The burning cauldron of intensity that is Kentucky vs. Louisville basketball was yet again proving to be where they separate the women from the girls.
DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky's standout senior center and most physically-gifted player, seemed to be shrinking from the fight.
At halftime Sunday of our state's marquee women's college basketball contest, the 6-foot-3 Stallworth had this stat line: zero field goals, one point, two rebounds.
Largely as a result, No. 4 Louisville led No. 7 Kentucky 36-27.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
In the UK locker room, Matthew Mitchell seethed over Stallworth's AWOL first half. There were no highfalutin psychological techniques from the Cats coach designed to get his team's leading scorer (13.7 ppg) going.
"There comes a time in a game where there is only one tone you can use," Mitchell said afterwards. "This is Kentucky-Louisville. This is a big game — and you are going to come out and not play? It's just not acceptable."
As she prepared to run back out onto the Memorial Coliseum court for half two, Stallworth found a consoling thought. "A game is 40 minutes," she said. "Even though I didn't play well that (first half), I still had another 20 minutes to bounce back."
A bungee jumper could not have bounced back any stronger.
With Stallworth scoring 15 of her 16 total points and grabbing six of her eight rebounds in the second half, Kentucky rallied past Louisville for a 69-64 win before an electric, sell-out crowd of 7,963 in the Coliseum.
The win gave Mitchell and the Wildcats their third straight victory over Jeff Walz's Cardinals and fourth in five years. This is the second season in a row in which the Cats (8-0) beat the Cards (7-1) in a game in which U of L led by as many as 14 points.
Said Walz: "This is back-to-back years where we had a great opportunity to win this game. There's just no other way to say it, we pissed it away."
Said Mitchell: "At the end of this year, I think this will be a really valuable win because I think Louisville will have an outstanding season."
It was a minor miracle that Stallworth and Kentucky were only down nine at the half.
In the first 20 minutes, Louisville seemed to beat Kentucky to every loose ball, dominated the Cats on the glass (23 to 13) and absolutely controlled the paint on both ends.
At halftime, U of L's three main post players, Asia Taylor, Sara Hammond and Shawnta' Dyer, had combined for 19 points and 10 rebounds. Meanwhile UK's three primary interior players, Stallworth, Samarie Walker and Azia Bishop, produced three points and four rebounds between them.
Against physical Louisville interior defense, Stallworth kept missing contested shots in the lane. She stood 0-of-6 from the field at halftime.
During the intermission, Mitchell told Stallworth she had let those missed shots take her out of the rest of her game — and that allowing that to happen was selfish.
"He basically told me I'm not playing how I could be playing and stop being so selfish," Stallworth said. "I was being a little selfish, not helping my team. So I just took that personal."
Only 52 seconds into the second half, Stallworth got a layup to go in the bucket. With the lid off, she went on to make 6-of-9 second-half shots. "She's a top 30 player in my opinion in the country," Louisville's Hammond, the former Rockcastle County star, said of Stallworth. "We knew we had to be real physical with her. I think we did that in the first half. In the second half, she did a good job working hard (to get open)."
Stallworth's increased energy in half two seemed to spread to her frontcourt mates. Walker, Bishop and Stallworth combined to outrebound U of L's three main post players 19-7 after halftime.
"What lost us the game, we just did not rebound in the second half," Walz said. "I thought we did a great job in the first half."
After three losses in the Tournament round of eight over the past four seasons, if Kentucky is going to crash the Final Four Mitchell knows the Cats will consistently need the Stallworth who torched Louisville in the second half, not the one who was MIA before halftime.
"We just cannot be the team we want to be with her playing with that inconsistency," Mitchell said. "We all saw what she can do (in half two). You can't just wait to get chewed out at halftime all the time. ... To her credit, she turned it around and we certainly would not have won this game without her big second half."
With the game on the line, DeNesha Stallworth showed Louisville her better half.