'It's complicated': Kentucky women's coach, star player figuring each other out

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 19, 2014 

  • THURSDAY

    No. 4 South Carolina at No. 15 Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m.

    Records: Kentucky 19-6 (7-5 SEC), South Carolina 23-2 (11-1)

    Series: Kentucky leads 31-20

    Last meeting: South Carolina won 68-59 on Jan. 9 in Columbia, S.C.

    TV: CWKYT-27.2, Fox Sports South

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630

  • SEC STANDINGS

    Conf. All

    South Carolina 11-1 23-2

    Texas A&M 10-2 20-6

    Tennessee 9-3 20-5

    Kentucky 7-5 19-6

    LSU 7-5 18-7

    Florida 7-5 17-8

    Vanderbilt 6-6 17-8

    Georgia 5-7 17-8

    Auburn 5-7 14-11

    Arkansas 4-8 17-8

    Mississippi State 4-8 17-9

    Missouri 4-8 15-10

    Alabama 4-8 11-14

    Mississippi 1-11 10-16

    Thursday's games

    South Carolina at Kentucky, 7 p.m.

    Missouri at Florida, 7 p.m.

    Texas A&M at Mississippi, 7 p.m.

    Auburn at Tennessee, 7 p.m.

    LSU at Georgia, 7 p.m.

    Miss. State at Alabama, 8 p.m.

    Vanderbilt at Arkansas, 8 p.m.

    UK schedule

    Home games in capital lettersAll times p.m. and Eastern

    Date Opponent Result

    Nov. 8 At Marist W, 75-61

    Nov. 10 At Wagner W, 96-57

    Nov. 13 GEORGIA SOUTHERN W, 103-38

    Nov. 17 CENTRAL MICHIGAN W, 96-74

    Nov. 21 LIPSCOMB W, 116-49

    Nov. 24At Middle Tennessee St.W, 84-72

    Nov. 27 BRADLEY W, 117-77

    Dec. 1 LOUISVILLE W, 69-64

    Dec. 6 a-Baylor W, 133-130 (4OT)

    Dec. 12 At DePaul W, 96-85

    Dec. 15 EAST TENNESSEE ST. W, 73-56

    Dec. 22 b-DUKE L, 69-61

    Dec. 29 GRAMBLING STATE W, 109-46

    Jan. 2 At Alabama W, 85-63

    Jan. 5 FLORIDA L, 83-73

    Jan. 9 At South Carolina L, 68-59

    Jan. 12 MISSOURI W, 80-69

    Jan. 19 At Auburn W, 73-71

    Jan. 23 ALABAMA L, 57-55

    Jan. 26 ARKANSAS W, 68-58

    Jan. 30 At Georgia L, 58-56

    Feb. 2 LSU W, 63-56

    Feb. 9 At Florida L, 86-80

    Feb. 13 MISSISSIPPI W, 108-78

    Feb. 16 At Tennessee W, 75-71

    Date Opponent Time

    Feb. 20 SOUTH CAROLINA 7

    Feb. 23 At Texas A&M 2

    Feb. 27 At Mississippi State 8

    Mar. 2 VANDERBILT 4

    Mar. 5-9 d-SEC Tournament TBA

    a-At Arlington, Texas (AT&T Stadium); b-At Rupp Arena; c-At Duluth, Ga.

  • THURSDAY'S LINEUPS

    SOUTH CAROLINA

    Starters: Khadijah Sessions, 5-8, So., G (7.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg); Tiffany Mitchell, 5-9, So., G (15.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.6 apg); Asia Dozier, 6-0, So., G/F (7.0 ppg); Aleighsa Welch, 6-0, Jr., F (13.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg); Elem Ibiam, 6-4, Jr., C (9.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.6 bpg).

    Key reserves: Tiffany Davis, 5-7, Fr., G (2.6 ppg); Alaina Coates, 6-4, Fr., C (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg); Olivia Gaines, 5-7, Jr., G (2.3 ppg); Tina Roy, 5-11, So., G (3.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg).

    KENTUCKY

    Starters: Bria Goss, 5-10, Jr., G (9.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Sr. (9.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, So., G; (9.7 ppg, 3.3 apg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Sr., F (9.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg); DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Sr., F (11.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg).

