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By CHARLES ODUM
AP Sports Writer
DULUTH, Ga. (AP) — Bria Goss scored 14 points and No. 12 Kentucky upset No. 5 South Carolina 68-58 Saturday to advance to the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game.
DeNesha Stallworth and Linnae Harper each had 12 points for Kentucky (24-7), which will play Sunday in its fourth SEC tournament final in the last five years. The Wildcats won their only title in 1982.
South Carolina (27-4), the SEC regular-season champion, had 16 turnovers, most coming in the first 10 minutes. The Gamecocks were playing in only their second semifinal, following an appearance in 2012.
The Gamecocks scored the game’s first points on a basket by Elem Ibiam, who had 16 points. Kentucky scored the next 12 points and never lost the lead.
South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell, selected by coaches as the SEC player of the year, had 11 points while making only 4 of 12 shots.
Kentucky took its second straight SEC tournament win over a team that swept the Wildcats in the regular season. Kentucky beat Florida in the quarterfinals.
The Gamecocks battled turnovers and cold shooting during Kentucky’s early 12-0 run.
Ibiam, the 6-foot-4 center, ended South Carolina’s 7-minute scoring drought with an inside basket, but the Gamecocks’ struggles kept coming. When Epps scored to give Kentucky a 19-11 lead, South Carolina’s 11 turnovers matched its points.
Bria Goss sank back-to-back 3-pointers to give Kentucky its big lead of the half at 33-20. Ibiam had 12 points in the half, including South Carolina’s last three baskets before the break, to trail 37-29.
Kentucky again stretched its lead to 13 points in the second half. South Carolina never made a serious surge, pulling no closer than eight points in the final 20 minutes.
Trailing by 12 points, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley pulled her starters with 1:16 remaining.
Aleighsa Welch had 12 points for South Carolina, and Makayla Epps added 10 points for Kentucky.
No. 12 KENTUCKY 68, No. 5 SOUTH CAROLINA 58
KENTUCKY (24-7): Stallworth 5-14 2-5 12, Walker 3-6 0-0 6, Thompson 0-2 0-0 0, Goss 3-7 6-7 14, Evans 1-2 3-4 5, O’Neill 3-6 0-0 7, Pinkett 0-0 0-0 0, Sidney 0-0 0-0 0, Harper 5-9 2-6 12, Epps 4-9 1-3 10, Bishop 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 25-59 14-25 68.
SOUTH CAROLINA (27-4): Welch 4-8 4-10 12, Dozier 0-7 0-0 0, Ibiam 7-10 2-2 16, Sessions 1-3 0-0 2, Mitchell 4-12 2-2 11, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Montout 1-1 0-0 2, Davis 1-1 0-0 2, Morrison 1-1 0-0 2, Roy 2-4 0-0 5, Coates 2-5 2-4 6. Totals 23-52 10-18 58.
Halftime_Kentucky 37-29. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 4-9 (Goss 2-3, O’Neill 1-1, Epps 1-3, Thompson 0-1, Evans 0-1), South Carolina 2-10 (Roy 1-2, Mitchell 1-2, Sessions 0-2, Dozier 0-4). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Kentucky 34 (Walker 6), South Carolina 39 (Coates 9). Assists_Kentucky 11 (Epps, Harper, O’Neill, Thompson 2), South Carolina 12 (Mitchell, Welch 3). Total Fouls_Kentucky 18, South Carolina 19. A_NA.
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By: ASHLEY SCOBY
Kentucky scored the most points it has since Southeastern Conference play began, and the No. 18 Wildcats took down Mississippi, 108-78, Thursday night.
By the 6:34 mark of the second half, Kentucky had already scored more points (86) than it had in any other SEC contest to date. Sparked by a 20-36 shooting performance in the second half, the Wildcats made former Kentucky assistant and current Mississippi head coach Matt Insell’s homecoming a bittersweet one.
“It was exciting to see that we could get back to playing the way we were once before,” said Kentucky junior guard Jennifer O’Neill.
O’Neill led the offensive charge for the Wildcats with 27 points on 8-15 shooting (5-7 from the three-point line). She also swished all six of her free throws.
