The Southeastern Conference women’s basketball player of the year could be decided when Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter faces Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, but their supporting casts could decide who wins Thursday’s game at Memorial Coliseum.
Carter and Howard are having the All-American seasons everyone predicted. Howard leads the SEC in scoring, averaging 23.8 points per game. Carter is next at 21.9, but when you factor in assists she’s responsible for 40.6% of her team’s offense, which is slightly more than Howard (39%).
They are the vocal point of the pivotal matchup between 11th-ranked Kentucky (14-2, 3-1) and 12th-ranked A&M (14-2, 2-1), but you only have to look back to each team’s last game for the importance of the supporting players.
Kentucky junior guard Chasity Patterson, a transfer from the University of Texas, scored a season-high 20 points in a 65-45 victory at Florida.
Patterson hit 7 of 14 field goals, including 3 of 7 3-pointers to help the Wildcats overcome a slow start. Patterson, coming off the bench in only her fifth game with Kentucky, added four steals and two assists. Senior guard Sabrina Haines, a transfer from Arizona State who sat out last season, added 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, with a pair of 3-pointers along with three steals.
“We need both of those players playing tough defense and then they’re also really important scorers for us, too,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
A&M is coming off a 57-54 home loss to unranked LSU because its complementary players didn’t play well after Carter sprained her ankle late in the first half. Senior point guard Shambria Washington, junior wing Kayla Wells and junior guard Aaliyah Wilson combined to make only 2 of 21 field goals.
“We should have had enough offensive firepower to get by LSU, but we didn’t,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “We shot 20% in the third quarter, we shot 20% in the fourth quarter and we missed five layups during the ball game. That’s on us, that’s not on Chennedy Carter. That’s on us.”
A&M’s supporting cast will need a better effort in only the Aggies’ fourth true road game, especially if Carter doesn’t play or isn’t 100% healthy. Blair said Carter will be a game-time decision, adding that it wouldn’t be to his benefit to say even if he knew.
“It will not be my decision, it will be Chennedy Carter’s decision,” Blair said. “That’s all it can be.”
Carter has missed five games in her career, all last season, for disciplinary reasons (Lamar), a foot injury (Prairie View), the flu (Texas-Rio Grande Valley) and a fractured finger (Auburn and Arkansas at the SEC tournament).
“She took a bad fall [against LSU],” Blair said. “Nobody in our league or in the country takes more falls than she does because she drives to the basket so well and she is always smart enough to fall on her hip or rearend. She knows how to fall. This time she came down on that left ankle.”
Kentucky is preparing for a healthy Carter.
“She is just a supremely, supremely gifted scorer,” Mitchell said. “She has a high, high skill level. [She] can handle the basketball with either hand [and] can get to the basket seemingly at will. She just has great change of pace, change of direction, great ballhandling skills.”
Carter in three close victories over Kentucky is averaging 19.3 ppg by hitting 20 of 50 field goals, including 8 of 15 on 3-pointers.
“[Her skills] allow her to create shots at just about any time she wants to get a shot,” Mitchell said. “She is a handful. She is really, really going to be tough to guard and we’ll have to work like crazy to try to see if we can slow her down a little bit, she is a fantastic player.”
The 5-foot-7 Carter was the SEC coaches’ preseason pick to be the player of the year and the junior made the Associated Press’ preseason five-player All-American team. The only other SEC player to get a vote was the 6-2 Howard who is averaging 30.8 ppg in the last six games.
“Rhyne Howard is playing better in the last six games than anybody in the country, anybody,” Blair said. “Anybody, that means Oregon, Connecticut or whatever. That’s how well Rhyne Howard is playing. She is a 6-foot matchup nightmare because she shoots the 3, she drives, she rebounds, she blocks shots, she’s doing it all and she’s just a sophomore.”
Howard had 21 points in her first game against A&M. She hit 7 of 15 field goals, including 5 of 10 3-pointers. She had 21 points and eight rebounds in the 73-71 loss at Reed Arena. In the second meeting Howard got in foul trouble and played only 22 minutes. She hit 3 of 11 field goals, including 1 of 6 on 3-pointers. She had seven points and three rebounds in the 62-55 loss.
Howard last season played in the shadow of senior guard Maci Morris, a three-time All-SEC performer, and senior guard Taylor Murray, a two-time All-SEC defensive selection who led the team in assists and steals.
This year, everything revolves around Howard.
“She’s doing such a great job at fulfilling the role she has to fulfill for us to be the kind of team we want to be,” Mitchell said. “It’s not the most comfortable thing for her as far as, being super aggressive from a shot-volume standpoint.”
Howard has taken more than twice as many shots as anyone else on the team. She’s shooting 45.5% from the field (130 of 286), including 42.1% from 3-point range (53 of 126).
NOTES — Kentucky is allowing 54.7 points per game to rank 17th nationally and tops in the SEC. A&M is 24th (55.4). ... Kentucky was picked by the league’s coaches to finish fourth behind A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Kentucky also have home games with South Carolina and Mississippi State, but also will play at South Carolina. A&M also has to travel to top-ranked South Carolina and 10th-ranked Mississippi State along with 24th-ranked Tennessee. “Our margin of error with the schedule that we have to play on the road is so thin,” Blair said. “When we go on the road, we have to start stealing some games. Take Kentucky, like it’s our Super Bowl.”