By: ASHLEY SCOBY
DeNesha Stallworth picked up right where she left off last season, scoring 17 points and leading her team to an 83-35 victory over Eckard College in UK’s only exhibition game of the season Sunday.
Stallworth has been on watch lists for national awards this preseason, and was named to the preseason all-SEC team. Head Coach Matthew Mitchell has said previously he expects Stallworth to be one of the best players in the country.
“(It was an) efficient day for her — 22 minutes, 17 points, got on the offensive glass in the second half,” he said. “She made a three, made a baseline jumper, got some at the rim … What we need as a coaching staff is to make sure she’s getting touches. She needs the basketball in her hands.”
Stallworth also got plenty of help in the post: Fellow senior Samarie Walker scored 12 points, and both players pulled down 6 rebounds. Reserve Azia Bishop scored 7 points and grabbed four boards.
Kentucky’s physicality and size were too much for Division-II Eckard College. The Tritons didn’t score a field goal until the 9:17 mark of the first half.
“Their pressure is unlike anything we can even simulate in our practices,” said head coach Paul Honsinger. “When the athletes get out there, sometimes you feel like there’s six or seven or eight of them out there at one time … Those are world-caliber athletes.”
Eckard finished the game 11-42 from the field and 2-8 from behind the arc. The Tritons turned the ball over 41 times, leading to 43 Kentucky points.
Even while holding the Tritons to 15 points in the first half, Kentucky struggled offensively, too. The Cats shot 14-43 in those first 20 minutes. That was when Walker took charge to start the second half.
“We get out to that big lead and then we start missing a bunch of shots, and I thought the energy was low to end the first half,” Mitchell said. “I just loved their response, in particular Samarie’s response. She got one basket off a hustle play that was a tip-in – she was sort of the catalyst for getting our energy back to where it needs to be. I thought she had a fantastic second half.”
Walker only had one shot attempt in the first half to go along with her one rebound. She was 4-6 in the second half for 9 points.
“She’s definitely worked on her attitude this past summer,” Stallworth said of Walker. “She knows she has to step up. She’s been great finding herself.”
This year’s freshman class is also in the business of “finding themselves.” While Kyvin Goodin-Rogers stayed on the bench for the game due to a pulmonary embolism that will keep her out for the entire season, fellow freshmen Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper logged valuable playing time. Epps finished with 10 points in 17 minutes, while Harper had more of a tough shooting night in her 18 minutes, going 4-12 for 8 points.
Walker said that playing in Memorial Coliseum for the first time can be difficult for any shooter, and that it’s more likely to affect freshmen than the veterans who have played there for two or three years.
For Harper, who competed on Team USA’s Under-19 team in Lithuania this summer, the offensive struggles are something she will take with a grain of salt, saying that better shooting performances will come with time. Until then, defense will remain her primary focus.
“I like to rebound, but it’s really just doing the little things,” Harper said. “Being aggressive and playing defense and hustling and bringing effort. … Kentucky is known for the outstanding defense and that was really one of my main goals – just bring a lot of energy and effort.”
That energy is something the veterans are taking notice of: Whether it’s from the freshmen or just the other players on the team, the competitiveness of this group is what shines through the most.
“This is one of the most competitive teams I’ve been a part of,” Walker said. “There are certain drills that we do, and they’re basic drills, but we’re so energized. There’s always some type of competition. It doesn’t matter how small it is.”
Kentucky will take that competitive edge to the season opener in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. against Marist College this Friday. The game will tip off at 7 p.m.
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