Kentucky Sports

UK women hold off challenge from Ole Miss, win 64-58

Kentucky guard Linnae Harper stole the ball from Ole Miss guard A'Queen Hayes late in the second half. Harper led all players with four steals.
Kentucky guard Linnae Harper stole the ball from Ole Miss guard A'Queen Hayes late in the second half. Harper led all players with four steals. Herald-Leader

Until Kentucky gets to full strength with its guard rotation and gets its young post players playing well, its coach is starting to accept that things aren't going to go to script.

They didn't on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum against Ole Miss when No. 11 UK shot a season-low 30.3 percent and trailed for 26 minutes before the Cats won out 64-58.

"You can file this one under 'better to finish strong,' and 'it's not how you start, but how you finish,'" Coach Matthew Mitchell said, "because we're just still struggling to get off to good starts."

No. 11 Kentucky (13-2, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) struggled to do a lot of things it wanted to do, but survived five lead changes and 10 ties to win its sixth in a row over the Rebels.

"Thank goodness they can turn it around quickly," Mitchell said of his team. "They've shown the ability to do that. They gutted it out. That was a tough, tough victory for us today."

Neither team led by more than six points and nearly every shot, every rebound, every pass was contested in the win, but UK managed to make enough key plays down the stretch.

"Ole Miss wanted to win just as bad as we did," guard Janee Thompson said. "They were making plays and they were excited and we had to respond to that and I think that's something we did every time we were called on to respond ... We responded to the challenge every time."

The Cats took the lead for good on a Thompson floater in the lane with 2:20 to go and needed a big steal from Linnae Harper at the other end to seal it for UK, which is playing without senior guard Bria Goss (broken thumb).

"Janee Thompson played her tail off defensively," Mitchell said of the point guard, who led Kentucky with 17 points, including 15 in the second half. "Linnae did, too. Linnae's steals, the game could have gone either way, somebody has to make a play, who is going to make a play?

"When a kid makes a big play like that or a good big play down the stretch I am grateful because we needed it. Ole Miss was tough, tough, tough today."

Harper had her third double-double of the season with 12 points and career-high 14 rebounds to go with her four steals.

Mitchell also praised senior guard Jennifer O'Neill, not only for her 13 points and four rebounds, but also for her defensive effort.

"Jennifer O'Neill came to play today and came to play on defense," he said. "The last 10 minutes of the game she just disrupted Ole Miss and (they) couldn't get into what they needed to get into because she played her tail off."

O'Neill, who scored 11 in the second half, had a string of huge plays to get a lethargic Kentucky offense going again midway through the second half. Out of a called timeout, the senior hit a contested three on a set play.

"If your hand is down, it don't matter if you're guarding her, she's going to make it," Ole Miss Coach Matt Insell said of O'Neill, whom he helped recruit to Kentucky as an assistant. "That's a big shot for her, that got them going. Jen O'Neill scores, that's their energy."

Then the senior guard forced a steal to set up a Thompson layup and free throw. O'Neill took a charge on the next play and UK was able to score again quickly on a Makayla Epps shot in the lane. Epps finished with 12 points and six boards.

O'Neill's four-point play with 8:37 to go gave Kentucky its largest lead of the game to that point, 46-42, before Ole Miss responded with seven unanswered to get the lead back.

"We had plenty of opportunities to quit," Insell said. "We've been in games like this all year and we had plenty of opportunities to quit there."

With seven minutes to go, the Rebels (11-4, 1-1) took a hit when Danielle McCray and Shandricka Sessom, two of Ole Miss's top rebounders, fouled out within 30 seconds of one another.

Rebels star Tia Faleru carried the load the rest of the way, including tying the game 56-56 with 3:07 to go.

"I don't know how many more double-doubles she has to get before people start realizing she's one of the best players in this league," Insell said of Faleru, who had her sixth straight double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds.

The former UK assistant coach, who said afterward that "this one hurts," will get another shot at the Cats on Feb. 23 in Oxford.

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