“She doesn’t have to score 27 every night but she needs to go out and try to get 27 every night mentally,” Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said “Her mentality needs to be one of aggressiveness and attack. It’s just such a big difference when she does what she did tonight.”
O’Neill made 3 of 9 shots in the first half, but hit a scorching 83 percent in the second half, including 3 of 3 from behind the arc.
Kentucky built a 14-point lead by the 6:15 mark of the first half, but Mississippi went on an 18-11 run to close the gap to seven with 4 seconds remaining until the break. But O’Neill took an inbounds pass, drove the length of the court and nailed a jumper at the buzzer to bump Kentucky back out in front by a nine-point margin.
“Shooting the ball helps you a whole lot,” Mitchell said. “Instead of 2 for 16, we were 8 for 16 from three, and everybody just gets fired up and everybody gets going.”
O’Neill’s shot at the buzzer, although not a three-pointer, fired her team up to shoot lights out in the second half. The Wildcats shot 55.6 percent in the final 20 minutes, including 57 percent of their three-pointers during that period. Meanwhile, they held Mississippi to 38.5 percent shooting in the second half (37.5 for the game).
The hot shooting performance from the Wildcats was not led solely by O’Neill from behind the arc. Kentucky outscored the Rebels in the paint, too, 46-26.
Mississippi was led by a career performance from junior forward Tia Faleru, who came into the game leading the SEC in rebounding average (9.5). She finished with 31 points and 16 rebounds (six offensive).
“I didn’t think we really met the one-on-one challenge that was created by Faleru,” Mitchell said. “She’s a very, very active player. Offense was really good. Defense, we can get better.”
Offensively, Mitchell was pleased with the performance of his preseason All-American. DeNesha Stallworth finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, her best performance since coming off a mid-season knee injury in December.
The combination of two solid Stallworth and O’Neill performances earned praise from their former assistant coach.
“They’re real good when DeNesha Stallworth plays. They’re even better when Jennifer O’Neill plays,” Insell said. “So you get both of those clicking together on the same night like they had tonight, that’s a team right there that has a chance to play in Nashville.”
Kentucky went on a 12-3 run out of the locker room to take a 20-point lead at the 16:32 mark of the second half, and there was no slowing down from there. The Wildcats’ lead would not fall below 14 points for the rest of the game.
“It felt really good, just getting our confidence back and us just having fun again and us just believing in ourselves and just trusting one another,” Stallworth said. “It just felt fantastic, especially going into the next game versus Tennessee.”
For complete coverage of the UK women’s basketball team, including stats and notes from today’s win over Mississippi, visit wildcathoops.com.
By ASHLEY SCOBY
It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.
But it might be a little about how you start, too.
Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell took that mindset into Sunday’s game against Arkansas, after his team dropped a stunner to unranked Alabama last Thursday. Mitchell switched up the starting lineup to include Jelleah Sidney (Sunday’s was her first career start) and Jennifer O’Neill, who started much of last season at point guard.
Relegated to the bench were sophomore point guard Janee Thompson and senior forward DeNesha Stallworth. Stallworth, whose name has appeared on several watch lists for National Player of the Year awards, only played 10 minutes, scoring 3 points and grabbing 3 rebounds.
Although Stallworth had been working herself back into the lineup after returning from knee surgery, Mitchell said her limited minutes had nothing to do with her health.
In fact, some of Mitchell’s post-game comments seemed to be directed right at his preseason All-SEC pick.
“If we can get our post players playing with the kind of fire that Jelleah and Azia (Bishop) play – they didn’t play great offensively but they gave us some energy and effort and they looked like they didn’t want to lose there and really got us going in the second half,” he said. “Our post players didn’t finish today very well.”
Bernisha Pinkett, a reserve guard who had been averaging a little less than 10 minutes per game this year, didn’t check into the game once.
“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” Mitchell said after Kentucky used that starting lineup switch-up to beat Arkansas, 68-58 on Sunday. “No more telling them how everything’s going to be all right.”
Because everything might not be all right this year. This team came in with lofty expectations of earning a No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament and finally reaching a Final Four after being bounced from the Elite Eight in three of four years.
