When Jennifer O'Neill arrived at Kentucky, she could score on anybody.
But the McDonald's All-American with the flashy offense couldn't stop anybody.
So she spent a lot of time on the bench.
"I can remember her freshman year I had my dad, who is not an expert on basketball, and a mentor, who was an expert, both say to me, play Jen O'Neill 'cause she can score," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell recalled. "I heard that over and over and over."
And over and over and over, he would tell O'Neill to start moving her feet, to start paying attention to detail, to play with energy and effort on both sides of the floor.
It became almost a battle of wills between the quiet guard from Bronx, N.Y., and her loud-mouthed head coach from Mississippi.
She averaged just 12.4 minutes a game as a freshman.
"Why we gotta go back to that?" she said Thursday, laughing on the podium, as Kentucky prepared for its first-round NCAA Tournament game Friday afternoon. "I've come so far from that."
She's playing 30 minutes a game now, and while her scoring is nice (14.4 points a game), lately it's her defense that keeps her on the floor for so many long stretches.
"Now she is critical to our success in this tournament. Her defense is right at the top of our list of things we need to do to be successful tomorrow afternoon," Mitchell said as No. 2 seed UK prepared to face No. 15 Tennessee State on Friday.
Mitchell put O'Neill on the point guard at Arkansas to shut down the Razorbacks' surging offense. He knows that his other senior guard, Bria Goss, is a defensive stopper, but O'Neill playing well defensively takes Kentucky to a different level.
That's mainly because the entire team rises to her energy level.
She brings a toughness, an intensity that everyone tries to emulate, teammates said.
"When she's out there being aggressive on the ball and attacking opponents, it really helps us out and we start to have the same intensity as she has," sophomore guard Linnae Harper said. "We want to match it."
Harper leads the team in steals with 63 this season, but O'Neill leads the team in charges taken, something that seemed impossible when she was a true freshman.
"Now it's a responsibility," said O'Neill, who is still prolific on offense, scoring 1,420 career points and setting the school record for points in a game last season with 43 against Baylor. "I have to do my job if I want my team to be successful."
Going into the NCAA Tournament, O'Neill had taken 24 charges, more than 30 percent of the 75 UK has drawn this season.
The number is far more than the 11 she took at this time last season and the five she took her sophomore season.
Seeing her sacrifice her body and work so hard at things that don't come easily to her makes everyone around her want to play harder, sophomore guard Makayla Epps said.
"She plays with a lot of passion," Epps said of O'Neill, with whom she's tied for steals, at 41, this season. O'Neill has had 23 in league play.
"When she steps it up on defense, it makes us step it up on defense," Epps said.
When Mitchell sees O'Neill playing hard, getting back-tips, running down loose balls, taking ball handlers out of their comfort zones with a hand in their face, the coach knows it's going to be a good night for Kentucky.
Her teammates see it, too.
"When Jen plays the defense that we know she is capable of playing, the whole team raises their level of play," Goss said. "Jen has every God-given talent to play defense, and I think you can tell when she does that she brings an intensity to the team.
"Everyone talks about Jen's offense, but her defense is not always talked about. It's really something that people can open their eyes to. It's unlike any other, really."