Kentucky's Rhyne Howard is espnW's player of the week

Howard gets the and-1 bucket off the steal (0:22)

Rhyne Howard gets the steal and finishes the play with an and-1 layup. (0:22)

Editor's note: Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel each vote to determine espnW's national player of the week, which is awarded every Monday of the women's college basketball season.

Rhyne Howard showed yet again this past week why she has a chance to lead the SEC in more than a few things. Leading the conference in moral victories, mind you, she could do without.

The espnW player of the week made that point rather emphatically Sunday in No. 13 Kentucky's win against No. 22 Tennessee. Howard's career-best 37 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks filled the box score and gave the Wildcats their first win this season against a ranked opponent.

It was a commanding individual performance. Howard learned the hard way it needed to be.

Kentucky's sophomore was sensational three weeks ago in a rivalry game against Louisville. Even Cardinals coach Jeff Walz volunteered afterward that she was the best player on the court that December day in Lexington. But when Howard's potential game-winning shot at the buzzer missed the mark, such praise was poor consolation for the end of Kentucky's unbeaten start to the season.

Howard was unstoppable in propelling her team to a big halftime lead in that game. But when she was merely mortal in the second half, the lead and commonwealth bragging rights slipped away.

Then came Thursday's visit to No. 4 South Carolina and a reminder that, like being the best team in the state, being the best team in the SEC is still a work in progress. Howard scored 28 points, more points than she ever had in a conference game. She had some turnovers, but she got to the free throw line (8-for-11), showed off her 3-point range (4-for-8) and generally demonstrated why Dawn Staley so badly wanted her to wear a South Carolina uniform in the first place.

Howard scored nearly as many points Thursday as she did in two games against the Gamecocks a season ago -- and she helped the Wildcats win one of those games as a freshman.

Yet, Thursday's game was all but settled by halftime, Howard's individual success insufficient.

Another valiant effort in defeat. Another moral victory. Another day without a win against a ranked foe -- something Kentucky hadn't earned since that South Carolina game last February.

Howard probably didn't know exactly how many days she waited for another win against a ranked team, but she came out Sunday like someone who understood it all the same.

She had an assist on Kentucky's first field goal. Playing point guard at 6-foot-2, she didn't hesitate when two defenders lingered near her. She found KeKe McKinney, who set the screen that created the defensive logjam, for an open 3-pointer.

Both Tennessee defenders ended up underneath a screen in a moment of confusion the next time down the court. Well beyond the 3-point line, Howard calmly knocked down the shot.

She hit another 3-pointer off an inbounds play on the next possession, but only after narrowly missing out on another assist on a drive through the lane.

She can do those things against anyone, which is why Staley compared her recently to Kevin Durant.

But this time she wasn't going to leave with a moral victory. Tennessee had regained the lead by halftime. Howard helped reclaim it early in the third quarter. Then she went to work extending it, scoring eight of her team's 10 points in one stretch that pushed the lead to 13 points.

Tennessee didn't go away, but it had too much to overcome. Howard made sure of it.

In victory and defeat, Howard made her case this week as the SEC's best player. She is a player who can do everything -- can amass more of everything than anyone else

Except moral victories, if she has any say in it.

Also considered: Veronica Burton, Northwestern; Te'a Cooper, Baylor; Elissa Cunane, NC State; Lauren Heard, TCU; Kiara Lewis, Syracuse; Natasha Mack, Oklahoma State.

Previous winners: Kaila Charles, Maryland (Dec. 30); Charli Collier, Texas (Dec. 23); Ashley Joens, Iowa State (Dec. 16); Megan Walker, UConn (Dec. 9); Dana Evans, Louisville (Dec. 2); Jaelyn Brown, Cal (Nov. 25); Aari McDonald, Arizona (Nov. 18); Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon (Nov. 11)