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By ASHLEY SCOBY
The point guard: Just like the quarterback in football or the pitcher in baseball, whether for better or worse, it’s the position that is the de facto leader of a team. For the UK Hoops team this year, Jennifer O’Neill has taken on that role and developed into one of the biggest keys to the team’s success, according to coach Matthew Mitchell.
It has been a roller coaster ride – O’Neill didn’t earn her starting position until a couple games into the season against Morehead State. She has been called out by her coach for not having enough energy in practice. When asked by a reporter about O’Neill not having “the best” assist/turnover ratio during a span of games, Mitchell responded with, “I would say it’s the worst.”
But as Kentucky heads into the SEC tournament this week, O’Neill has become the focal point of the team, and a key to how deep of a run they can make into March (or April).
“I thought when we’ve been really good, Jennifer O’Neill’s been a major factor in all those games,” Mitchell said. “Jennifer’s personality just off the court sometimes is a little subdued, and you might find that surprising as dynamic as she can be on the court. But anytime that there’s a drop in energy or focus from her, it really affects the personality of our backcourt. Jennifer’s really, in my mind, the key and the catalyst to our backcourt. When she is aggressive and energetic and focused, I think it’s one of the more dynamic backcourts in the country.”
In games where Kentucky has won by at least 10 points this season, O’Neill has averaged 2.67 assists and 2.22 turnovers. To contrast that, O’Neill has averaged 1.75 assists and 4.25 turnovers in the Cats’ four losses this season.
In the regular season finale at Memorial Coliseum Sunday, O’Neill was also instrumental in pushing the pace of the game into a frenzied affair that Tennessee struggled to keep up with. The Volunteers were forced into 31 turnovers, including 6 from co-SEC Player of the Year Meighan Simmons.
There was a point in the game where O’Neill, in a display of her offensive prowess, drove the length of the court to lay the ball in for a double-digit Kentucky lead. That kind of play is something her teammates are constantly anticipating, and one that catches opponents off-guard, especially when they’re tired.
“We work on that every day,” teammate Kastine Evans said. “Coach Mitchell always brings that up, like there’s going to be one time during the game where she’s going to go coast-to-coast…She always has that in the back of her mind. We want to push the tempo. We want to be quick and up and down, especially when fatigue is starting to hit.”
That quickness is something that has been in O’Neill’s favor all year, and something that will give her an advantage heading into postseason. Her defense, however, is also key.
“Her energy and focus in practice started moving away from concentrating on defense and being really solid there,” Mitchell said after the Texas A&M game, during a point in the season where O’Neill was struggling. “We’ll be addressing with her how important it is for her to start her game from a defensive mindset and it seems like it flows from there.”
Those meetings with her coach and those weeks of practice since Mitchell’s comments have helped O’Neill develop even further into the kind of player the team expects her to be. Whether it’s on the defensive or offensive side, O’Neill has taken on the role of point guard and is running with it at full speed.
What remains to be seen is whether that speed will take her team coast-to-coast into the SEC (or NCAA) finals.
Kentucky will play Friday at 6 p.m. against the winner of the Missouri-Vanderbilt game. The matchup will be for a spot in the semifinals on Saturday.