LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Azia Bishop is quite content being a contributor for No. 8 Kentucky.
But the Wildcats sophomore showed she has the potential to become a significant factor in the rotation after Sunday's career-best performance against LSU showed that
The Kentucky forward came off the bench to score a career-high 17 points and snare five rebounds in a 73-60 victory that kept the second-place Wildcats (19-2, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) close to Tennessee entering Sunday's game against No. 13 Georgia.
It was Bishop's fourth game back since missing two contests after breaking her left wrist against Alabama on Jan. 6. She returned sooner than expected, though she's not about to supplant starters Samarie Walker or DeNesha Stallworth in the post. But a bigger role in Kentucky's offense is possible for Bishop.
"I have to keep going hard in practice, keep doing the things that coach wants me to do and continue building," Bishop said of instruction she has received from Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell.
"Coach has told me before that I can do a lot for this team. We're good now, but we can be great when I have a great game and be a main factor in taking us to the Final Four. That puts a lot of confidence in my head as well."
Averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds, the 6-foot-3 Bishop seized and created opportunities in a tight, physical game against LSU. A regular substitute for Stallworth and Walker, she scored five points including a 3-pointer in the final 26 seconds of the first half to give the Wildcats a 31-26 lead at intermission.
With the Lady Tigers twice closing within five points in the second half, Bishop answered with baskets to give the Wildcats some room before they eventually pulled away with nine points in the final two minutes. A week that Bishop described as "rough" and included the end of Kentucky's 17-game winning streak at South Carolina ended with a 20-minute performance that marked a personal breakthrough for her and a much-needed rebound for the team.
Not bad considering she's still playing with a brace on her healing wrist.
"When I was hurt I sat out practice and was shooting on the side a lot and working on rebounds and putbacks to get more comfortable with the cast," Bishop said of playing with the cast. "It's helped me shooting-wise with my touch and I've gotten more comfortable."
But it took a few games to reach that point, including the discomfort of a 55-50 loss against the Gamecocks in which the Wildcats' bench combined for just three points and nine rebounds. Mitchell stressed the need for a spark from his reserves and Bishop, who went scoreless in just two minutes of play, took his suggestion to heart in particular.
Bishop responded with an effort against LSU that showed her willingness to mix it up, paying little attention to the wrist other than rolling over and covering it up during a first-half tumble beneath the basket. Mitchell didn't see that physical play or the 3-pointer coming from Bishop, but he obviously wants to see more often.
"What we saw on Sunday is available to her in each practice and each game," Mitchell said, adding that he has talked with Bishop often about her development.
"The thing with Azia is just a decision she needs to make whether she wants to be a really, really good player. She hasn't made the decision enough to this point, but what you saw on Sunday, I was really happy to see. I would like it on a consistent basis and when that happens, then she becomes dependable and those are things that are important to us."
The Toledo, Ohio, native knows that her game must improve before she ponders cracking the starting lineup. Bishop is working on rebounding and finishing plays better in an effort to maximize her time on the floor, hoping it earns more minutes.
In the meantime, she aims to prove that Sunday is an indication of what she will do. No matter what role Bishop plays, "I can be a factor for the team," she said.