UK Women's Basketball

UK women: ONeill's season takes positive turn

Jennifer O'Neill returns for the Cats after sitting out last season with an injury. The Bronx, N.Y. native averaged 5.1 points a game as a freshman in 2010-11, starting three times in 29 games played.
Jennifer O'Neill returns for the Cats after sitting out last season with an injury. The Bronx, N.Y. native averaged 5.1 points a game as a freshman in 2010-11, starting three times in 29 games played.

It's easy to imagine it as a fairy tale sort of ending.

An oft-criticized freshman comes off the Kentucky bench and scores a game-high 15 points, including five in the all-important waning minutes, in a big win on the road.

It's easy to think of that freshman, Jennifer O'Neill, as a diamond in the rough who showed her polish in a victory over Florida.

But both O'Neill and Coach Matthew Mitchell won't go so far as to call it a happy ending quite yet.

"It was a step forward for her," Mitchell said Friday, the day after No. 19 UK got a come-from-behind win at Florida. "But it's just a slow go for her defensively ... She and I are having a hard time right now."

Mitchell stresses defense and O'Neill has never been forced to play it.

She called it "not a high priority" in high school.

But it is a high priority at Kentucky, which has built a reputation as one of the nation's most aggressive defensive teams.

And it's been a struggle for O'Neill to get in line.

"Jen would be a very good football player," Mitchell said Friday as UK prepared for a game versus Vanderbilt, which has won four of its last five games.

"She'd like to run a few offensive plays and then come over to the bench and let the fan blow on her and get some Gatorade squirted through her face mask and wait for the defense to stop everybody and then go back out," he said.

Because of her lack of attention to detail on the defensive end, the freshman McDonald's All-American averaged just 7.6 minutes and 2.4 points (second-lowest on the team) in non-conference play.

But the better she has performed in practice, the more minutes she's accumulated. Her minutes have doubled to 16.3 a game in four Southeastern Conference games. She is fourth on the team in scoring in SEC play, averaging 7.8 points and hitting 37.5 percent from three-point range.

O'Neill said there have been plenty of low points this season.

Mitchell has told her repeatedly that she's the "worst defender," not only on the team, but "in the country," O'Neill said with a smile.

But she said it makes her want to prove him wrong.

"He says it to motivate me," she said. "He does a good job of that."

Senior Victoria Dunlap said O'Neill has been a work in progress, but she seems to finally be getting what her coaches and teammates have been trying to tell her all along: that if she tries harder on defense she can be an important piece of the puzzle.

"She knows now it's all about how she plays on defense," Dunlap said. "It doesn't matter how many points she scores on offense. It's about how she plays on defense. And every day she's gotten better at it."

O'Neill will be something special if she just keeps practicing hard and playing harder on defense, Mitchell said.

And the coach who has been so hard on the freshman guard this season both in the media and behind closed doors had a compliment or two to toss her way after the Florida win.

"We would not have won the game without her offense last night," he said. "She's not afraid. Her offensive mentality and her All-American mentality took over. She wanted the ball. She wasn't afraid of that at all."

He didn't stop there.

"And she actually did an OK job guarding at the end," he said with a smile.

Snowden back for Vandy

Keyla Snowden's stress fracture in her toe most likely will change the amount of practice she will be participate in for the rest of the season and it kept her from practicing again on Friday, but Mitchell said it is likely the junior shooting guard will see the floor versus Vanderbilt on Sunday.

But the coach said it's hard to know just how much she will be able to contribute.

"She's been off for a couple of weeks here, so you really don't know what you'll get from her," Mitchell said.