UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky women's basketball: Cats always in good hands with trio of point guards

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

It took 38 minutes and 21 seconds for the point guard to make a mistake.

But Kentucky waited patiently for it, and ran at her in waves, hoping that eventually Baylor star Niya Johnson would cough up the ball.

By the time she did, the Cats had snagged a one-point lead and were able to capitalize off Johnson's miscue and upset the Bears in Rupp Arena last week.

It wasn't so much that play that cost Baylor the game, but it was that play that illustrated to UK Coach Matthew Mitchell just how important it was that his ninth-ranked Cats had so many capable ball handlers.

"It's a great luxury to have," he said. "We are very fortunate to have three people who can do it."

Those three players, primary point guard Janee Thompson, former point guard and now leading scorer Jennifer O'Neill, and versatile sophomore Makayla Epps, a point guard in high school, give Kentucky a chance to force some key mistakes like the one Baylor's star made.

Mitchell knows that UK isn't going to be big enough to compete head-to-head with some of the best teams in the Southeastern Conference, but he likes their chances to outrun them with those three on the floor.

"Guard play gives us a chance to be really good and it helps us overcome some of our deficiencies," he said. "That's why we work every day on being a fast, up-tempo team, and having people who can handle the ball allows you to do that."

It also will help Kentucky (4-0) as it tries to win three games in three days at the Paradise Island Jam Tournament this week in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. UK will face Illinois on Thursday, Oklahoma on Friday and South Florida on Saturday.

The trio of O'Neill, Epps and Thompson are scoring 46.4 percent of UK's points and dishing out 60.7 percent of its assists.

Having three players who can see the floor the way a point guard sees it and can run the fast break the way the three of them can is really helpful, Mitchell said.

"To be fast, we need to be a good passing team," Mitchell said. "The ball needs to move, and I think one lesson we've tried to learn as we really broke down taking some steps forward this year, is sometimes when one player dominates the ball with the dribble, it actually slows us down. You either need to be moving the ball ahead or you need to be taking penetrating dribbles to take the ball to the rim, or you need to be getting the ball moving."

In summer competitions that tested speed and strength between women's athletics teams (soccer, softball, volleyball and tennis) at Kentucky, Thompson was No. 1 and O'Neill was No. 2 overall.

It was no coincidence that Epps (12.8 points, 5 rebounds, 3.3 assists a game), O'Neill (18.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game) and Thompson (9.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists) were all in the game at the end against Baylor.

"When you put all three of them on the floor together ... you can do a few things," Mitchell said. "If you can guard them with that group, you can really do some things offensively."

Thompson is happy to be able to distribute the workload and sees having three ball distributors as only helping Kentucky down the line.

"The three of us have a really good relationship," Thompson said. "We're really starting to understand what Coach Mitchell is looking for and what our team needs from us and either one of us can bring it at any time and that just speaks to the type of depth we have on our team."