Kentucky's Stallworth returns to form just in time for tourney run

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2014 

  • Women's Selection Show

    What: Women's NCAA Tournament draw

    When: 7 p.m. Monday

    TV: ESPN

    ■ UK's viewing party, open to public, begins at 6 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

It's just a little procedure.

You'll be back in no time at all.

Those are the phrases that stuck with Kentucky forward DeNesha Stallworth when she learned that she needed to have an arthroscopic procedure on her left knee.

The Cats had just come off a huge four-overtime victory over Baylor and were riding high.

Stallworth's knee wouldn't stop swelling. So doctors told the senior, who had never had as much as a tweak in her playing career, that it wasn't a big deal.

Stallworth — always an optimist, always smiling — wasn't necessarily prepared for how long it would take her to get back mentally. She didn't really ponder how difficult it would be to get back into shape.

Sure, the 6-foot-3, All-America candidate missed just five games, but the effects of it lingered much longer.

"The injury was more difficult than she thought it was going to be and more difficult than I thought it was going to be, than anybody could've imagined," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said Friday. "It really, really got her mentally."

The first few games back, Stallworth put on a happy face, but was struggling.

"It was very tough," she said. "I wanted to do so much and help so much that it hurt us even more. Me just not being patient enough affected the team, too."

But as No. 10 Kentucky awaits its NCAA Tournament road map, which will be unveiled on Monday night, Stallworth is back in her happy place.

She's put the knee injury in her rearview mirror. The statistics show it.

Stallworth has scored in double figures in nine of her last 10 games, including a season-high tying 21 points versus Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference championship game last week.

It was at the SEC Tournament that it finally hit the senior from Richmond, Calif., that the shot clock on her UK playing career was about to hit zero.

She picked up her second foul just two minutes into the quarterfinals against Florida.

As she sat on the bench watching, the ticking of that clock got louder and louder.

"I came back in the second half thinking this is not going to be my last game here," said Stallworth, who scored 13 points, all in the second half of that game. "I'm going to do whatever I can do."

She carried that sense of urgency through the final two games and averaged 15.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and nearly two steals in her three SEC Tournament games.

In her past five games, her focus has become razor sharp, including hitting 57.6 percent of her shots.

But more important to Mitchell was Stallworth's increased intensity on the other end of the floor.

"She had some big blocks in the tournament," Mitchell said. "She played some good defense, was an active defensive presence. She got some deflections, steals, blocked shots.

"She's playing like we all knew she could and that's big for us. Really big for us."

Getting ready for a long run?

To start its nearly two-week break between the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, Mitchell gave the players three straight days off.

He told them not to think about basketball, not even for a minute.

"Tried to let them rebound mentally and physically," Mitchell said, not mentioning the one-point loss to the Lady Vols in the title game. "We have a long three-week stretch here where we're hoping we're going to be playing ... three days off felt good for this team."

(Mitchell did not get the same break. He was on the road recruiting, including a stop at the Girls' Sweet Sixteen in Bowling Green.)

When UK returned to practice on Thursday, Mitchell metaphorically handed over his coach's whistle to his team.

"This particular time, I've really tried to engage the players and take their lead and see where they feel like we need to keep on keeping on and where we need to tighten some things up," he said.

So Kentucky didn't add a lot of new plays for the tournament. The players just wanted to get really good at what they're pretty good at running.

"We tried to figure out what they like going into the tournament and practice the heck out of that," he said.

Selection Monday looms

Kentucky will learn its NCAA Tournament fate on Monday night as a part of ESPN's live announcement of the women's tournament bracket at 7 p.m.

The Cats, who will be making their fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, are hosting a viewing party at Memorial Coliseum starting at 6 p.m.

Kentucky knows it will host the first and second rounds of the tournament starting Saturday (games at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.) with the next round on Monday at 6:30 p.m.) but it doesn't know who it will face yet or what other teams will stand in its way to a Final Four.

The latest ESPN Bracketology has the Cats as a No. 3 seed in the Louisville Region with two of its biggest rivals: top-seeded Tennessee and the Cardinals as the No. 2 seed.

The other potential regions are located in Lincoln, Neb.; South Bend, Ind.; and Palo Alto, Calif.

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

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