LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Maci Morris thought she would spend most of her freshman season at Kentucky settling in, getting used to big-time college basketball. Instead, she has become a significant contributor for the ninth-ranked Wildcats.
On Thursday night, she'll play in the biggest game of her brief college career.
The 6-foot Morris is averaging 9.5 points and has started every game for the Wildcats (13-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), who host No. 2 and unbeaten South Carolina (15-0, 3-0 SEC).
''I didn't think I would be playing as much as I am now,'' said Morris, a former Kentucky Miss Basketball from Bell County High School. ''I'm blessed to have the opportunity that I have and I'm going to take full advantage of that.''
Kentucky has needed her to do just that.
The departures of four Wildcats - including veterans Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers over a six-week stretch earlier this season - created opportunities for many players on a depleted Kentucky team seeking depth in a hurry.
Morris has thrived, especially when she gets the ball behind the arc.
For Kentucky to upset South Carolina, Morris needs to continue to play and help fellow Kentucky guards Makayla Epps (16.1 points) and Janee Thompson (12.8). The Gamecocks are led by reigning two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell and a versatile front line featuring A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates.
''It's a huge game for us,'' Morris added. ''We just have to work hard, come out with energy and be ready to play. We're definitely going to have to help the post out. We have our game plan; we just have to stick to it.''
Morris has excelled on both ends of the floor.
She ranks second on the team with 25 3-pointers on 56 attempts (45 percent) including five made 3s the past two games. Two came during a 10-point third quarter in last Thursday's win over Alabama, a day after her grandfather Victor ''Pap'' Morris was buried.
Before her grandfather died she missed all seven shots in a 66-61 loss at Auburn but is 7 of 16 from the field since.
''Mentally, she finds a way to make a contribution,'' Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said of Morris. ''She has a great knack for figuring out mentally how (she) can function'' on the floor.
The coach added, ''She's contributing right now, because she shows up and works really hard, has a great attitude and she has shown a great ability to make shots when she's open.''
Mitchell has also been pleased with Morris' defensive development. She has 29 rebounds and 13 steals and must come up big in those areas to give Kentucky a chance to hand South Carolina its first loss of the season.
Morris has already done well adjusting to college and Kentucky's roster upheaval. She credits teammates and the coaching staff for helping her through that transition, along with her personal loss.
The next step is helping Kentucky take down the Gamecocks.
''We have great team chemistry and we want to see each other succeed,'' said Morris, who has devoted the rest of the season to playing for her grandfather. ''We have great team leaders in Janee and Epps. If we can continue what we've been doing, we can do something special this year.''