There was a time last season when Kentucky's coaches weren't sure if they could count on forwards Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth.
During a game against South Carolina, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said he benched the duo.
"They couldn't get out of their own way," he said in October. "They were in their own funk. ... There's nothing I detest more than you making it more about you than you making it about Kentucky."
But now his veteran forwards may define Kentucky's season.
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They certainly looked like players the eighth-ranked Cats can lean on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum in an 83-35 exhibition rout of Eckerd College.
Stallworth and Walker combined for 29 points and 12 rebounds for the Cats, who outscored the Tritons in the paint 44-14, including 25-4 on putbacks.
Kentucky, which has advanced to three NCAA Tournament Elite Eights in the past four years, looked like a team gunning for the Final Four in the first half of the first half, running out to a 23-0 advantage.
"We will never face another team at all like that," Eckerd Coach Paul Honsinger said of UK. "Those are world-caliber athletes."
His team didn't have a shot attempt for more than four minutes of the first half and turned the ball over eight times in that span.
"Their pressure is unlike anything we can even simulate in our practices," Honsinger said of the Cats, who scored 43 points off of 41 turnovers for the game. "Sometimes you feel like there are six or seven or eight of them on the floor at the same time."
Even teams in the middle of a dominating rout can get in a little bit of a rut, though. The Cats got good looks, but they didn't fall with any consistency until the end of the game.
Kentucky, which opens the season on the road at Marist on Friday, hit just 32.6 percent in the first half, including making one of 14 three-point attempts.
So even though the Tritons were packing it in against a much bigger, more athletic UK team, Mitchell called for his post players to find creative ways to get to the basket.
Walker responded and scored seven straight out of the break and had nine of her 12 points in the second half.
"I just loved their response — in particular Samarie's response," Mitchell said of Walker, who added six rebounds and three steals. "She was sort of the catalyst for getting our energy back to where it needs to be."
It's a far cry from the player that moped on the bench against South Carolina.
"She's playing with a real joyful spirit and heart right now and that's where Samarie is at her best," Mitchell said in the pre-season. "She's playing with much more of a freedom of 'I'm just going to go out here and play real hard and see what happens.'"
The clock is ticking down on her college career, which has forced Walker to stop worrying as much about the little miscues and focus on the bigger goals, she said at Media Day last month.
"I've let go a little bit, saying, 'Forget it. It's my senior year I have nothing to lose at this point. Why not go all out?'" Walker said.
Stallworth, who led the Cats' attack with 17 points, six rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes, has seen her friend and fellow senior evolve.
"She's definitely worked on her attitude this past summer, even reaching out to the players," Stallworth said. "She knows she has to step up and she's definitely taken the role. She's been great finding herself."
Kentucky needed every inside basket it could get on Sunday, shooting just 14.8 percent from outside (4-for-27).
But Mitchell didn't seem bothered by the poor shooting percentages as long as the hustle continued.
"It was a tough shooting day; everybody can see that," the UK coach said. "It was not our best shooting day. We've shot the ball really well in the pre-season, so it's not something I'm too terribly concerned about."
Makayla Epps had 10 points in the victory and fellow freshman Linnae Harper added eight points, four rebounds and four assists.
'It was incredible'
It's rare that a player on the losing end of the game calls it a dream come true, but it was for Eckerd's Kayla Bowlin, a former Wayne County standout.
The guard had eight points and eight turnovers for the Tritons, but she also got to live out a dream to play at Memorial Coliseum.
"It was incredible," she said. "I'm an avid Kentucky fan. There will never be another day that I don't cheer for Kentucky."
Bowlin said it was "kind of surreal" to walk into the coliseum and not be wearing her own UK blue gear. "At first, I was like, 'I need to go put on a shirt,'" she joked.
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com
Regular season opener:Kentucky at Marist
When: 7 p.m.