But the Wildcats have stumbled to a 16-4 record, including a 4-3 mark in conference play, losing to SEC teams Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. Two of those losses came at Memorial Coliseum, where Kentucky has traditionally had an overwhelming winning record.
The lowest point of the season came on Thursday, when the Crimson Tide stormed into Lexington and took Kentucky down, 57-55.
“I’m just telling you we’re not showing up and playing like we played Thursday night,” Mitchell said after his team bounced back from that loss with the 68-58 win against Arkansas.
“That’s an embarrassment, and that’s nothing against Alabama. They deserved to win the game, but we’re just not going to do that. I’m in charge of that, and so my mentality is going to be we are going to play like a Kentucky team.”
Playing “like a Kentucky team” will include much more competitive practices, according to Mitchell, where playing time during games will be dictated by how much fire the players show during practices.
According to Thompson, part of that competitive spirit will be fueled by Mitchell’s changed mindset.
“I do think he was being a little light on us and trying to stay positive,” she said after the Arkansas win. “His mentality is now better because it kind of lights a fire under us at times and it makes us play harder and that showed in the game today.”
Junior Bria Goss thought the Alabama loss could be a “turning point” in the season, especially after getting back on track against Arkansas on Sunday.
How this Kentucky team has started might matter in the long run, but not because of the losses. That 4-3 start in league play can serve as the springboard to the successful season this team anticipated, according to Mitchell and his players.
“We’ve worked hard to build this program to be known for something, and that’s what we are going to do, or if we don’t it’s not going to be comfortable around here,” Mitchell said. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to make sure this thing gets to where it needs to be.”
Final Score: No. 5/6 Kentucky – 133, No. 9/9 Baylor – 130 (4 OT)
Team Records and Series Notes
- UK improved to 9-0 on the season, giving the Wildcats their first 9-0 start since 2009-10 and second time in the Matthew Mitchell era.
- The Wildcats’ extended their winning streak to nine games, tying the seventh-longest in school history.
- UK is 24-23 all-time in overtime games and 5-2 in the Mitchell era. It marked the first OT game of the season.
- The four overtime game was the first in school history.
- Kentucky’s all-time record is 695-477 (.593) in 40 seasons of varsity basketball.
- Mitchell is in his seventh season as the head coach of the Wildcats and owns a record of 153-62 at UK. Overall, Mitchell is 183-91 in nine seasons.
- He already ranks first on UK’s all-time wins list with 153 and winning percentage (.712).
- UK and Baylor are tied in the all-time series 1-1 and 5-7 all-time vs. opponents from the Big 12.
- The Wildcats have won seven consecutive vs. non-conference opponents on the road.
- The Wildcats have now won 19 straight regular season non-conference games.
- In close games (games decided by 10 points or less), UK is 58-34 (.630 percent) under Coach Mitchell, including 2-0 this season.
- The win marks the second straight over a top 10 opponent on the season and the first time in school history UK has defeated top 10 opponents in back-to-back games.
- The win marks UK’s first over a ninth-ranked opponent.
- Next up: UK heads to the Windy City to face DePaul on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. ET, with the game being broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
- UK scored 100-plus points for the fourth time this season and improved to 43-0 all time and 11-0 under Coach Mitchell when scoring 100 or more points.
- The 133 points marked a school record for points scored in a game.
- The 263 combined points set a new NCAA record.
- The Wildcats shot 41.9 percent (39-of-93) from the field, while holding the Lady Bears to 42.9 percent (45-of-105).
- Kentucky was 49-of-66 (.742 percent) from the free-throw line, which were both school records.
- UK converted on 31.6 percent (6-of-19) from beyond the arc, while holding BU to 33.3 percent (7-of-21) from 3-point range.
- All 11 Wildcats in uniform saw action in the game.
- Five Wildcats finished in double figures.
- Kentucky forced 28 Baylor turnovers, marking the eighth consecutive game the Wildcats have forced 20-plus turnovers.
- Of the 28 turnovers, nine of them were steals.
- The Wildcats were outrebounded by Baylor, 68-56.
