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By: ASHLEY SCOBY
Florida tried to take away Kentucky’s post presence in both teams’ SEC opener Thursday night, but the UK Hoops team showcased their depth in grinding out a 76-69 victory over the Gators.
In particular, point guard Jennifer O’Neill had her second high-scoring game in a row, putting up 17 points, after struggling offensively to begin the season. O’Neill only had five points in the first half, but went for 12 in the second, including eight points in a two-minutes span.
“She’s a great player,” said Florida coach Amanda Butler of O’Neill. “She gives them a really good advantage at point guard this year: her speed and quickness and her ability to score. Where we fell short was allowing her to score the consecutive baskets. When someone gets in the zone like that, it’s really tough to keep them from scoring.”
After scoring a new career high (21 points) in her last game against Marist, O’Neill has become a key component offensively for this team, especially when opponents are focusing on taking away Kentucky’s talented inside presence. DeNesha Stallworth, UK’s starting center, had 17 points, but her counterpart in the paint, Samarie Walker, finished with nine.
“Tonight Florida was really tough inside,” coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Our post players didn’t do a great job of posting on people and getting on bodies in the zone. They just sort of floated around…I thought she (Walker) had a much better second half and made some big buckets for us. Florida was really determined to take away our inside game, and she’s a big part of it.”
Although Florida limited Walker offensively, she found other ways to help her team pull out the close victory, pulling down nine rebounds and blocking two shots. Stallworth also assisted defensively in a big way: She finished with 10 rebounds to go with her 17 points and three blocked shots.
When the Kentucky post players are having trouble posting up inside, as Mitchell described, it leaves the court open for outside shooters and guards to make plays. O’Neill proved that, and A’dia Mathies also had a quality offensive game. The reigning SEC Player of the Year finished with 20 points and four assists, earning continued praise from her coach.
“I thought she (Mathies) played like the best player in the conference tonight because she was so solid with defense and offense,” Mitchell said. “She stayed composed. I just thought she really came out tonight wanting to set the tone for SEC play…She was outstanding.”
Thursday was just another example of how deep this year’s Kentucky team can be. The ability to score and defend from every position seems an obvious key to any basketball team. But it is rare that a team can acquire and develop that much talent from top to bottom and from the “1” to the “5.”
Mathies, the senior leader, spoke to the depth that she has seen on this year’s Kentucky team.
“We can score from pretty much every position,” she said. “It’s not a one-dimensional team. Jen (O’Neill) can score at the point guard position. (We have) good perimeter players and good post players. We can score in a variety of ways, which makes us difficult to stop.”
Although Florida did come close to stopping that dynamic Kentucky offense (the Gators cut a 9-point lead in the second half to one and two points, respectively), the Cats relied on their offensive depth and, of course, their infamous defensive pressure to grind out the win.
Kentucky will continue SEC play Sunday at Alabama.