UK women's notes: Departures of Stallworth, Walker to leave big hole

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2014 

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The pain was still fresh from a 90-72 throttling by Baylor in the Sweet 16.

Senior DeNesha Stallworth's career was over at Kentucky.

It ended before she wanted it to end, but she wouldn't change a thing.

"I wouldn't want to be at any other place or any other position," said Stallworth, a transfer from California. "I love these girls and I know they are going to fight next year."

Kentucky will look like a dramatically different team without Stallworth and fellow McDonald's All-American Samarie Walker anchoring the post.

The Cats lose three starters, but they return five McDonald's All-Americans and add another in 6-foot-3 Alyssa Rice out of Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

Kentucky returns a key leader in Bria Goss as well as leading scorer Jennifer O'Neill, who will be a fifth-year senior.

In all, the Cats return 63 percent of their scoring, 73.4 percent of their assists and more than 60 percent of their steals from this season.

There will be question marks inside with the health status of players such as Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who sat out after a blood clot was found in her lung, and Samatha Drake, who tore a knee ligament at the start of the season.

Kentucky, which returns just 48.7 percent of its rebounding next season, will have to get to the boards without Stallworth and Walker, who are both potential picks in the WNBA Draft on April 14.

The team needs to focus on being better all around than it was on Saturday, O'Neill said.

"With the kids we have coming in, we just have to get better and keep buying into the system," she said.

Two bright spots at the end of the season, freshmen Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps, probably will take on much bigger roles on a team that should be guard oriented, at least early in the season.

"I was proud of Linnae and Makayla both," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Down the stretch, they really progressed as players. Like a lot of freshmen, their offense progressed a little faster than their defense."

Harper almost single-handedly kept the game against Baylor respectable in the second half, scoring 12 of her 14 points after the break. She had 14 points in 17 minutes with no turnovers.

"Endurance is definitely something I need to improve," Harper said. "Also, being able to play defense, that's something Coach Mitchell puts an emphasis on."

The coach would like to see them become some of the nation's elite players.

"A lot of it will have to do with how they come back mentally, how they want to train and what kind of price they want to pay, but they're really, really talented offensive players, we just need them to get better on defense," he said.

For Goss, who finished as the Cats' third-best scorer this season, she wants to improve every facet of her game.

"See if I can become a better leader, better scorer, better defender just all around better," she said.

Long, strange trip

Before noon, Mitch Barnhart was on his third cup of coffee.

Kentucky's athletics director was up well past 2 a.m. after cheering on the UK men in their NCAA Tournament win over Louisville in Indianapolis.

Then Barnhart and his wife, Connie, got up before the sun and drove the nearly three hours to South Bend to see the UK women in the Sweet 16.

"Certainly wouldn't want to miss this," he said before the region semifinals. "These kids are a great group, and we wanted to be here to cheer them on."

The Barnharts slipped and slid their way to Notre Dame early in the drive, passing multiple cars in ditches with ice and snow in the area.

And how much sleep did they get?

"Not much," he said with a smile. "By the time you grab a bite to eat and get back to your room, you're a little wired. Not much sleep, but that's fine. Coffee is a great equalizer."

'Real hard to understand'

O'Neill had the nation abuzz after scoring a school-record 43 points in the Cats' four-overtime victory over Baylor in December.

But the guard could never quite get it going against the Bears on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

UK's leading scorer missed all 12 shots she attempted on Saturday, scoring just eight points on free throws in the loss. It was just the third time this season she's failed to make a bucket.

"I just couldn't hit shots, plain and simple," the junior said. "My teammates were getting me the ball in good positions, and it's my job to knock them down, and I didn't do that today."

Her head coach was flummoxed by O'Neill's struggles, too.

"It's real hard to understand," he said. "She is an explosive scorer. It's hard to figure out 0-for-12; it's a tough thing."

But he didn't want to come down too hard on his shooting star, who pitched in five rebounds and four assists in the loss.

"We wouldn't have won nearly the amount of games we won without her this year," he said.

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

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