O'Neill leads Kentucky women's basketball over Arkansas

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJanuary 26, 2014 

  • UK WOMEN

    Kentucky at Georgia

    When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Say goodbye to the kinder, gentler Matthew Mitchell.

He exited stage right, right after ninth-ranked Kentucky was upset by Alabama on Thursday night.

"No more Mr. Nice Guy," the Kentucky coach declared. "No more telling them how everything is going to be all right."

Everything wasn't right for UK, which had lost three of five games, including two at home to teams with much lower rankings.

So the fiery Matthew Mitchell returned to the Kentucky practices and sidelines and urged his retooled team to a 68-58 win over Arkansas on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.

"Really proud of the players (for) finding a way to gut out a win that we clearly needed," Mitchell said of the victory over Arkansas, which led by as many as 10 points in the second half.

Mitchell had spent much of this season building players up, trying to stroke egos and soothe fears.

"We've worked hard to build this program to be known for something, and that's what we are going to do, or if we don't it's not going to be comfortable around here," he said. "I've got to do what I've got to do to make sure this thing gets to where it needs to be."

On Sunday, it started with the insertion of Jennifer O'Neill and Jelleah Sidney into the starting lineup.

O'Neill responded in a big way, matching her career high with five three-pointers and finishing with 21 points, six rebounds and five assists. The junior guard said she was just trying to mirror her coach.

"His mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to intense and that's going to reflect on us and I feel like you guys will see that in the games from here on out," she said.

There were still some sputters and stalls.

Mitchell still wasn't pleased with the hanging heads of a couple of his post players, but overall he was pleased with the effort, which included UK outrebounding the Razorbacks 39-26, the Cats getting nearly as many defensive boards (23) as Arkansas had total rebounds.

"I am not saying we are out of the woods yet," Mitchell said of the Cats' woes, which have included a dramatic decline in shooting percentages, rebounds and steals since getting into Southeastern Conference play. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a group that wants to fight and show up every day and play and once we do that we will be fine."

He may have found that group in the second half, which pulled Kentucky out of a 44-34 hole at the 17:20 mark and outscored Arkansas 34-14 to end the game.

The Hogs (15-5, 2-5 SEC) made that big early run, hitting their first five shots to open the second half, including getting six points from true freshman Jessica Jackson, who had a game-best 23 points and five rebounds.

But the Arkansas lead just seemed to make UK madder.

It sparked a massive 22-6 run that included nine points from Janee Thompson, who scored 11 of her 13 points in the second half.

Bria Goss scored eight of her 10 points in the second half as well and finished with six rebounds and two steals.

"We kind of felt like things could just keep going the same way that things had been going for us," said Thompson, who was benched to start the game in favor of O'Neill.

"We really wanted to change that around, so we really wanted to just get back out there on defense and get some stops and try and create some offense out of that."

In that tidal wave, Kentucky (16-4, 4-3) held Arkansas to just one basket in six minutes. The Cats forced five turnovers in that span.

At one point during that run, Mitchell threw his hands into the air, urging the crowd to be as fiery as he'd been the entire game.

"They speed you up and the crowd starts roaring," Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said of the 5,396 at Memorial Coliseum. "Before you know it, it slides away from you pretty quick. ... They got a much needed win and we let one slip away that maybe we could have had."

Mitchell, whose team shot 52 percent from the field in the second half and 44.6 percent for the game, was happy to see the fans respond at what he called a critical time in the game.

"We were finally playing worth cheering for," Mitchell said. "They hadn't had a lot to cheer for here lately. ... I was surprised anybody showed up after Thursday night."

Despite the tougher practices, which included more physical play and a lot more running for mistakes, the players didn't mind seeing Mr. Nice Guy leave the building.

"It's good to see him have that fire back," Goss said.

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

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