Marist Coach Brian Giorgis' approach to facing Kentucky was to make it win the game from the perimeter. The undersized Red Foxes packed the lane and dared a Wildcat, any Wildcat, to take control.
Point guard Jennifer O'Neill surveyed what was happening before her and took charge. She finished with 21 points, a career high, and the Cats won 78-56 Sunday to close out their non-conference schedule at 12-1 and on an 11-game wining streak.
O'Neill, a redshirt sophomore who signed at Kentucky in 2010 as the school's first ever incoming McDonald's All-American, has been thrust into a more prominent role since fellow point guard Maegan Conwright suffered a season-ending torn knee ligament injury before Friday's game against Alcorn State.
O'Neill logged 30 minutes Sunday, a career high almost 50 percent more than her previous season-high 21 minutes logged in a November game against Morehead State. So it was up to O'Neill to run the offense that couldn't shake Marist for the game's first 11 minutes.
"You could see holes in their defense, like when they were going — like the hard hedge, and they were trying to go under the screens," O'Neill said. "You could take that three-point shot. Yeah, you could definitely tell it was trying to force us to shoot outside shots."
The Red Foxes (5-6) shot 56.5 percent from the floor in the first half and held a one-point lead, 19-18, with 9:03 until halftime. After Marist took its lead, O'Neill dribbled up on the next possession and, with 8:41 on the clock, drilled a three-pointer for her first points of the game.
She would score eight unanswered points for the Cats, sending them on a 17-4 run from which Marist would never fully recover. The Red Foxes got to within eight points several times in the second half but never closer. Kentucky junior center DeNesha Stallworth also scored 21 points Sunday, which was also a career high for the first-year transfer from California.
O'Neill's production has gone up and down this season after she missed all of last season with a stress fracture in her left foot. Sunday's was her second double-digit scoring game in a row, but those two games came on the heels of a scoreless 20 minutes against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 21.
"I'm just really happy and excited to see it because we needed it today," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "They really made it tough on our interior players."
O'Neill's performance also came in rescue of a scoreless first half from senior A'dia Mathies, who suffered two injury scares that forced her to the bench. Less than three minutes after the opening tip, her legs were inadvertently taken out from underneath her in mid-air during a scramble for an offensive rebound. She landed hard on her back, and the back of her head whipped against the floor with 17:18 to play.
She lay on the floor for about a minute with little movement then slowly sat up with the help of a trainer. She walked off the floor under her own power in a daze, but she returned to play about four minutes later after clearing a series of tests on the bench.
She then left the game again with 3:54 until halftime with a left elbow injury and returned after halftime.
"I guess she hit my funny bone, but it wasn't too funny," Mathies said. "It really hurt. My left hand went numb for a second."
Mathies finished with 10 points and a team-high seven rebounds in 24 minutes. With her 10 points, she became the highest-scoring guard in school history and moved into fourth place on the overall career list. She's scored 1,608 points in 117 games.
But Sunday's game was about O'Neill's career day rather than Mathies' career. She's always been a capable scorer, but she said Sunday her defense is what's kept her from logging more minutes in the past. She's never worried about what happens when she has the ball, she said.
"I always feel confident with my outside shot, honestly," she said.