Mark Story: Freshman has to grow up fast for UK women

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 28, 2010 

Before she plays her first official second as a Kentucky Wildcat, Jennifer O'Neill holds a special place in UK women's basketball history.

The freshman point guard from the Bronx is the first McDonald's All-American ever to sign with UK Hoops.

Which is not to suggest that Matthew Mitchell and Co. are coddling the program's most ballyhooed recruit.

The shiner around O'Neill's right eye attests to that.

During a practice defensive drill, O'Neill's eye had a close encounter with a Crystal Riley elbow.

Welcome to college basketball, superstar.

"One thing I've already learned," O'Neill said with a grin Thursday at UK women's hoops media day, "is that, in college, basketball is a physical game."

A year ago, Kentucky ended the best women's basketball season in school history one victory short of the Final Four. On paper, this season shaped up to potentially be even better.

The Cats have a lavishly praised, six-player recruiting class. They return a genuine star in senior forward Victoria Dunlap and a budding one in sophomore swingman A'dia Mathies.

UK also had back the beating heart of its team, point guard Amber Smith. Or it did before a summer pickup game left the fiery senior sidelined indefinitely with a torn ACL.

Just that quickly, O'Neill became perhaps the single biggest key to the Kentucky season.

"A very talented offensive player," Mitchell said of O'Neill. "Has a long, long way to go defensively right now."

In a sense, it seems almost fitting that O'Neill's introduction to college hoops begins with her bearing a shiner, the mark of a player with grit.

O'Neill may come to Kentucky as a high school All-American, but hers is very much an underdog's story.

Entering her sophomore year of high school, O'Neill was all but an unknown in the New York City girls' hoops scene.

Yet something about the 5-foot-6 guard attracted the attention of Jerry Powell, who the New York Daily News described as "a renowned basketball skills trainer."

Powell eventually persuaded O'Neill's mother, Maritza Robles, to allow the player to move from the Bronx and live with the trainer and his family on Long Island.

There, Powell put O'Neill through grueling training exercises.

"Some of the workouts, I'd get through them and be like 'I can't do this,' " O'Neill said. "These were intense, like things you'd do with pros. But he was always so positive. He was like 'you've got it.' "

Turns out, she did.

O'Neill blew up into a national-level prospect as a high school junior, averaging 22 points and seven assists while leading Saint Michael Academy of Manhattan to a New York state Federation championship. The Daily News named O'Neill its Player of the Year for the Big Apple.

While playing on the AAU circuit the following summer, O'Neill kept noticing a particular college coach who always seemed to be there when her team hit the court.

Mitchell.

"I'd always see him in the front row," O'Neill said. "That had a real big impact on me. When I visited (UK) I just fell in love with the team."

Jenny from the Bronx is still adjusting to life in Lexington. She misses the sound of the New York Subway grinding over the tracks. She misses shopping excursions to 34th Street and to 42nd Street. "I miss my family and my friends," she said.

Back in the summer, it appeared that O'Neill would have a year to learn the finer points of being a college point guard behind Smith.

After the latter's injury, it left the true freshman and the junior Riley, UK's backup point guard last season, to compete for the starting job.

Rather than learning from watching Smith play, O'Neill says she is now learning from Smith watching her play.

"Stuff I don't see out there, she can see from the sidelines," O'Neill said. "She's really just being another coach."

Says Smith: "Jen has a lot of talent. I try to help her with the other stuff, the leadership things and defense, the stuff that doesn't come easy for her."

If Smith doesn't make it back to play this year, perhaps the most anticipated season in UK women's basketball history may well depend on whether a freshman can keep point guard from becoming, well, the team's black eye.

"I really don't think it's pressure," O'Neill said. "I think I'm in a situation that a lot of freshmen wish they had."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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