Some people might have seen Kentucky's depleted roster as a vulnerability. Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit looked at the Wildcats' bench Wednesday night and saw potential trouble.
Though Kentucky had only seven healthy players available, Plitzuweit said she had a pit in her stomach, expecting the Wildcats to play like they had something to prove. And in the first half, the Gophers didn't understand what it would take to win their first road game of the season. Once it sunk in, though, the Gophers blasted off, dominating Kentucky in the second half in a 76-57 romp at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats led 38-36 at halftime behind the tandem of Ajae Petty and Eniya Russell, picking apart the Gophers defense early. That changed over the final 20 minutes.
The Gophers (8-1) scored the first 11 points of the third quarter to regain the lead for good. In the fourth, they outscored Kentucky 20-8, holding the Wildcats (5-5) without a field goal for the first 6 minutes, 34 seconds.
Their offense was clicking, too, especially from long range. The Gophers made 13 of 22 three-pointers, consistently finding open shooters with stellar ball movement. They had 22 assists on 28 field goals and got a game-high 25 points from Mara Braun, who made nine of 15 shots and was five-of-seven from beyond the arc.
"We have to learn how to defend for 40 minutes,'' Plitzuweit said. "We didn't come out with a lot of zip and pop and understanding of what it really took. And I thought Kentucky played their guts out.
"We had to answer that intensity. And we were fortunate enough to do that in the second half.''
The Gophers traveled to Kentucky with a four-game win streak and a confidence built from a 7-1 start at Williams Arena. Wednesday's game was their only road contest of the nonconference schedule.
Plitzuweit has emphasized defense in her first season with the Gophers, and they are one of the top defensive teams in the Big Ten. But early in Wednesday's game, they weren't prepared for how athletic the Wildcats were, particularly Petty and Russell. Those two combined for 25 points in the first half as Kentucky outscored the Gophers 24-10 in the paint.
There were 10 lead changes in the half, with each team making runs. The Gophers were patient on offense and got many open looks from outside, making seven of 12 three-pointers in the first 20 minutes.
"[The Wildcats] were super aggressive, playing really, really hard,'' Braun said. "We just had to be poised, making the extra pass and being smart with the ball. That's where it opened up for us a little bit.''
Their hot shooting continued after halftime — and when the Gophers ramped up their defensive intensity, they took control of the game.
They forced 10 turnovers and held Kentucky to 26.1% shooting in the second half. The Gophers outscored the Wildcats 40-19 in the final 20 minutes. Grace Grocholski finished with 15 points, making five of seven three-pointers, and Mallory Heyer added 13.
The Gophers begin Big Ten play Sunday, hosting Purdue in a matinee. With nine of 11 nonconference games behind them, Braun said the early-season lessons — including the one learned Wednesday — are sinking in.
"When we play hard defensively for 40 minutes, we're really successful,'' she said. "And we see what happens when we take a play on defense off. We're learning. We'll get back to work.''
The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.