Kentucky Sports

UK women finish non-conference play with 87-75 win over Tennessee State

Kentucky Wildcats forward/center Alexis Jennings (35) scores over Tennessee State Lady Tigers forward Jayda Johnson (25) during the second half at Memorial Coliseum Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Kentucky Wildcats forward/center Alexis Jennings (35) scores over Tennessee State Lady Tigers forward Jayda Johnson (25) during the second half at Memorial Coliseum Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

Given how shorthanded Kentucky was, Matthew Mitchell knew a victory on Sunday was going to be a tall order.

The UK coach didn't care if the Cats were ranked No. 12 in the nation or that Tennessee State was coming in with just three wins in its first 10 games this season.

He looked down the bench at the players not in uniform and knew UK was going to have issues on Sunday in its final game before Southeastern Conference play starts.

He was right. Kentucky had to fight back from a short roster and an early deficit to top the Tigers 87-75 in Memorial Coliseum.

"Just a terrific response from our team," Mitchell said. "It certainly wasn't the best game we've played all year, but with the real difficult circumstances we were put in ... I was really proud of our players."

UK (11-2) was forced to shuffle its starting lineup with leading scorer Jennifer O'Neill out as a precaution with a strained left patella tendon and starting forward Alyssa Rice limited by an illness.

It was the same team already without senior starter Bria Goss (broken thumb) and forward Jelleah Sidney (sore knee).

Without some key weapons, Kentucky may have found a secret one in freshman forward Alexis Jennings, who set new career highs of 27 points and eight rebounds in the victory.

It was Jennings' fourth straight game in double figures after only doing that one other time in UK's first nine games of the season.

"Alexis was good today offensively," Mitchell said of Jennings, whom he joked needed to score 27 to make up for the 20 points she gave up at the other end of the floor.

The bulging points total didn't keep him from having long conversations with her on the Kentucky bench.

"I was very hard on her during the game," he said. "I had no idea she had scored 27 points because I was trying to coach her up on defense.

"We would not have won without her. She is supremely talented and skilled on the offensive end and I am really seeing a lot of progress out of her."

The freshman was one of three players in double figures. Linnae Harper had a productive day with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Makayla Epps added 16 points and three rebounds.

Point guard Janee Thompson added eight points, seven rebounds, seven steals (no fouls) and five assists for Kentucky.

She became the defensive stopper UK has been looking for since Goss went out with her injury, Mitchell said.

"Janee played an unbelievable game; I was so proud of her," the UK coach said. "She was everywhere ... Good day for Janee Thompson."

She led a UK defense that looked stout in spurts, with season highs of nine blocks (career-high six for Azia Bishop) and 17 steals.

It was defense that pulled Kentucky out of an eight-point deficit early versus the Tigers (3-8). The Cats found offense in defense, going on a 26-6 run that included holding TSU without a point for more than five minutes and forcing nine turnovers in that span.

After the Tigers cut the UK lead to eight points again with a mini run, the Cats had another surge to take their largest lead of the game, 47-31, with 1:25 to go in the half.

They led 47-35 behind 12 points apiece from Jennings and Harper.

Kentucky extended its lead to as many as 15 points early in the second half before a Tigers scoring spree cut the lead to four points 65-61 with 8:14 to go on a three-pointer by Brianna Lawrence, who led Tennessee State with 19 points.

"I'm always thinking, 'one more surge,'" Tigers Coach Larry Joe Inman said. "When I'm out there coaching, I'm always thinking if we can keep this thing close, we've got a chance. And that's basically what we did, we kept it close, we had a chance. We had some things not go our way down the stretch."

UK turned up its defense again down the stretch, using a 13-4 run to get enough distance to walk away with the win. The Cats scored 36 points off of 29 Tennessee State turnovers.

Kentucky's Mitchell said he was pleased that players in "uncomfortable situations and different roles ... still found a way to win."

Notes

O'Neill, Kentucky's leading scorer, sat out as a precaution after straining her left patellar tendon going for a loose ball in practice.

There is no structural damage, Mitchell said, and listed O'Neill as day to day.

"It was just too painful to play today, so now it's basically a pain tolerance issue," he said. "Hopefully it's not more than a couple days, but it could be a couple weeks. Everybody's body reacts differently."

■ As for updates on Goss, Mitchell said the plan is to remove the cast on her broken thumb at the four-week mark and assess things. If doctors go with four weeks exactly, it would be the day after the Cats go to top-ranked South Carolina on Jan. 11.

Initially, the injury was given a 4-6 week timeframe.

Whenever she recovers from the break, Goss will be able to go back to playing immediately, her coach said.

"She feels good; she's practicing every day," he said. "We don't throw the ball to her, but she cuts, plays and runs sprints and everything."

■ Junior college transfer Ivana Jakubcova was on the UK bench for a game for the first time this season. Coaches previously had said the forward and likely red-shirt contender was in the Joe Craft Center getting treatment on a broken bone in her leg during games.

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