GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON — Jennifer O’Neill is making the most of opportunities coming off the bench for ninth-ranked Kentucky.
The 5-foot-6 junior point guard enters Thursday night’s Southeastern Conference game against Alabama (8-10, 1-4) leading the Wildcats (15-3, 3-2) with 12.7 points and 3.4 assists per game. Pretty good, considering O’Neill’s only start this season came nearly two weeks ago against Missouri.
Though O’Neill’s school-record 43-point performance keyed Kentucky’s 133-130, four-overtime win over No. 12 Baylor last month, her late defensive stop preserved Sunday’s 73-71 victory by preventing Auburn from attempting a potential game-tying shot.
O’Neill’s team-high 16 points in that game also demonstrate the consistency has helped supplant forward DeNesha Stallworth (12.2 points) atop the stat sheet.
“I just try to do whatever I can play and play my role,” said O’Neill, who seemed somewhat shocked to discover that she’s the Wildcats’ top scorer. “Whatever (coach) Matthew (Mitchell) needs me to do is what I’m trying to do.”
O’Neill leads four Wildcats averaging in double-figure scoring entering the rematch against the Crimson Tide. Kentucky beat Alabama 85-63 in its SEC opener behind her team-high 17 points along with four assists and two steals.
That effort filled a critical offensive void as the Wildcats played their last game minus Stallworth while she recovered from knee surgery. The senior forward has posted a couple of 11-point games since returning, but O’Neill’s contributions have been especially important as Stallworth tries to regain form.
“The way she plays just from a leadership standpoint, I think she can give us a whole lot,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “I think she can do even better than what she’s doing now.”
The Bronx, N.Y., native finished third in scoring at 10.9 points per game last season while starting 32 of 35 contests but has split time this year with sophomore starter Janee Thompson. Mitchell’s move that was intended to reinforce the Wildcats’ depth at the point has ended up producing nearly similar numbers for both players.
Thompson is fifth in scoring, averaging 9.8 points along with 3.2 assists in just over 20 minutes per game. O’Neill’s 26 steals are just two more than her teammate, who’s shooting slightly better (40 percent-38 percent).
Starting games watching Thompson from the bench has provided O’Neill a good perspective on what to do when she enters.
“I’m seeing the game differently,” O’Neill said. “I have (assistant coach) Jeff House beside me, who’s showing me the gaps and openings of the defenses and is telling me what kind of plays I should run or what I should look for in transition, so I kind of have a cheat sheet to an exam.”
There’s no doubt what O’Neill will and can do if left open on the perimeter, entering Thursday tied with senior Kastine Evans with 26 3-pointers. Ironically, O’Neill made just 2 of 7 from long range in her career game that was crafted on 12-of-24 shooting from elsewhere and 13 free throws.
Sunday’s game demonstrated her defensive impact as O’Neill kept the Tigers’ Katie Frerking from getting a final shot off. The play capped a 32-minute outing that proved the importance of having an effect no matter the role.
“It’s a little bit of both, playing it out and creating something,” O’Neill said of her approach. “If I have an opening I’m going to be aggressive, but if I don’t, I just have to be poised and make sure my teammates are touching the ball.”