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Matthew Mitchell

By: ASHLEY SCOBY

Syracuse chipped and chipped away but didn’t crack the No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats in the Round of 32 on Monday. Kentucky, playing on its home court for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, withstood several Syracuse runs to take away a 64-59 victory and a spot in the Sweet 16.

The Sweet 16 berth is Kentucky’s third in a row – the first time in school history the Wildcats have put together that kind of post-season streak.

That streak was in jeopardy early, though, as the Orange would never let Kentucky get comfortable. The Wildcats held a 40-29 lead with 15:51 remaining, and looked to be on its way to another large-scale victory like their 106-60 one over Wright State in Saturday’s first round.

But Syracuse did what it had done over and over again in the first half, and that was cut Kentucky’s lead and deflate cushion after cushion that the Wildcats created.

“I woke up feeling the W. I really did,” said Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman. “Every time we thought we turned the corner, they got a steal … They got an offensive rebound.”

After Kentucky gained its 11-point lead by the first media timeout of the second half, Syracuse started its pattern of runs. Off three straight Briana Day baskets and a couple of Brianna Butler free throws, Syracuse cut it to five points at 42-37 with 13:38 remaining.

But Kentucky’s Jennifer O’Neill nabbed a steal on the defensive end and assisted on a Makayla Epps bucket. A Jelleah Sidney putback got the Wildcats’ lead back to nine.

Rachel Coffey was the Orange player that would have something to say about that Kentucky cushion next, though. She hit a layup with 12:02 to go, then a three-pointer at 11:53 to sneak within 46-44 of Kentucky.

“I think the three Rachel had hit for us really showed us that we could really do this thing,” Butler said. “I think it increased our intensity and made us go even harder. I think it was a pivotal moment for us.”

For Kentucky, that same play did not faze its routine.

“I honestly don’t even remember when they cut it down to that amount of points,” said senior Kastine Evans. “I think we were really just focused on getting out and pushing. That’s something we’ve always focused on, don’t necessarily worry what the score is. Just keep running and pushing the pace.”

That pace was favorable for the run-and-gun Wildcats, who forced 23 Syracuse turnovers and scored 21 points off them. When Kentucky shot 21 of 58 from the field, and missed several point-black shots at the rim, grabbing those steals (15 for the night) and loose balls was crucial.

“I’m so proud of the players on a night where clearly the ball wouldn’t go in the basket for us and we didn’t always make the best decisions, that they were able to create and force 23 turnovers and get them at crucial times down the stretch,” Mitchell said.

Once Coffey hit her three-pointer, two Bria Goss free throws s gave Kentucky breathing room, as would be the case multiple times throughout the night. Her two foul shots at the 10:34 mark got Kentucky’s lead back to four, which was then built to 10 with the help of an O’Neill three-pointer, Evans jumper and two more Goss foul shots.

By the final media timeout, Syracuse had cut the Wildcats’ lead in half once again thanks to jump shots from Butler, Day and Alexis Peterson.

Goss hit three more free throws down the final stretch, and finished 11 of 12 from the line. Her foul shot with 18 seconds on the clock set the final score of 64-59, and gave Kentucky the chance to finally exhale.

“She (Bria) is always up for any role we ask her to take,” said senior Samarie Walker, who led Kentucky in rebounding with seven boards. “She’s the hustle player and plays with a lot of heart and that’s something I look up to.”

Goss, who finished with 17 points, had six of those in the first half, when the Wildcats struggled from the field, shooting 10 of 32. DeNesha Stallworth paced Kentucky in that first period, scoring in double figures with 10.

The see-saw quality of the second half was a reflection of what happened from the opening tip on. After playing to a 14-14 tie, Kentucky went on a 12-4 run in the next 7:29 to take a 26-18 lead with 4:35 until halftime.

With a Janee Thompson layup, Kentucky took a double digit lead at 30-20, which Syracuse promptly cut in half with a Butler three-pointer and a Peterson steal and layup.

The Orange’s tendency to close every margin came on a night where they were missing their leading scorer, Brittney Sykes, who injured her knee in Syracuse’s first round contest against Chattanooga. While Syrcause certainly could have used Sykes’ scoring, her absence inspired her teammates.

