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Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard, a former Bradley Central High School star, guided the Wildcats to a home win against Tennessee on Sunday. / AP file photo by Bryan Woolston

LEXINGTON, Ky. — It's now safe to say the first time Rhyne Howard dealt the Tennessee women's basketball program a loss was when she chose to leave her home state to join the Kentucky Wildcats.

The former Bradley Central High School standout handed the Lady Volunteers another defeat Sunday afternoon.

Howard drained seven 3-pointers and scored 37 points, her most as a Wildcat, as No. 13 Kentucky held off No. 22 Tennessee 80-76 in Memorial Gymnasium.

The 6-foot-2 sophomore guard from Cleveland made several key baskets, then sank four of six free throws in the final minute as the Wildcats (12-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) held off one last surge from the Lady Vols (11-2, 1-1).

Her last 3-pointer — she took 13 shots behind the arc — put Kentucky on top 72-60 with 3:42 to play, and her layup at 1:54 stopped an 8-0 Tennessee run. Then, after Sabrina Haines made a pair of free throws for the Wildcats, Howard took over at the foul line.

Howard, named the SEC freshman of the year in 2019, previously told the Times Free Press the Lady Vols never figured much into her college basketball plans. However, with her abilities expanding and her accolades growing — also the 2019 NCAA freshman of the year, she helped the United States win a gold medal at last summer's FIBA U19 World Cup — it's hard to imagine a program that couldn't benefit from her presence.

The Wildcats certainly have.

"We just ask her to do everything," Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said in a report on the Kentucky athletic department's official website. "It's amazing. Amazing performance. It's a really talented player who wanted to win today and wanted to help her team, and she did it in so many other ways than scoring."

Howard's seven 3-pointers matched her most for Kentucky, and she shot 12-for-27 from the field overall. She went 6-of-9 from the foul line, and she also finished with nine rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals.

Tennessee ended up outscoring Kentucky 30-29 in the fourth quarter, with the Lady Vols going 11-of-20 from the field and 8-for-11 from the foul line as the Wildcats went 10-of-15 and 7-of-9.

Haines added 11 points for Kentucky, which bounced back from a 99-72 loss at No. 4 South Carolina on Thursday, when Howard made four 3-pointers in a 28-point performance. Howard was limited to six points when Kentucky held on for a 73-71 win at Tennessee last season, her only previous game against the Lady Vols.

"I knew it was going to be a good game, and my coaches and my teammates started telling me to keep going," Howard said in the Kentucky report. "That gave more confidence in myself, and just knowing that I can do this and keep going and eventually those shots are going to fall."

Rennia Davis led Tennessee with 27 points before fouling out in the final minute, and teammate Rae Burrell added a career-high 16 points — including 10 in the fourth quarter — with six rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Jordan Horston scored 13 points and had nine assists, Tamari Key blocked five shots and Kasiyahna Kushkituah had a team-high eight rebounds as the Lady Vols finished with a 41-36 edge on the glass.

Howard had three 3s in the first quarter as the Wildcats went on top 21-14. Davis had nine points in the second quarter, when a 19-4 run helped the Lady Vols lead 35-33 at halftime.

Kentucky scored the first 11 points of the third quarter, and Howard had back-to-back 3s to make that a 17-2 run, but Tennessee scored the last seven points of the period to trail 51-46 heading into the fourth.

"I think we'll look back and find just a handful of possessions that could have changed the outcome," Kellie Harper, whose first season as Lady Vols coach will continue with Thursday's 8 p.m. EST game at Ole Miss, said in her postgame news conference. "And that's going to be really disappointing because wins are hard to get, and when you have an opportunity — which we thought we did — then you've got to find a way to pull it out."

Howard was just one obstacle, but she was a substantial one.

"Well, I think she is a terrific scorer, to be honest with you," Harper said. "And I think she can score in several different ways, but if you leave her open you can mark it down two points, or three points. I think we had some breakdowns and left her open, and she's going to capitalize on those — because she can score with you guarding her."

Compiled by Marty Kirkland. Contact him at mkirkland@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478.

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