    Key reserves: Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, Jr., G (13.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.0 apg); Azia Bishop, 6-3, Jr., F (5.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg); Makayla Epps, 5-10, Fr., G (3.4 ppg); Linnae Harper, 5-8, Fr., G (6.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Sr., G (4.2 ppg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, Jr. (3.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg).

Jennifer O'Neill and Matthew Mitchell might never see eye to eye.

And it's not just because the Kentucky head coach is nearly a foot taller than his star guard.

"I definitely think we're complicated, the two of us, our relationship," O'Neill said Monday. "We're two very strong personalities."

It was something similar to what the coach told the ESPN announcers before Kentucky's game last week: "If we were a Facebook relationship status, we'd be: 'It's complicated.'"

Was that a fair assessment?

"I feel like he's being truthful, wasn't trying to sugarcoat anything, he was just being honest," O'Neill said.

Sometimes O'Neill and her coach don't even see eye to eye about what they're not seeing eye to eye on.

O'Neill said the disagreements often center on what plays the offense is running. Mitchell said it's mostly about her lack of attention to details.

"She takes far too many short cuts," he assessed. "That's where the source of any conflict we have is just because of her approach to life."

The reserve guard from Bronx, N.Y., leads No. 15 Kentucky in scoring at 13.4 points a game and is second on the team in assists.

But she's not consistent. O'Neill took over in Kentucky's four-overtime thriller against Baylor with her school-record 43 points. She barely looked to shoot in a home loss to Alabama a few weeks later.

That game is the epitome of his issues with O'Neill, Mitchell said this week, before Kentucky starts perhaps its most important stretch of the season with a home game against No. 4 South Carolina on Thursday and then a trip to No. 16 Texas A&M on Sunday.

"Alabama game at home on a Thursday night that you think you're going to win and she only takes two shots," Mitchell said. "That's the summary right there on her approach and her mentality to things: If she thinks it's big, if she thinks it's important then it is. If she doesn't, she doesn't, and that hurts our team."

That's not because O'Neill is a diva.

She's quite the opposite: quiet, introspective, worried about being a ball hog and not getting her teammates involved enough.

She's the player Mitchell meets with most often: And not because the Cats are 16-2 when O'Neill scores in double figures this season and 3-4 when she doesn't.

The meetings are mostly to remind her that it's the little things she does that matter on every play in every game and in everyday life, like how she can't go from a 3.2 grade-point average one semester to a 2.6 the next.

"We meet in my office; we meet in the hallway; we meet in the training room; we meet on the side of the court; we meet in the middle of practice; we meet after practice," he said recently.

"We have a lot of meetings. It's a heavy meeting schedule with Jen O'Neill, but I love her. I think she's just doing it to see how many gray hairs she can give me."

He jokes about the gray hair, but they both acknowledge that it takes her longer to figure things out. She complicates things.

Once the guard thinks she's mastered something, she moves on to the next thing. When really he just wants her to keep practicing it until it becomes part of her fabric.

"She wants to be successful every day," he said. "I just think she struggles with: 'Are some things really all that important? Just let me ball. I just want to get out here and go.'"

Some talks with teammates, Mitchell and her surrogate father Jerry Powell, a personal trainer to some of the NBA's top talent, have helped O'Neill focus.

They've reminded her to let go of mistakes, to train the way she wants to play, to focus on being good at the little things.

The Kentucky guard has scored 20-plus points in three straight games, making 54.5 percent of her shots, including 10 of 20 tries from long range.

"She has made a lot of effort to do better here over the last couple of weeks," Mitchell said. "All of us have. We've all worked really hard to try to figure out the way forward."

As complicated as the Mitchell-O'Neill relationship is, there's a lot of love there, fellow junior guard Bria Goss said.

"What they have is really special," Goss said. "Although they don't see eye to eye, it's never ever-lasting. Off the court, they're two completely different people."

For what it's worth, Mitchell doesn't mind complicated.

Watching O'Neill — the only player who calls him just "Matthew" publicly — grow and develop as a person has been rewarding for him.

"We've had a lot of challenges we've had to face together," he said. "Any time you have that, it helps you get a little bit closer because we've hung in there and stuck it out together."

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

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