Battle-tested Kentucky women pull together for SEC tourney

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2014 

Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill passed around Florida's Christin Mercer in the Cats' game against Florida on Jan. 5. The Gators swept the season series with Kentucky.

AMY WALLOT — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

  • Friday

    Florida vs. No. 12 Kentucky

    What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals

    Where: Duluth, Ga.

    When: 2:30 p.m.

    TV: Fox Sports South

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630

    Records: Kentucky 22-7, Florida 19-11

    Series: Kentucky leads 25-24

    This season: Florida swept Kentucky, winning 83-73 in Lexington on Jan. 5 and 86-80 in Gainesville on Feb. 9.

  • Lineups


    Starters: Bria Goss, 5-10, Jr., G (9.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, So., PG; (9.2 ppg, 3.1 apg, 2.0 rpg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Sr. (8.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Sr., F (9.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg); DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Sr., F (11.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

    Key reserves: Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, Jr., G (13.0 ppg, 2.3, 2.9 apg); Azia Bishop, 6-4, Jr., F (5.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg); Makayla Epps, 5-10, Fr., G (4.3 ppg); Linnae Harper, 5-8, Fr., G (6.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Sr., G (3.8 ppg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, Jr. (3.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg).


    Starters: Carlie Needles, 5-6, So., G (6.1 ppg); Jaterra Bonds, 5-7, Sr., G (15.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.4 apg); Cassie Peoples, 5-6, So., G (9.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.6 apg); Kayla Lewis, 6-0, Jr., G (11.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg); Lily Svete, 6-2, Sr., F (5.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg).

    Key reserves: Ronni Williams, 6-0, Fr., G/F (8.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg); January Miller, 5-8, So., G (9.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Antoinette Bannister, 5-10, So., G (5.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg).

    Note: Statistics do not include Thursday's game.

It seems only fitting that Kentucky will face Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals.

It was in Gainesville that the No. 12 Cats started their uphill climb out of league mediocrity to one of the top four seeds this week in Duluth, Ga.

Kentucky lost at Florida, falling to 5-5 in the conference.

"We were in a sinkhole and sinking fast," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell reminded his huddled team after a recent practice.

A look at the six remaining conference games on the schedule made it easy to see how the Cats were going to be swallowed up completely.

They had games versus then-No. 4 South Carolina, No. 8 Tennessee and No. 16 Texas A&M all looming, all promising to sink Kentucky even further.

The Gamecocks handed the Cats their worst loss of the season (at home no less) in that stretch, but UK found itself a little bit again, winning all of the others, including two key road wins over the Lady Vols and the Aggies.

UK could have slipped away into that sinkhole.

That would've been the less-difficult option, Mitchell said.

"It's real easy to start separating and go your separate ways and think about yourself only and how things aren't working out instead of what our team did," he said. "They really found a way to get out of the really bad situation we were in."

Senior Kastine Evans doesn't know if UK can win a tournament title this week, but she's proud of what's happened since that trip to Gainesville.

"It says a lot to the character of our team," Evans said of UK's resurgence. "We went through a lot of adversity in the month of January and also a little bit in February."

Will March be Kentucky's month? It started well enough with UK (22-7) pulling out a win over Vanderbilt on Senior Day to earn its 10th conference victory.

Kentucky will have to go through Florida (19-11) on Friday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, then possibly top seed South Carolina to even advance to the championship game on Sunday.

But the Cats have more confidence now than they have in weeks and they've learned a lot about themselves in the month since they left Gainesville.

"Everything happens for a reason," senior Samarie Walker said she learned. "It happened for the better. It taught us a lesson to just play harder and made us closer as a team. ... It's definitely going to make us better in the future."

Her coach couldn't agree more.

"Probably been as beneficial an experience as you can have, it's just been harder than any of us thought or wanted it to be," Mitchell said recently. "This has been very difficult and very, very tough, and I have not enjoyed the losing, but gosh have we learned so much through it."

Some of the changes have been physical, including playing more zone defenses and all but abandoning the Cats' once-dominant full-court pressure, with Mitchell lamenting that he was "just too slow to change and adjust to what this team could actually do."

Some of the changes have been chemistry-based, with UK trying to adjust to losing star senior DeNesha Stallworth to injury and then finding that chemistry again once she returned to full strength.

But many of the changes have been mental. They have required many meetings, both individual and group. They have required give and take from coaches and players.

The changes have been key to Kentucky's turnaround and Mitchell hopes they can key a deep tournament run, both in the SEC this week and the NCAA over the next few.

"We just need to go down with the attitude that we're just going to play together and we're going to play our best," he said, admitting that it's a hard tournament to win (UK has only won it once, in 1982).

Win or lose, Mitchell couldn't be more proud of the team that pulled itself out of that swampy sinkhole nearly a month ago.

"They've already shown me that they're a team," he said. "You can't do what they've done and you'll never be able to convince me that these kids aren't a team.

"We're going to try to be the tightest, most together team at the tournament and we're not going to worry about anybody else."

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

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