The light comes on for different players at different times. For Maddie Scherr, it happened during SEC play in her first season at Kentucky after two years at Oregon.
She doubled her scoring average from 7.3 against non-conference opponents to 14.9 in the league. She set new career highs three times against ranked conference opponents with 22 points against LSU, 25 against South Carolina and 27 against Tennessee.
Back in her home state, where she had been Miss Kentucky Basketball in 2020, the 5-11 guard started to perform like the consensus top-20 national recruit she was coming out of Ryle High School. "Maddie Scherr is a pro," coach Kyra Elzy said. "I think she came in a year ago and was baptized by fire, was still trying to find her way, her voice on this team. Towards the end of last year she found that. This summer she's really emerged as the leader on this team." A role player at Oregon, Scherr acknowledged that it took her time to fit in with the Wildcats and adjust to the speed and physicality of the SEC.
"I had a much different role at Oregon," she said. "It was a shift in mindset. It was just pushing through and getting comfortable in a new role."
As a team, Kentucky didn't hit its stride until March. The Wildcats won only two regular-season conference games, but they matched that number in the SEC Tournament before falling to Tennessee in the quarterfinals.
"That was the momentum that we needed," Elzy said. "Something that we could build on over the summer. Now they knew what they were capable of. They didn't have to question or doubt it. They took that into the summer, along with a lot of hard work."
Now it's up to Kentucky to start a season the way it's grown accustomed to finishing, an end-of-season trend that includes capturing the 2022 SEC Tournament title.
A rejuvenated Ajae Petty will be key to a hot start. After two years at LSU, the 6-3 forward struggled through an uneven first season in Lexington. She then took her work ethic to a new level, earning the team's MVP award after summer workouts.
"It feels good to have some recognition," Petty said, "knowing that anything I want in life, I can have."
With Petty ready to establish herself in the post from game one and Scherr poised to do the same on the perimeter, there's a new-found confidence and optimism in the locker room. "Now," Elzy said, "everyone is invested."