UK women's notes: O'Neill trying to stay positive amid uneven play

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 17, 2013 

ukVgeorgia

Kentucky guard Jennifer O'Neill dove for a loose ball in the first half against Georgia on Sunday. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

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  • Women's SEC Tournament

    Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt/Missouri winner
    When: 6 p.m. Friday
    TV/Radio: SportsSouth/WLAP-AM 630

Sometimes the negative thoughts in Jennifer O'Neill's mind boom and blast like the loudest drum in the parade.

The Kentucky starting point guard gets in her own head: "Maybe you can't do this. You keep turning the ball over," the sophomore said.

So Coach Matthew Mitchell has been trying to change the tune in practice and before games.

He fills her mind with familiar phrases, hoping they drown out the negative drum beat: "Push the tempo, they can't guard you," he tells her before games.

Early in Southeastern Conference play, it worked like a dream.

In a span of five games, she averaged six assists to 2.8 turnovers. That included a UK win over Texas A&M, the No. 9 Cats' opponent Monday in College Station. O'Neill had 15 points and a career-high eight assists in the 65-62 win.

In his post-game comments, A&M Coach Gary Blair said it was the speedy O'Neill, who cut through Aggies defenders in transition, and not A'dia Mathies with her 23 points that beat his team.

But in the five games after that glowing run, O'Neill's production flipped. She averaged 5.2 turnovers a game to just 1.6 assists.

When a reporter noted that O'Neill's assist-to-turnover ratio wasn't the best recently, Mitchell smiled.

"That's a very kind way to put it," he smirked. "It's not been the best. I would characterize it as probably the worst."

Her game performance was a direct reflection of her practice performance, Mitchell insisted.

"It just started slipping away in practice a little bit and we're trying to get her back to practicing really hard on defense," Mitchell said. "That seems to kind of help everything else flow from there."

O'Neill agreed, and she's trying to correct it.

"My practice and preparation," she said when asked what changed. "Without a doubt. Before that, you'd practice and you prepare and you think you're ready for this game, then you wouldn't be."

When practice goes well, as it has recently, she feels better going into a game. It helps her drown out the negative and focus on the positive.

"I was definitely in my own head a lot," said O'Neill, who took over the starting role four games into the season. "I'm trying to just play and think good thoughts."

Walker trying to 'finish strong'

One of the key matchups in Monday's game will be UK forward Samarie Walker against Texas A&M's 6-foot-5 force Kelsey Bone, who averages 17.1 points and 9.7 rebounds a game.

Bone had big numbers against UK last season, and Walker would love to quiet the Aggies' biggest weapon.

Doing so might bolster Walker's chances at SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, for which Mitchell thinks his junior is worth more than a look.

"She just needs to finish strong," Mitchell said of Walker, who leads UK in rebounding (8.6 boards), steals (2.5 a game) and blocked shots (1.6 a game).

"She's a really dynamic defender because of her athleticism and her strength," Mitchell said. "She can finish possessions with the rebounds, she can block shots and she can make steals. She is very valuable to us because she can guard a variety of players."

UK's post-season awards candidate packet notes that Walker is the SEC's only post player to rank in the top 11 in rebounding, blocks and steals.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com

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