LEXINGTON, Ky -- No. 17 ranked Kentucky claimed a 72-39 win over the visiting Rice women's basketball team before a vocal Wildcat crowd of 4,907 in the season-opener for both squads Friday night in Lexington, Ky.
The contest was the head coaching debut for Rice's Tina Langley. While addressing the local (and very basketball-savvy) media after the game, the first-year head coach was able to stay upbeat for some simple reasons, and she was clear to emphasize the plural.
"I was really proud of how we started defensively," coach Langley said. "I felt like the intensity we had on the defensive end can transition over to the offensive side. It was a little bit of nerves on our end, but it's a completely new system for every one of the players.
"Everything is brand new for our players," she added. "It's a pretty big challenge to come to Kentucky and play in the system for the first time."
Straight-forward, but perhaps necessary reminder, that this was only 'Game I.' Yes it was the first game for Langley the new head coach and the Owl players in a new system, but in a broader sense it was step one in the long-term rebuilding of the program. The rebuilding is almost impossible to finish in one night before nearly 5,000 opposing fans, but the head coach has a contagious optimism while keeping an eye on a much, much, bigger picture.
Another reason is she saw things the Owls could build-on while facing a very talented SEC team on the road in a roundball-crazed part of the country. For two of the four quarters there was only a single point of difference on the scoreboard. Sophomore guard Shani Rainey led the team in scoring with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting. The Fairview, Texas, native also grabbed five rebounds with two assists and a pair of steals. Sophomore Wendy Knight added a spark off the bench with eight points, including two three-pointers.
Learning, building on positives and growing is going to be part of Langley's rebuilding plan. It would have been both tempting and possible to search the south side of the RPI scale for a season-opening opponent (that also happens to be the first game of the new head coach's career), but doing so ultimately would have been a disservice to the program.
The head coach has the correct approach for the team moving forward. Nationally-ranked Kentucky was a challenge, and it was easy for Langley be positive in the postgame press conference because it was only game one.
"It was great to be on the court with these girls," Langley said. "They've been working incredibly hard. It's great to get out there and teach, and continue to get better as a team, together -- the players, our staff and myself.
"Playing one of the best teams in the country there's no better way to figure out where we need to get better," she continued. "We really appreciate the opportunity. Hat's-off to Kentucky for a great game."
Maybe the biggest endorsement Rice had all night was from the Kentucky fan base. This group knows basketball and has seen a lot of visiting teams face their beloved Wildcats over the years. After four quarters of Rice going toe-to-toe with Kentucky's athletes, diving for loose balls, and even helping a Wildcat player to her feet after one collision under the glass, the Kentucky fans gave Rice a departing round of applause that was equal parts approving and respectful.
Rice completed the challenge of a road game, but the whole task is not quite over just yet. The Owls are back on the road for a second-straight road game at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Wednesday (Nov. 18). Start time against the Islanders is set for 7 pm Central Time.