UK Women's Basketball

O'Neill blossoms into UK's leader

Jennifer O'Neill, right, drove past Texas A&M's Courtney Walker. Aggies Coach Gary Blair said O'Neill was the reason the Cats won.
Jennifer O'Neill, right, drove past Texas A&M's Courtney Walker. Aggies Coach Gary Blair said O'Neill was the reason the Cats won. Herald-Leader

The smile on her coach's face told Jennifer O'Neill that he was joking.

But his question was one that the Kentucky guard had been pondering seriously for a few weeks.

"Why? Why did you make me wait so long?" Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell implored of his point guard.

O'Neill came onto campus two seasons ago as a highly touted McDonald's All-American, the first to ever commit to Kentucky.

But she never seemed to live up to her billing that first season.

"It was a difficult transition," Mitchell said. "She just couldn't function really with us."

The Bronx, N.Y. native didn't practice hard. She didn't pay attention to detail. She wasn't in good enough shape to play UK's up-tempo style. That showed on defense especially.

So O'Neill spent a lot of time on the Kentucky bench stewing.

Then she caught her big break.

And not in the way she expected.

The big break came courtesy of a broken foot that sidelined her all of last season.

"I needed to sit out," O'Neill said. "Everything happens for a reason."

Instead of sitting on the Kentucky bench stewing as she had the season before, she started paying attention.

"I was able to see stuff from (Mitchell's) point of view instead of our point of view," she said Friday. "Now I'm on the sideline with him and I'm hearing everything he's saying. ... I kind of understand where he comes from now. Our relationship is way different than it was my freshman year."

O'Neill herself is way different than she was just a year ago.

The 5-foot-6 redshirt sophomore has elevated her game significantly in Southeastern Conference play, averaging 14.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and five assists. She's hitting 40.3 percent of her three-pointers.

But most importantly, at 15 pounds lighter, O'Neill runs the Kentucky fast break like she's been shot from a cannon.

"That comes back to me losing the weight," she explained. "I wasn't able to keep that tempo up and continue to push the ball because I was exhausted."

Now, O'Neill is exhausting her opponents.

After UK's most recent win over No. 20 Texas A&M, Coach Gary Blair said it wasn't the Cats' star A'dia Mathies and her 23 points or the inside duo of Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth that cost the Aggies the game.

"The difference in the ball game was O'Neill," he said. "She had a tremendous ballgame. She could handle anything that was out there."

Her next big task is to take sixth-ranked UK (15-1, 3-0) and its 14-game win streak on the road to meet Missouri (12-5, 2-1 SEC), which hasn't lost a game at home this season.

But Mitchell feels better about UK's chances now that O'Neill has stepped forward to run the offense.

"Boy, she's really come a million miles from when she showed up here," her coach said. "She really transformed herself physically and right now, she's showing a lot of mental toughness and really getting after it."

Watch for falling threes

Missouri isn't afraid to take a few shots from long range — in fact, the Tigers have made at least 13 three-pointers in six games this season and last weekend they set an SEC record with 18 made three-pointers against Auburn.

The Tigers are tops in the country in made three-pointers, averaging 9.9 of them, which will make them a dangerous team for Kentucky, Mitchell said.

"The three-point line is a big, big equalizer," Mitchell said. "We will have to play tough defense, we just have to go over there and be committed to playing our real aggressive man-to-man defense to see if we can slow them down."

The Mizzou player likely to get the most attention from the Cats' defense is sophomore sub Morgan Eye, who leads the nation in three-pointers made with 4.1, hitting 45.5 percent from long range. She has made 70 so far this season. As a team, UK has only made 112.