- UK dished out a season-high 31 assists, just three shy of the school record (34 vs. Western Kentucky on Feb. 16, 1981).
- Junior Jennifer O’Neill set a school record with a career-high 43 points. She broke Valerie Still’s record of 42 vs. Charleston on Dec. 19, 1982.
- O’Neill has registered 10-plus points in eight of the nine games this season, all off the bench.
- O’Neill finished 14-of-31 from the field and 13-of-19 from the free throw line, which were all career highs.
- Her 31 field goal attempts were a school record.
- The 13 free throws made tie for fourth all time, while the 19 attempts are a school record.
- Tied a season high with six assists.
- Sophomore Janee Thompson scored a career-high 20 points.
- Thompson was 7-of-16 from the field, which were both career highs.
- Thompson was a career-high tying 6-of-7 from the free throw line
- She picked up her sixth double-digit game of the season.
- Senior DeNesha Stallworth registered 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field and 8-10 from the free throw line, while also grabbing nine boards.
- Stallworth’s 10 free throw attempts tied a career high.
- Her four steals were a team high, while also tying a season high.
- Senior Kastine Evans recorded her seventh double-digit scoring effort of the season with 14 points.
- Was a season-best 6-of-7 at the charity stripe.
- Junior Bria Goss scored 13 points with 11 of them coming from the free-throw line (11-of-12).
- Set new career highs in free throws made and attempted.
- Grabbed a season-best six rebounds.
- Freshman Makayla Epps tied a career-best with nine points, while pulling down a career-high four rebounds.
- Junior Azia Bishop dished out a career-high three assists.
- Senior Samarie Walker saw her streak of consecutive games with at least one steal come to an end at 27 games.
- Walker claimed a team-high 10 rebounds, marking her fifth double-digit rebounding game of the season.
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.
For in-depth coverage of the UK women’s basketball team, visit wildcathoops.com or follow on Twitter @WildcatHoops1.
Here is part of what senior forward DeNesha Stallworth, an All-American candidate, had to say at UK’s Media Day Tuesday.
On the team’s expectations…
“Everything. SEC Champions, (SEC) Tournament Champions, Final Four, National Champions. We are trying to do it all. We have been doing really well in practice and are going to keep getting better daily.”
On her personal expectations and how her game has changed since last season…
“I am just trying to be more consistent and help out my teammates more by not taking those plays off or taking games off. That is my main focus, consistency and working hard for my team.”
On head coach Matthew Mitchell dancing at Big Blue Madness…
“It’s crazy, but that is what he does. He is so enthusiastic and such a great entertainer. He did a great job.”
On if she feels pressure with Coach Mitchell saying she is the most gifted player on the team…
“I don’t feel any pressure at all. When he says things like that it is something that players should believe in. I think he is really just trying to build confidence in everybody. I will take full responsibility in doing that and trying to get better for my team.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky senior DeNesha Stallworth promises that the players have no more idea than fans what coach Matthew Mitchell might do at Big Blue Madness.
“I promise. We are just as surprised as the fans,” she said.
Do they like the gyrations/moves their coach does?
“He makes us so proud,” she said. “Our coach can move. He has some rhythm. It is very fun knowing he cares on and off the court about us. After practice, we can joke with him. I don’t know if you could do that with an old coach. It’s good he has that young spirit that he shows off at Madness.”
Mitchell and his wife did name their second child Presley Blue last week. Could that mean Elvis Presley is in the plans for tonight?
“I had not thought of that. But that would make sense,” Stallworth said.
I asked Mitchell the same thing at the Score International fundraiser. He would not confirm or deny anything.
“But I can see where you could draw that conclusion,” Mitchell said.
And yes, if anyone is wondering, the name Presley is in honor of Elvis Presley, a Mississippi native just like Mitchell.
The coach did joke that he tried to get John Calipari to join him doing the “Blues Brothers” at Madness.
“I told Coach I would do all the hard stuff. He just had to stand and move a little bit,” Mitchell said. “But he wanted no part of that.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s men basketball team is ranked No. 1 in many preseason polls and most UK fans believe the Cats will win their ninth national title this year. However, the UK women also have high expectations despite losing SEC player of the year A’Dia Mathies.
