Kentucky women back on track with upset of Lady Vols

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 16, 2014 

  • NEXT GAME

    No. 5 South Carolina at No. 18 Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday

    TV: FS South

KNOXVILLE — Kentucky has been trying to find itself for weeks.

That discovery happened in the most unlikely of places: Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Cats had never won a game, not in 16 tries.

But No. 18 UK, which started the season so strong but has hobbled through Southeastern Conference play, looked like the Kentucky of old, upsetting the eighth-ranked Lady Vols 75-71 on Sunday.

"I have just been trying to get them to understand that they are a good team and players," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the Cats, who got their first win in Knoxville since Jan. 23, 1985.

"The players played with tremendous poise, belief, really, really steady, overcame tremendous adversity in the game."

In front of a national television audience and a rowdy crowd of 15,664, Kentucky was able to grab an eight-point advantage midway through the second half on made free throws.

But then the Cats had to withstand a hefty 15-4 Lady Vols rally that had the crowd on its feet and had Tennessee up 67-64 with 4:30 to go.

"When this crowd starts getting on you," Mitchell trailed off shaking his head. "(Our team) really, really fought back and made positive plays to quiet everyone back down."

The silencers for Kentucky were the same ones who have given them some oomph in the last couple of games: DeNesha Stallworth and Jennifer O'Neill.

Stallworth, a senior forward, kept the Cats in the game early in the second half when the Vols made their first run. She scored 13 of her 17 points in the last 20 minutes.

"We stayed poised and did a great job of coming together," said Stallworth, who also had nine rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots. "Back in the past, that is something we didn't do. We all just came together and stayed positive."

O'Neill scored 20-plus points for the third straight game and finished with a game-high 24.

It took awhile for the junior to get going, missing her first four shots, but she quickly scored six straight to give UK a 28-25 lead with 6:36 to go in the first half.

O'Neill had 13 points in 14 minutes in the first half. Janee Thompson had 11 points and five assists in the first half as UK took a 38-34 lead into the break. Thompson finished with 15 points and seven assists.

After Tennessee used that big run to reclaim the lead late, it was O'Neill who scored six straight to give the Cats (19-6, 7-5 SEC) the lead for good.

The guard banked in an off balance jumper with her foot on the line from the right corner with 1:39 to go.

"It banked in," said Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick, whose team's six-game win streak ended. "It is what it is."

The Vols coach was more concerned about her team's four turnovers on its final six possessions.

"Kentucky hit big shots and I just think we didn't," Warlick said. "Defense wasn't important for us today. So, that's about it."

UK senior Kastine Evans made one of two free throws that looked like they might ice the game with 35 seconds to go, but Bashaara Graves answered with an easy layup to get the Vols within two points with 28 seconds to go.

A missed free throw for UK at the end gave Tennessee a chance to tie it or win it with six seconds to go, but Stallworth managed to get a hand on an Isabelle Harrison drive and Evans came up with the loose ball and hit both free throws to win it. The senior guard had eight points.

"I'm the type of person to put a lot of blame on myself," said Harrison, who had 20 points and 16 rebounds in the loss. "I blame me, I feel like I had a lot of turnovers and all that.

"We were getting frustrated and I feel like if we would have had a little more composure we would have been fine."

Graves had 20 points and seven rebounds for the Lady Vols (20-5, 9-3 SEC). Meighan Simmons added 13 points and four assists.

It was a historic win for Kentucky, but perhaps more importantly, it was an important win for the Cats' confidence moving forward.

UK has a huge matchup with SEC frontrunner and fifth-ranked South Carolina at Memorial Coliseum on Thursday.

The team is believing in itself again, O'Neill said.

"We were questioning ourselves, but we came down here and played a good game and got a victory," she said. "That is all that matters."

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

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