John Clay: Kentucky's Stallworth aims to meet great expectations

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 22, 2013 

When the subject turned to DeNesha Stallworth and what his 6-foot-3, pre-season All-SEC selection could and should do her senior season, the often-peevish Matthew Mitchell did not mess around.

"I think she ought to be one of the top 10 or 12 players in the country," the Kentucky coach said at Tuesday morning's Media Day. "I think she can work herself into the position of being a top-five draft choice."

When informed of this a short time later, Stallworth all but blushed.

"Really, he said that?" said the senior center. "That's so sweet."

Thing is, Mitchell doesn't want his "most gifted and talented player" (his words) to be sweet. He wants her to be tough, aggressive and one determined enough to meet her full potential.

Stallworth referred to it as "an awe moment" when she heard what her coach thought about her, but her coach wants her to be awe-some.

How does she get there?

"First thing is finishing," Stallworth said, meaning finishing around the basket. "Going up with two feet and not fading away, going up strong in the post. And being more consistent is definitely important, and rebounding, because rebounding wins championships."

Not that Stallworth has been deficient in any of those areas, mind you.

After transferring to UK after two years at her home state school, the University of California at Berkeley, the Richmond, Calif., native averaged 12.5 points and six rebounds a game last season, helping the Cats to a school-record 30 wins.

She started 35 games — illness kept her out of the Ole Miss game — was a first-team all-conference choice, was one of 31 players selected to try out for the World University Games this past summer and one of 25 players placed on the Wade Award watch list for 2013-14.

Stallworth is also the leading returning scorer on a team that after reaching the Elite Eight three of the past four years wants to clear that final hurdle to the Final Four.

First, let's hit the rewind button back to why Stallworth left Cal in the first place. Her father, Chris, himself a college basketball player at San Francisco State, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time that his daughter wanted to reach her complete potential as a basketball player.

Mitchell wants that, too, saying Tuesday, "I have in my mind a real sense of urgency to try and complete the job we started with her."

For Mitchell's talented team to take that next step, surely it needs Stallworth (and others) to take that next step, as well. That means finishing her college career the right way, as well as finishing on the court the right way.

"Just going through the contact, especially off the double teams, doing the little things, looking for the open player," Stallworth said. "Not crumbling under pressure will be my main focus."

To be sure, that's physical play, but it takes the mental game to get there.

"She could be whatever she wants to be and it's just between the ears," Mitchell said this summer. "There are very few great players because to be great you have to have the God-given ability and the internal drive that separates great ones from good ones.

"... It is a marriage of physical gifts that nobody else can give you but God and a mental approach and toughness that no one else can control but you."

In other words, DeNesha Stallworth not only could be a top-five draft choice, she should be a top-five draft choice.

"It makes you realize, hey, you can do it," Stallworth said. "If your coach believes in you, why can't you believe in yourself? I definitely appreciate him saying that and I'm definitely going to work hard to accomplish that goal."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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