DeNesha Stallworth, last year’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder, is the top returning player for coach Matthew Mitchell, who has gone 111-30 over the past four seasons. The Wildcats lost 83-53 to eventual national champion Connecticut last year.
“The Final Four and SEC championship. That’s what we want,” Stallworth said. “I think we could win a national championship if we all buy into the system and if we all just contribute on the floor.”
So could Kentucky win two national titles this year?
“How cool would that be? Has it ever been done?” Stallworth asked before learning UConn had done it. “We both believe we can do it this year. We never really talk about both teams winning, but that would be very cool.”
No matter how many players he has back or how his team did the previous season, Matthew Mitchell worries about the same things going into any season.
“I have the same concerns because every season is different and the goal for me every season is to bring the players together and make a team,” said the Kentucky women’s coach. “My concern this year will be are we able to mesh together and really care about each other at the level of a real team. That is always a concern every year and it would be a mistake to ever take that for granted.
“Even if you have a veteran team like we do this year, you can’t take it for granted. I have made that mistake assuming you have a veteran team back so everything is automatic. I have found out you have to stick to the principles of your program every year. You start from scratch to build a team every season, so that’s why I have the same concern about getting that job done every year.”
Yet don’t misinterpret that and think Mitchell is not excited about what lies ahead for his team. His team went 30-6 last year and has won 25 or more games four straight seasons. In just six years, he has become UK’s all-time winningest coach with 144 victories.
“I am just looking forward to what we can become,” the coach said. “I am always optimistic that we can get it done, but you never know how it might unfold. I approach this year with a lot of excitement to see what will work and can I use all the experience I have gained over the years to build a great team. I put a lot of time into preparation for this season and now it’s time to start seeing what will work.”
He has a veteran team with experience at every position along with depth after he went to a two-platoon system last year to create even more defensive havoc with UK’s fast-paced style.
“We have a lot of players coming back that had successful years and did well. The way we approach things is that we need a lot of people to play well because of the way we like to play,” Mitchell said.
Big hopes for Stallworth, Walker
However, there are two players — 6-3 senior DeNesha Stallworth and 6-1 senior Samarie Walker — he would like to see make a big jump this year. Stallworth transferred to UK from California while Walker was a transfer from Connecticut.
“I would love to see DeNesha reach her potential,” Mitchell said. “I always think the first year off a transfer year is filled with challenges to get back in your rhythm. She had a great year being first-team all-conference, but I think she is an All-American type player. I would love for fans to see her put it all together,” Mitchell said. “I would love to see the same thing for Samarie. I would love for her to play her best during her senior year. Those two players are going to be really important to our success.
“Then when you talk about our guards, there are so many good players. Bria Goss needs to step into that go-to scorer role on the perimeter. Kastine Evans has really improved her game in the offseason and is poised to have a great senior year. Jennifer O’Neill had a really good sophomore year and is one of the more explosive and dynamic players on the team. They are all important.
“I feel kind of silly talking about almost every player on the roster being important, but we have a deep roster. It’s hard to single out players that we need to really step up their game, but I would like to see that out of Denisha and Samarie.”
His players do feel they are all “important” and junior guard Bria Goss insists the team does not have a “best” player because everyone has talent.
“I love that type of confidence,” Mitchell said. “Bria is a leader on and off the court. She has high character, does things the right way, cares about Kentucky. It means something to her to play for the blue and white. She has high personal standards that matches what I have. I hope she is right about the talent, too.”
Dunlap, Mathies changed UK program
As Mitchell looks back, he quickly acknowledges that two recruits — Nashville’s Victoria Dunlap and Louisville’s A’dia Mathies — changed the face of UK women’s basketball.
“They both had the talent to get you over the hump in game with singular plays that we needed. It’s really hard to build a program we have where everyone contributes, so I don’t think a lot about most important players,” Mitchell said. “But if you ask me, those two players, with a lot of help from kids who played hard and supported them, made plays that only players of their ability and talent can make. They are very important to this program, but who knows what the future holds. But what happened during their careers is that Kentucky went from being okay and borderline not that good to a top 10 program.”