LEXINGTON, Ky. – After a perfect run through its four-game home stand to start the 2018-19 season, the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team will travel south for the Thanksgiving Holiday to participate in the 2018 Paradise Jam at the University of Virgin Island Sports and Fitness Center in St. Thomas Island.
Kentucky (4-0) will face tough competition at the event, starting to No. 17 South Florida (4-0) on Thanksgiving Day at 1 p.m. ET. The Wildcats will face UCLA (3-1), who is receiving votes in the AP Top 25, on Friday at 1 p.m. ET, before ending the event with North Carolina (3-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. All three games will be streamed live on FloHoops.com (subscription required). Live stats and free live audio will also be available online.
"We are headed to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It's the Paradise Jam and it's one of the premier events in the world,” said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell (pictured with Taylor Murray). “It's just an outstanding event. We've been so fortunate to be able to travel there just about every four years. It's a real treat for our team, our fans and our family who are traveling down with us. It's an outstanding tournament. It will be very challenging for our basketball team – three consecutive days of play, three high-level, top opponents—University of South Florida the first day, UCLA the second day and North Carolina the third day. So, our work is cut out for us to go down there and we'll get a chance to really play some top-level competition. It'll be a challenging stretch for us, but I'm looking forward to traveling with this team. They're a great group of people and we're looking forward to our trip down to the Virgin Islands.”
UK’s defense has been the key in its first four games to start the season, limiting each opponent to 51 points or less. It’s the first time in the Mitchell era that UK has limited four straight teams to 51 points or less. The strong start defensive has helped Kentucky rank seventh nationally and second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense at 44.0 points per game. UK also ranks first nationally in turnover margin at +18.5 and fourth nationally and first in the SEC in turnovers forced at 30.7 per game. Offensively, UK is averaging 78 points per game and hitting 40.8 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from long range.
Freshman guard Rhyne Howard leads Kentucky by averaging 16.3 points per game, adding 5.8 rebounds per game and a team-best 13 3-pointers made. Senior guard Maci Morris is averaging 13.5 points per game with eight 3s made, while fellow senior guard Taylor Murray (pictured with Coach Mitchell) is averaging 13.3 points per game leading UK in assists with 16 and steals with 14. Morris and Murray has been perfect from the free-throw line to start the season with Morris sitting 6-for-6 and Murray 12-for-12. Freshman guard Blair Green is averaging 8.8 points per game while sophomore Jaida Roper is averaging 7.5 points per game and has 13 assists this season.
"This is a great opportunity for the players to find out some toughness about themselves where if you let that psych you out and you approach it the wrong way, it can kind of weigh you down,” Mitchell said on three games in three days. “Or if you approach it that we've really worked so hard on our conditioning that we need to embrace this opportunity and make sure that that shows up and counts for something. And on that third day, we want to be stronger than our opponent because of our conditioning. So, this will just be so many opportunities to learn – tough, tough teams and just what we need right now, just go down there and battle, try to get three victories and try to grow as a basketball team and we'll have plenty of opportunity to do that."
USF enters the tournament with 4-0 record and is ranked inside both the Associated Press Top 25 and Coaches/USA Today Top 25. The Bulls have earned wins over Ohio State, Albany, Bethune-Cookman and Oklahoma this season. South Florida is averaging 80.0 points per game this season while limiting opponents to just 48.2 points per game. USF is shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 32.0 percent from long range with a +17.3 rebounding margin and +1.3 turnover margin. Laura Ferreira is averaging a team-best 20.5 points per game with 4.8 rebounds per game. Kitija Laska, who was averaging 16.3 points per game, will miss the rest of the 2018-19 season due to injury. Sydni Harvey and Beatriz Jordao are each averaging over 12.0 points per game.
Kentucky is 2-0 all-time against South Florida with the last meeting coming in the Paradise Jam on Nov. 29, 2014 when UK won 61-57. The first meeting was a 93-65 UK win on Jan. 14, 1983 in Lexington. UK holds an all-time record of 33-17 vs. teams from the current alignment of the AAC. Coach Mitchell is 1-0 all-time against USF.
UCLA enters the Paradise Jam with a 3-1 record and is receiving votes in the national listings. The Bruins started the season with a 69-63 loss at Loyola Marymount before winning three straight at home, including a 80-69 win over top-15 ranked Georgia. UCLA’s other two wins are against Rice and Seton Hall. The Bruins are averaging 70.0 points per game while allowing 62.5. UCLA is hitting 40.9 percent from the field and 25.6 percent from long range this season with a +7.5 rebounding margin and -0.2 turnover margin. Japreece Dean is averaging 15.8 points per game to lead the Bruins while Michaela Onyenwere and Kennedy Burke are averaging 13.0 points per game each. Onyenwere is averaging a team-best 9.8 rebounds while Burke is averaging 7.0 boards per game. Dean has hit a team-best nine 3-pointers.
UK is 1-4 all-time against UCLA having lost three straight meetings to the Bruins. This is the first meeting since a 87-63 loss on March 15, 1999 in Los Angeles. Friday’s meeting will be the second time the two teams have met at a neutral site as UCLA defeated UK 64-54 in the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu in November of 1998. Coach Mitchell has never faced UCLA.
North Carolina sits a 3-1 on the young season with its lone loss coming in its last game at Colorado, 86-74 on Sunday. After starting the season with a 100-69 win at Elon, UNC defeated Kent State and VCU in Chapel Hill before traveling West and falling at Colorado. The Tar Heels are averaging 76.5 points per game and allowing teams to score 65.5 points per game. UNC is hitting 39.6 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from long range on the season. North Carolina has a +1.5 rebounding margin and +5.3 turnover margin in its first four games while averaging an impressive 16.0 assists per game. Janelle Bailey leads the Tar Heels with 17.5 points per game, while Kea Paris is averaging 15.5 and Shayla Bennett is posting 13.3 points. Bailey also leads the team with 9.3 rebounds per game hitting 51 percent from the field. Paris has a team-best eight 3s while Bennett paces the team with 18 assists.
Kentucky is 0-5 all-time against North Carolina including two neutral-site losses. The last meeting was March 21, 2011 when the Tar Heels took down UK 86-74 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Coach Mitchell is 0-1 vs. UNC as a head coach.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught