UK Women's Basketball

UK women: Baylor brings out best, worst in Jennifer O'Neill

Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill, right, scored 20 points in the opener against Appalachian State.
Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill, right, scored 20 points in the opener against Appalachian State. Herald-Leader

Maybe the snow and ice in the forecast will be just what Jennifer O'Neill needs to heat up against Baylor again.

It was last season during an ice storm in Arlington, Texas, that the Kentucky guard scored a school-record 43 points in an insane, quadruple-overtime victory over the Bears.

But a few months later, facing Baylor again in the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen, O'Neill was all but absent.

All eight of her points in that game came on free throws, and for the first time all season she didn't make a basket (0-for-12).

With plenty of talent around O'Neill, Coach Matthew Mitchell doesn't need a gargantuan effort from her when the No. 11 Cats meet No. 8 Baylor on Monday night at Rupp Arena for a nationally televised showdown.

Mitchell actually prefers the O'Neill he's seen to start this season — the steady, more consistent one.

The senior guard and leading returning scorer didn't start the season on Friday night with her greatest shooting performance, missing five of her first six shots against Appalachian State.

But O'Neill didn't hang her head. She didn't let a bad start send her into a tailspin or drag others down with her.

"Her attitude was fantastic," Mitchell said. "She didn't press and she didn't make bad decisions. She took a couple of forced shots that I had pointed out to her and she really handled that well."

In the second half, O'Neill made five of her six shots and finished with a team-best 20 points to go with eight rebounds, five assists and four steals.

More than anything, Mitchell's been pleased with O'Neill's defensive effort. Kentucky has one lock-down defender in senior guard Bria Goss, but the Cats' coach acknowledged how important it will be to find another.

"She played great defense in practice this morning," he said on Sunday before the men's game against Buffalo. "I mean great defense in practice this morning."

Kentucky (1-0) is going to need all defenders on deck to halt the Bears' attack. Gone is O'Neill's back-and-forth shot maker Odyssey Sims, but Baylor (1-0) still has plenty of firepower.

The Bears return nine players, including three starters off of last season's 32-5 team that won the Big 12 championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.

One of the key players to stop will be sophomore Nina Davis, a 5-foot-11 swing player who had 20 points and eight rebounds against the Cats in that tournament game last season.

Davis had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Bears' opener.

"She is really the glue to that entire basketball team," Mitchell said of Davis. "I just think she is a terrific player and it is going to be very important for us to do a good job against her. And try to do everything we can to make sure that she doesn't have a monstrous night."

Davis has plenty of help around her in point guard Niya Johnson, who averaged 6.7 assists last season and was the nation's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio last season.

There's also 6-2 forward Khadijah Cave, who had 18 points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench against the Cats late last season, as well as 6-5 senior center Sune Agbuke for a virtually untested Kentucky frontcourt.

Mitchell isn't sure what to expect from Kentucky on such a big stage so early in the season. It won't be the prettiest game, but it's still an important one.

"It would be very meaningful to win," the UK head coach said. "We will find out where we are right now. It will be fun to take the court in Rupp Arena in front of a packed house. It would be awesome."

Nearing sellout

On Sunday, Mitchell said Kentucky had 21,000 tickets out for the game at Rupp Arena on Monday night, which will be part of the ESPN tip-off classic, which features 24 hours of basketball around the nation.

The Cats sold out the downtown venue last season versus No. 2 Duke in December, with a program-record 23,706 filling Rupp Arena. He's excited at the prospect of another packed house.

"Boy, we'd love to sprint to the finish and get this thing sold out tomorrow night," he said. "It would be a great thing for us. If everybody that has a ticket shows up tomorrow night, it would be an outstanding atmosphere."