LEXINGTON, Ky. (UK Athletics) — Rhyne Howard has been a star from the moment she set foot on campus, so nothing she does should come as a surprise.
Somehow, 53 games into her Kentucky career, Howard continues to find ways to open eyes.
In just her second game after returning from a broken finger on her left hand and still wearing a brace, Howard delivered a signature performance on Sunday.
“She’s just supremely talented,” Matthew Mitchell said. “She’ll definitely be better once we can get that (brace) off, but she was awfully good with one hand today.”
Leading the No. 18 Wildcats (19-5, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) to a 73-62 victory over No. 6 Mississippi State (22-4, 10-2 SEC) – their most impressive of the season and first over a top-10 opponent since 2017 – Howard had 26 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs.
The performance was a timely one, as Kentucky launched Howard’s national player of the year campaign mere days ago. Howard, with her 15th 20-point game of the season, made a better case for herself than any website (RhyneHoward.com) or slickly produced video ever could.
“She’s an elite player,” Mitchell said. “She’s an elite talent. She has an elite competitive spirit. She wants to win and she went out and make some big plays for us today.”
Howard played with no fear in spite of the brace on her left hand, attacking the basket and hitting the floor for loose balls with regularity. She also played the most minutes of any player on either team, her presence essential as UK withstood every Bulldog run.
“I think I was just pumped to be back and just to play with my teammates again,” Howard said. “We knew that these were going to be big games and I couldn’t come back and just think, ‘Oh, my hand’s broken. It’s time to take time off.’ I just gotta push through it.”
Howard pushed through the pain and pushed past the 1,000-point mark for her college career Sunday evening, becoming the second fast in program history to do so, trailing only Valerie Still. That’s a nice note, but Howard is a lot more concerned about what Sunday meant for UK’s March prospects.
“We know we have to stay focused and that all of these upcoming games are very important in seeding,” Howard said. “We have to win and just be able to stay focused and not look too far ahead.”
Howard and the Cats certainly weren’t looking ahead on Sunday, as hardly a fault could be found in their effort after Mississippi State opened the game on a 6-0 run. UK responded to that by reeling off 12 straight points and eventually led by as many as 20 points before the Bulldogs’ desperate final burst in the closing minutes.
“We had to fight hard to win it,” Mitchell said. “I just don’t know how you could ask more of a team. We really fought hard, battled, had some good practices getting ready and went out and earned a big win for us. Proud of them.”
Though Howard was characteristically outstanding in the victory, she was hardly on her own. Chasity Patterson chipped in 15 points and Jaida Roper 14, as UK’s backcourt has grown to the point where it puts plenty of pressure on opponents with a variety of scoring options.
Now, as the Cats look ahead to the final two weeks of the regular season and beyond, they are eager to translate Sunday’s success into more wins.
“We’re down to our last four-game mini season here down the stretch,” Mitchell said. “I think this is going to give us a boost. We gotta focus in here and keep plugging, but it’s gotta give us some confidence going forward.”