UK Women's Basketball

Mark Story: O'Neill's cold streak snaps at just the right time for Cats

Kentucky Wildcats guard Jennifer O'Neill (0) hit a three pointer from the corner over Baylor Bears guard Imani Wright (20) as Kentucky defeated  Baylor 74-64 on Monday November 17, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats guard Jennifer O'Neill (0) hit a three pointer from the corner over Baylor Bears guard Imani Wright (20) as Kentucky defeated Baylor 74-64 on Monday November 17, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Across two games against Baylor, eight months apart, Jennifer O'Neill had taken 15 three-point attempts.

Fifteen of them had missed.

So with No. 11 Kentucky clinging to a 65-64 lead over No. 8 Baylor with 1:17 left in Rupp Arena, somehow you just knew the ball was going to find the fiery, little UK guard behind the three-point line.

When it did, O'Neill showed no consciousness of the 15 straight treys — 0-for-5 in the NCAA Tournament last March, plus the 0-for-10 she'd gone Monday night — she had missed against Baylor.

O'Neill rose from deep in the right corner and let it fly.

When it found bottom, Kentucky had a 68-64 lead and was on its way to a statement-making early-season victory.

Rallying from 40-26 down in the second half, UK (2-0) beat Baylor 74-64 on Monday night before a Rupp Arena crowd announced at 22,075.

A national audience looking in on ESPN2 at one of the opening games of ESPN's College Hoops Marathon saw O'Neill, the 24-year-old senior from The Bronx, N.Y., score 22 points. They also saw a display of Kentucky balance, as six other Wildcats scored between five and 12 points.

Kentucky billed Monday night's game as its Pack The House contest. A season ago, 23,706 saw UK lose to Duke. This year, on a November night featuring frigid weather, there were not that many fans in Rupp.

The announced figure of 22,075 seemed generous. But, given the weather, the crowd that did turn out was impressive. And, as Kentucky made a fierce second-half rally, the crowd rocked the Rupp rafters.

"You are the greatest fans in America!" UK Coach Matthew Mitchell saluted the crowd over the public address system after the game was over.

Coming into this season, there were two big questions surrounding Kentucky women's basketball. The first was whether a group of (mostly) young post players could replace the production of last year's senior forwards, DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker.

In the first half, the answer seemed to be a resounding no.

Kentucky fell behind 34-24 at the half, getting a whopping one field goal, by senior Azia Bishop, from a post player.

But in half two, Bishop blocked three shots. Redshirt freshman forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers scored seven points. Freshman Alyssa Rice, a 6-foot-3 McDonald's All-American, gave the Cats a defensive presence and chipped in a timely field goal.

After being outrebounded by eight in the first half, the Cats won the battle of the boards by six in half two.

The other question, in an era of "freedom of movement" emphasis from the officiating, was whether Kentucky could go back to the all-out, defensive pressuring style that Mitchell used to elevate the UK program but had to go away from last season.

Another box was checked yes. The Cats forced Baylor into 24 turnovers, 17 before halftime. After Baylor shot 46.7 percent in half one, UK held the Bears to 11-of-34 (32.4 percent) in half two.

Nevertheless, Kentucky would not have won without O'Neill.

When the story of O'Neill's UK career is written, Baylor will form a central focus of the narrative.

When Kentucky won a wild, four-overtime affair over Kim Mulkey's Bears last Dec. 6, 133-130 in the former Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, O'Neill became the talk of college basketball by scoring a school-record 43 points.

However, when Baylor won the more substantial meeting, bouncing UK 90-72 in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 in South Bend, Ind., O'Neill endured a dreadful shooting day. She went 0-of-12 from the floor, 0-of-5 on treys, and scored all eight of her points from the foul line.

In the first half Monday, O'Neill started out the same way. She took eight shots before halftime; she made one.

Yet the oldest axiom in basketball is that a scorer can have no conscience. That no matter what has happened before, a good shooter always believes the next one is going in.

After halftime, O'Neill missed her first four treys, but found her mid-range jumper.

When the game's biggest shot found her with the ball behind the three-point line, she didn't even hesitate.

For O'Neill and UK Hoops, that 16th three after missing 15 in a row over two games could not have turned out any sweeter.

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