UK-UT women's notes: Enigmatic O'Neill learning 'not to overthink things'

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 16, 2014 

Kentucky Tennessee Basketball

When UK's Jennifer O'Neill, left, scores in double figures this season, the Wildcats are 16-2.

WADE PAYNE — AP

KNOXVILLE — Matthew Mitchell didn't even try to mask his frustration with guard Jennifer O'Neill earlier this week.

The junior has been an enigma wrapped in a riddle for him since she arrived on campus four years ago.

She'll throw up 21 points in one game and then turn around and score two in the next.

"She's just real, real stubborn," he said on Friday. "She really complicates things that I try to simplify and so you've just had that tension."

Whatever the Kentucky coach has been trying to tell her seems to be sinking in. O'Neill scored 24 points to lead No. 18 Kentucky in its upset win over No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday. It was her third straight game with 20 or more points.

In the past three games, O'Neill has made 54.5 percent of her shots, including 50 percent from three-point range (10 of 20).

So what's changed for O'Neill, who so famously set a school record for points in a game with 43 against Baylor in four overtimes?

Even she doesn't seem sure.

"My teammates have just been telling me I need to shoot the ball and stop hesitating," she said. "DeNesha (Stallworth) keeps telling me not to overthink things. It is just a matter of coming out and playing my game, not just for myself, but for them."

When O'Neill scores in double figures this season, the Cats are 16-2.

O'Neill scored 13 of her game-high 24 points in the first half and Tennessee thought it had done a good job of containing the guard, Coach Holly Warlick said, but UK's shooting star came back to bite the Lady Vols late in the game, scoring six in a row to put the Cats up for good.

Thompson shines

O'Neill isn't Kentucky's only guard doing big things for Kentucky.

Starting point guard Janee Thompson had a huge game, including scoring 15 points and dishing out a career-high matching seven assists.

When UK was struggling early in the game, it was Thompson driving to the basket getting key buckets. The junior had 11 points at the break for Kentucky.

"I love the way she played today; she played to win," Mitchell said. "She was a huge part in our big team victory today. She played terrific and really kept her composure."

Some turnovers (she had four) might have caused her to play more tentative in past games, but Mitchell said he's seen tremendous growth in her attitude.

"She is an example of someone who has had to work hard in the last couple of weeks to make changes necessary for her to play her best," he said. "She showed a lot of growth today."

Short jumpers

Mitchell lamented not being able to institute UK's full-court press effectively this year, so he said the team has focused on becoming "the most vicious half court man-to-man defense that we can be."

Playing zero full-court press, UK forced Tennessee to turn the ball over 22 times, scoring 21 points off of those miscues.

■ Despite the rough patch of games, UK is still 4-2 over ranked opponents this season and 3-2 versus the Associated Press top 10.

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

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