The University of Kentucky women's basketball team hoped for smooth sailing on the West Coast this week, but its first 20 minutes produced more Waves than the seventh-ranked Cats might have expected.
Kentucky calmed the waters with a strong second half, though, and went on to beat the Pepperdine Waves 80-62 in Malibu, Calif., on Tuesday night. The victory was the Wildcats' eighth in a row since an early-season loss to defending national champion Baylor.
California native DeNesha Stallworth, who led the Cats with 17 points despite early foul trouble, explained the shaky opening half by saying the team needed some time to knock off the rust of a nine-day layoff.
"It took us a little time getting used to game play again and picking up the pace," Stallworth said in a post-game radio interview. "I thought in the second half we were a little more focused."
Stallworth, who also contributed two steals and two blocked shots, led four Cats in double figures. She scored 13 of her season-high 17 points in the second half. Bria Goss had 16 points, five rebounds and four steals. A'dia Mathies added 13 points and Samarie Walker 10.
Shay Cooney-Williams led the Waves with 14 points.
Kentucky (9-1) opened both halves with big bursts that tipped things in their favor.
The Wildcats started the game with an 11-0 run, then opened the second half with a 10-2 surge.
The in-between was the problem -- at least briefly.
"I was very pleased with the start to the game," Coach Matthew Mitchell said in his post-game radio interview. "I thought the first unit did a very good job. The second unit, there was a little drop in energy and execution, so we'll have to take a look at that."
Pepperdine (3-6) cut Kentucky's early lead to 11-6 and sliced it further to 17-14 on Bria Richardson's layup at the 10:03 mark of the first half.
Kentucky, led by eight points from Goss and seven each from Jennifer O'Neill and A'dia Mathies in the first half, quickly expanded its lead back to 11 at 30-19. The Wildcats, who arrived on the West Coast on Sunday, took their largest lead of the half on a jumper by Stallworth that made it 32-19 with 5:11 to go.
But just like the first time Kentucky opened things up, the Waves quickly closed the gap. Pepperdine ended the first half with a 14-5 run to trim the Wildcats' lead to 37-33. Kentucky's typically frenzied defense forced 13 first-half turnovers, but the Cats nullified their advantage by committing nine miscues of their own.
Cold shooting by Kentucky also allowed Pepperdine to keep things close. The Cats made just 15 of 43 first-half field goal attempts, including three of 14 from three-point range. "You could sense at halftime we were feeling the frustration," Mitchell said.
After halftime, Kentucky left no doubt it was going to play a little basketball amid the sand and surf, opening the second 20 minutes with the 10-2 run. The lead stood at 47-35 after a jumper by Goss with 15:38 to play.
"You get out here a long way from home, four-point ballgame, not a lot is clicking for you. ... We needed to get off to a good start in the second half," Mitchell said of the teams' first meeting since 1991.
The Cats extended their lead to 59-39 on a fast-break layup by Goss with 10:53 left. Kentucky's largest lead came at 65-43.
"We let them go inside too much," said Kelsey Patrick, who had 10 points for Pepperdine. "I'm super proud of the way we played. Everything we've done up to this point really came out in the first half - just how far we've come. Overall, we won the rebounding war. We've shown a lot of improvement and done a lot of good things."
Kentucky finished the game with 14 turnovers, compared to 22 for Pepperdine. The Cats shot 31-for-70 from the field (44 percent), including 4-for-18 on three-pointers (22 percent). Pepperdine outrebounded the Cats 44-43.
Pepperdine leading scorer Robie Mayberry scored two points on 1-for-8 shooting in 14 minutes. She picked up two fouls in the first half.
Mitchell said the West Coast trip presents a particularly tough challenge for UK.
"Mentally, you're at the end of the semester and it's just normally time for you to relax," the UK coach said. "Most normal college students have worked really hard and put a lot of time into final exams and you feel like it's time to relax. We really had to fight that."
The Cats get a chance for some downtime Wednesday, when they plan to visit Warner Brothers studio and take in an NBA game between the New Orleans Hornets and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Kentucky closes its weeklong trip to the West Coast with a visit to UC Santa Barbara on Friday. Tip-off is 6 p.m. EST.