Kentucky Sports

Kentucky shakes off another sluggish start to top Middle Tennessee 78-62

Kentucky's Janee Thompson (3) scores during the first half at Memorial Coliseum Friday, Dec. 12, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Kentucky's Janee Thompson (3) scores during the first half at Memorial Coliseum Friday, Dec. 12, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

The goal was to start faster.

Matthew Mitchell didn't want any more of this falling behind by double digits and then clawing back in the game late as the eighth-ranked Cats have been prone to do this season.

"Sometimes they feel like things will just happen instead of making things happen," he lamented on Thursday.

Against Middle Tennessee State on Friday night, the coach didn't get the speedy start he wanted, with UK turning the ball over four straight times and falling behind 5-0.

But the Cats spared him the drama of some previous games, pulling away with a big 23-5 run in the first half to top Middle Tennessee 78-62 for the third straight time.

Some familiar stars emerged for the Cats, like Jennifer O'Neill who had 18 of her game-high 22 points in the second half.

But a few new ones appeared, too, including freshman Alexis Jennings, who had her career high of 11 points before the half. The forward scored the Cats' final nine points of the first half to send them into the locker room up 41-27.

Kentucky, which won its fifth straight game, extended its lead to as many as 22 points before the game was through, shooting 48.4 percent from the field.

The Cats (9-1) made a whopping 62.5 percent of their three-point tries (five of eight), including two from O'Neill, who had 22 points to match her season high she previously had against Baylor.

Despite changing up the starting lineup, replacing senior Azia Bishop with Alyssa Rice, Kentucky struggled early, falling behind 14-9 before using a big 23-5 run to give itself some breathing room.

Reserve guard Makayla Epps scored eight points in that spree, making all four of her shot attempts. Epps was perfect (6-for-6) from the field and finished with 12 points, six assists and five rebounds.

Janee Thompson and Bria Goss added nine points apiece for Kentucky, which returns to Memorial Coliseum on Sunday to face Belmont.

The two teams combined for 53 turnovers, including a season-high 28 for Kentucky, which MTSU turned into 30 points in the loss. The Blue Raiders had 17 steals.

After bemoaning slow starts and a seemingly unmotivated starting lineup, Mitchell followed through on his realignment strategy, with Rice replacing Bishop and then Epps replacing Kyvin Goodin-Rogers in the second half.

"Sometimes the bench is the only thing that gets through to somebody and it actually helps focus you in," Mitchell said before the game against the Blue Raiders (4-3). "We are mixing some lineups in practice right now trying to see where we need to be. .. It's very much a situation to where right now every minute is up for grabs."

Middle Tennessee, which had its three-game win streak snapped, was held to 38.8 percent shooting in the second half and was led by Cheyenne Parker's 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Ty Petty added 14 points and three assists and Olivia Jones had 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists.

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