Mark Story: UK needs more consistent play from O'Neill

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 9, 2013 

Ky Texas A&M Womens SEC

Kentucky guard Jennifer O'Neill blocked a shot by Texas A&M guard Courtney Walker in the first half Sunday.

DAVID TULIS — Lexington Herald-Leader

DULUTH, Ga. — The Kentucky roster shows only one Jennifer O'Neill, but there were actually two who played for UK on Saturday night in the SEC Tournament semifinals against No. 12 Georgia.

First-Half Jennifer O'Neill started the game with a turnover, then an airballed three-pointer. She finished the first half with one point, one rebound, one assist — and four turnovers.

With its floor general misfiring, No. 7 Kentucky turned in a half of basketball (7-for-27 shooting; nine turnovers) so ugly it had to scare children and trailed the Bulldogs 24-19.

Had First-Half Jennifer O'Neill returned for half two, Kentucky's dreams of claiming its first SEC Tournament title since 1982 were headed for a quick death.

Fortunately for UK, Second-Half Jennifer O'Neill was a very different person.

The 5-foot-6 product of the Bronx, N.Y., scored eight points to launch a 15-2 Kentucky run to start the second half. She finished the game relentlessly pushing the pace, dishing out nifty assists and protecting the basketball as if it had a million dollars sewn inside it.

Second-Half Jennifer O'Neill ignited a withering 41-14 UK blitzkrieg of Georgia after halftime. That turned the five-point halftime deficit into a 60-38 Wildcats victory and put Kentucky into the SEC title game for the third time in the past four seasons.

UK (27-4) will face Texas A&M (23-9) — a team it beat twice during the regular season — at 6 p.m. Sunday in The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"We came down here with the idea of winning the championship," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said.

Added UK star A'dia Mathies: "We came down here to cut down nets."

Before halftime, UK looked like anything but a championship team. The Cats were out of sync offensively, were being demolished (12-3) on the offensive glass and, uncharacteristically, the normally high-energy Cats were being outhustled.

Kentucky's point guard play was also suffering.

Mitchell had seen First-Half Jennifer O'Neill before. In Kentucky's three SEC losses — at South Carolina, Georgia at home and at LSU — the little sophomore guard missed 24 of 41 shots and had 16 turnovers.

"The First-Half Jennifer was the Jennifer of the three losses," Mitchell said. "We were real fortunate that we weren't down more (than five)."

At halftime, the Kentucky coach addressed a spirited do-better talk to his point guard.

"He just told her she didn't have to play like she was," UK guard Bria Goss said. "Jennifer is able to take the criticism, take what he is saying instead of how he is saying it."

Said O'Neill: "I had to get my mind right for that second half. The first half, I didn't come out the way I thought I would."

Second-Half Jennifer O'Neill was so different, she should have changed uniform numbers.

After Jasmine Hassell scored on a short bank shot to put Georgia up 26-19, O'Neill answered with a three-point bomb from the top of the key. Not two minutes later, she drove right down the middle of the Georgia defense for a layup.

With 14:19 left, she splashed a trey from the left corner to complete a 15-2 UK run and put the Cats ahead 34-26. Georgia never recovered.

That was the last of O'Neill's nine points, but what she did the rest of the second half may have been more impressive. She got Kentucky into its offense and continually set up center DeNesha Stallworth (team-high 18 points) for layups with clever feeds. Second-Half Jennifer O'Neill played like the kind of point guard a team with aspirations of doing special things in March needs to have.

"The Second-Half Jennifer is the one that I think is one of the best point guards in this league," said Mitchell. "She was relentless. She pushed the pace. ... I think we are a very dangerous team when we can have her play the way we did in the second half."

When First-Half Jennifer O'Neill shows up, Mathies said it is usually because the New York guard tries too hard to do good things. "(In the second half), I think Jennifer slowed down a little bit," Mathies said. "In the first half, she was kind of antsy, she just wanted to make plays so bad."

To claim its first SEC Tournament championship since the days of Valerie Still — not to mention to make UK's first women's Final Four trip ever — Kentucky needs Second-Half Jennifer O'Neill to become Full-Game Jennifer O'Neill.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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