Nyah Leveretter, Kentucky upset Gamecocks to win SEC title

Celebration. Kentucky beats South Carolina 64-62 to become SEC Champions. Photo by Eddie Justice | UK Athletics

NASHVILLE – Westwood graduate and 1,000-point scorer Nyah Leveretter describes her sophomore season with Kentucky as a difficult one at first, with the bangs and bumps of a team learning how to play together.

The SEC universe found out Sunday night in Nashville that the challenges that awaited Leveretter and the Wildcats this season forged a team on a mission.

Kentucky, a No.7 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, dismissed Mississippi State, then took out No.2 LSU and No.3 Tennessee to reach the championship game against a team Leveretter was all too familiar with—No.1 South Carolina.

The Gamecocks, riding a 17-game winning streak, played their typical game for three quarters, building a 57-43 lead early in the fourth quarter before Kentucky started to take South Carolina down.

USC, which had beaten Kentucky twice in the regular season, gave up 21 Wildcats points in the fourth quarter and scored only seven. Dre’una Edwards’ 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left in the game lifted Kentucky to a 64-62 victory and its first SEC championship since 1982.

Leveretter, although she didn’t score any points, played a solid role in the victory as a starter, her 10th start of the season.

“It feels amazing,” she said about the victory. “We’ve had a hard year from the beginning to now. Just to think we pushed through all of that and pieced ourselves together to get it done shows what it really means to a lot of us.”

Getting a win over South Carolina was especially meaningful.

“That meant a lot too, just to think that it was my home state,” she said. “My family was there and even though it was intimidating, at the same time it felt great, but I’m glad we got the ‘W.’ That’s the state where I’m from and it makes it mean that much more.”

Nyah Leveretter. Kentucky beats South Carolina 64-62 and becomes SEC Champions. Photo by Grace Bradley | UK Athletics

Leveretter noted her personal struggles earlier in the season.

The 6-3 forward had a storied athletic career at Westwood, which included back-to-back final-four appearances in the state playoffs. She made All-State her senior year, when she averaged 13.3 points and 10 rebounds per game. Not only was she a top academic achiever, Leveretter was also a four-star recruit and a top 100 player in her class, according to ESPN.com.

Yet after her freshman year at Kentucky, those accolades and accomplishments probably seemed distant in Lexington, playing for a team full of achievers who were coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2021.

“I was struggling a lot at the beginning of the year with my confidence,” she said. “I didn’t have much confidence in myself.”

She said her situation took a turn for the better when head coach Kyra Elzy took her out for smoothies and a long talk about Leveretter’s past and future.

“After that I worked on doing my best and working hard,” she said. “I think I improved tremendously. Coach Elzy, Coach (Niya) Butts, Coach Amber (Smith), and Coach G (legendary Duke and Texas head coach Gail Goestenkors, who is anassistant to Elzy) and even Coach (Lee) Taylor in the weight room have boosted my confidence so much that when it came time for me to step up, I was prepared for that.”

Leveretter’s turnaround coincided with the team finally gelling after some difficult moments. 

Teammate Rhyne Howard expressed how the Wildcats put their struggles of playing together behind them in the press conference after the South Carolina game.

“We started having fun,” Howard said. “That’s pretty much it. When things were getting tough, we wasn’t having fun. Basically we acted like we didn’t want to be there, and that’s how it looked, and that’s how it appeared to our fans.

“After we stopped — we had a team meeting, we were like, all right, y’all, this is dead, we cannot end like this, especially with it being a lot of us being seniors and just meaning a lot to ourselves and to Kentucky. We knew we had to get it together and thug it out.”

As for Leveretter, she became a regular starter since Kentucky’s 81-74 win over Mississippi State Feb. 15. She averages 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, with 17 blocks on the year. The numbers may be slight, but all signs indicate that Leveretter is an up-and-comer with the Wildcats.

And Kentucky is a team on the rise, Leveretter says. The SEC championship is nice, but she said the team is focused on staying alive for as long as possible in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re so locked in right now, even when we text in our group chat we talk about what we’re doing and when we get to practice we’re just as intense and just as locked in,” she said. “We know it’s not over. Last week was just a conference championship. We’re focused on winning a national championship and we can do that if we stay locked in and focused.”

Kentucky will find out its seeding in the NCAA women’s basketball selection show Sunday at 8 on ESPN.

Comments

  1. Barry Leveretter says

    Awesome writeup! Biggest takeaway from this is the Head Coach taking the time to take her out for smoothies and encouraging her when she was struggling. Some coaches would have moved on and left it to the player to figure it out on their own. Do your homework recruits/families. Research these coaches/programs the same way they research you!

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