“Because their (Syracuse’s) player did get hurt, they were going to come out and play hard for her,” Evans said. “I think that’s what any team would do.”

That increased intensity fell just short, though, as the Orange could not stop Kentucky from making its third Sweet 16 appearance in as many years.

The third-seeded Wildcats will play Saturday, March 29 against the winner between the No. 7-seed Cal and No. 2-seed Baylor.

For complete coverage of the No. 3-seed Kentucky women’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament, including live coverage from South Bend this weekend, follow @WildcatHoops1 on Twitter, or visit wildcathoops.com. 

Wildcathoops.com also has final stats and video from tonight’s Kentucky victory. 

South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell (25) has her shot blocked by Kentucky forward DeNesha Stallworth (11) in the second half an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference women's basketball tournament Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Duluth, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell (25) has her shot blocked by Kentucky forward DeNesha Stallworth (11) in the second half an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Duluth, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos by Victoria Graff, and property of Schurz Communications, Inc., and vaughtsviews.com. All rights reserved; images may not be reprinted in print or online without permission of the owners. Reprinted images must be attributed to vaughtsviews.com and linked to the original site.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — Jennifer O’Neill had 17 points and Linnae Harper scored 16 to lead No. 15 Kentucky to its fifth 20-win season in a row on Sunday in an 83-74 victory over No. 16 Texas AM.

Kentucky (20-7, 8-6 SEC) led the entire second half but needed an 8-2 run at the end of the game to secure the win. After the Aggies (21-7, 11-3) closed within 75-72 on Karla Gilbert’s putback with 2:34 left, they missed their last five field goals while the Wildcats pulled away.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell credited his players’ effort and a recently installed 2-3 zone for the difficulties the Wildcats’ defense caused the Aggies.

”The players worked really hard on the 2-3 zone for the past two days,” he said. “We had not played a lot of that and it and it paid off for us today.”

The loss drops A&M into a second-place tie with No. 10 Tennessee (11-3) as No. 4 South Carolina (13-1) clinches at least a share of the SEC regular-season title. The Aggies hold the tiebreaker with South Carolina for the top seed in the SEC tournament thanks to a 67-65 overtime victory against the Gamecocks on Jan. 16.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair took the blame for the loss.

”Throw the errors at me,” he said. “I’ve got to do a better job at coaching. We worked hard to set ourselves up to have a chance to win this thing. Now what we’ve got to do is throw this game aside, learn from it, try to win our last two, get to the SEC Tournament and hopefully get hot and hopefully get smarter.”

Samarie Walker had 14 rebounds and DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points and 12 rebounds for Kentucky. Walker also had 10 rebounds.

bria-hurt

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Photos by Victoria Graff, and property of Schurz Communications, Inc., and vaughtsviews.com. All rights reserved; images may not be reprinted in print or online without permission of the owners. Reprinted images must be attributed to vaughtsviews.com and linked to the original site.

Photos by Victoria Graff, and property of Schurz Communications, Inc., and vaughtsviews.com. All rights reserved; images may not be reprinted in print or online without permission of the owners. Reprinted images must be attributed to vaughtsviews.com and linked to the original site.

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.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell reacts during the second half of an NCAA first-round college basketball game against Liberty in Louisville, Saturday. Kentucky won the game 83-77. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

UK coach Matthew Mitchell (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

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.”

For complete coverage of the UK women’s basketball team, visit wildcathoops.com or follow on Twitter @WildcatHoops1. 

Photos by Victoria Graff, and property of Schurz Communications, Inc., and vaughtsviews.com. All rights reserved; images may not be reprinted in print or online without permission of the owners. Reprinted images must be attributed to vaughtsviews.com and linked to the original site.

Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill (0) drives to the basket around Auburn's Peyton Davis (34) during the second half of an NCAA women's college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Auburn, Ala. Kentucky defeated Auburn 73-71. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Kentucky’s Jennifer O’Neill (0) drives to the basket around Auburn’s Peyton Davis (34) during the second half of an NCAA women’s college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Auburn, Ala. Kentucky defeated Auburn 73-71. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

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.”

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