UK Women's Basketball

UK women's preview: In search of consistency

UK's Jennifer O'Neill brought the ball down court during a game at Alabama last season. She led UK in scoring last season with 12.6 points a game despite being fifth in minutes played.
UK's Jennifer O'Neill brought the ball down court during a game at Alabama last season. She led UK in scoring last season with 12.6 points a game despite being fifth in minutes played. AP

There is only one Jennifer O'Neill listed on the Kentucky roster. Yet there has often seemed to be two different players wearing No. 0 for the Wildcats.

"On Jennifer O'Neill": The fiery 5-foot-6 Kentucky guard scored 24 points last season when UK beat Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time since 1985.

"Off Jennifer O'Neill": When the Vols broke the Cats' hearts by rallying for a 71-70 victory in the 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament finals, O'Neill went 1-for-6 from the floor.

"On Jennifer O'Neill": When Kentucky blasted Alabama in Tuscaloosa 85-63 last Jan. 2, O'Neill led the Cats with 17 points.

"Off Jennifer O'Neill": Three weeks later, when the Crimson Tide staggered UK with a 57-55 upset in Memorial Coliseum, O'Neill took only two shots from the field and made none.

"On Jennifer O'Neill": Became the talk of women's college basketball last December when she rifled in a school-record 43 points in the Wildcats' epic 133-130 four-overtime victory over Baylor.

"Off Jennifer O'Neill": Last March, when Baylor turned the tables and bounced UK, 90-72, from the 2014 NCAA Tournament, O'Neill went 0-for-12 from the floor.

Bottom line: "On Jennifer O'Neill" can be brilliant, but consistency has proven an elusive goal for the little guard from the Bronx, NY.

"That's something I know I need to get better at," O'Neill said. "My teammates heard me say I wanted to make balance a focus of my life, not just on the court, but in everything in general."

If the Kentucky women are to advance to an NCAA Tournament round of 16 for a fourth straight year in 2014-15; or make it to the round of eight for the fourth time in six seasons; or even push through to the program's first Final Four appearance, several things need to happen.

UK needs highly touted freshmen Alyssa Rice, a McDonald's All- American, and Alexis Jennings, a Women's Basketball Coaches Association High School All-American, to help replace the production lost with the graduation of starting post players Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth.

With Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell planning a return to the full-court press that fueled the turnaround in the fortunes of UK Hoops six seasons ago, the Cats must show that playing style can still be effective in the era of "freedom of movement" emphasis from the referees.

A season of mostly "On Jennifer O'Neill" would be a boon, too.

Mitchell, clearly, has devoted substantial thought to how to draw a more consistent performance out of the 24-year-old, fifth-year senior.

"I think she struggled with the correct self-image," Mitchell said. "You know, we just can't rise above our self-image. If we don't really value what we can do and place great value on it and see it accurately, you cannot succeed.

"So that's my job right now, just to try to make her see accurately what a focused and consistent Jennifer O'Neill can do. ... I just want her to set her sights accurately. She needs to have very high goals. She needs to view herself as one of the top players in the league, because that's what she can be."

Even with her inconsistency, O'Neill led Kentucky in scoring last season at 12.6 points a game. This in spite of coming off the bench and being fifth on the team in minutes played.

This year, "I think Jennifer will probably start," Mitchell said. "... I think she is probably going to start and be one of the real focal points of our offense and defense."

When O'Neill signed with UK in November 2009, the program had yet to embark on its current streak of five straight NCAA tourney appearances. Taking a leap of faith, O'Neill became the first McDonald's All-American to pick Kentucky.

Since her signing, there have been seven more (counting two transfers).

"A very significant event," Mitchell says of O'Neill's choice of UK. "(I am) very grateful for that. She did a lot for us. So I'm trying to do as much for her as I can.

"Sometimes, kids don't believe in themselves enough. I think that's where it is with Jennifer. I think we just need to make sure she is not afraid of success."

For her senior season, O'Neill says success would be no more "dual Jennifer O'Neills" — just one, playing well, as a matter of routine.

"I just want to be consistent," O'Neill said, "throughout the whole season."

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