftime.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth really,” Pointer said. “They were pretty much hitting every shot they took.”
LSU outscored Kentucky 21-12 in the third. Pointer scored nine points as the Tigers finished the quarter on a 13-4 run that had former LSU coach Nikki Fargas cheering her niece from behind the bench. Edwards’ layup kept Kentucky up 57-46 at the end of the third.
Kentucky opened the fourth with a 9-2 run capped by Howard’s sixth 3. LSU never got closer than 11 down the stretch.
The Tigers played without guard Alexis Morris who averages 15.8 points a game, 10th-best in the SEC. Morris sprained a knee ligament in the first quarter against Florida on Feb. 20, and LSU is hoping to have her available for the NCAA Tournament.
Morris played all 40 minutes and scored 20 points when LSU beat Kentucky 78-69 on Jan. 30 in Baton Rouge.
Kentucky jumped to the early lead thanks to shooting so well from outside the arc. The Wildcats hit 7 of their first 10 3s and wound up 8 of 13 for the first half. Howard led the way, knocking down 5 of 6. They finished 9 of 19 (47.4%) for the game, shooting better than LSU did from the floor (26 of 66 for 40.6%).
LSU now waits until the NCAA bracket announcement on March 13. Mulkey said hopefully it’ll be a great atmosphere in Baton Rouge with Morris back by then.