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O'Neill answers the bell in final non-conference tuneup

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Jennifer O'Neill finished with a career-high 21 points in a win over Marist. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill finished with a career-high 21 points in a win over Marist. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jennifer O'Neill and DeNesha Stallworth had career performances Sunday afternoon when their team needed them the most. Marist, the eight-time defending champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, had the right game plan, and in an off game, it may have been enough to help the Red Foxes knock off the No. 6 Wildcats.

This was not that game.

O'Neill and Stallworth combated the Marist defensive efforts to take away the interior game of Kentucky and make UK win from the perimeter. But Stallworth had the hot hand early scoring six of the team's first eight points on her way to a career-high 21 points.

While Stallworth was holding it down in the post, it was O'Neill taking care of business on the perimeter. While Marist looked to pack it inside against a much taller Kentucky team, O'Neill and the other guards plenty of opportunities around the arc.

"You could see holes in their defense, like the hard hedge and when they were going under the screens," said O'Neill. "You could take that 3-point shot. You could definitely see it was kind of force us to shoot outside shots."

O'Neill, ever confident in her outside shooting abilities, took advantage in a big way. She was 7 of 11 from the field including 4 for 7 from beyond the arc. With the recent season-ending injury of teammate Megan Conwright, O'Neill will have to play a much bigger role. Early returns say that should be no problem for the sophomore point guard, who lost last season to an injury of her own.

"Great offensive lift she gave us today," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "I think they were going to force someone to step up on the perimeter to make some shots, and boy did she do that today. I just thought she had a really, really good offensive day and gave us a big lift."

She was a huge lift indeed for the Cats. She finished the day with a career-high 21 points with just two turnovers in her 30 minutes on the floor Sunday.

Mitchell knew that potential was in there all along.

"She's a great perimeter shooter and a very skilled offensive player," said Mitchell. "I'm not surprised, just really happy and excited to see it because we needed it today. They really made it tough on us and our interior players."

After Kentucky set a record for the lowest point total allowed in school history on Friday against Alcorn State, the Cats would be in for quite a different type of game against Marist. Marist's offense, a screen-heavy attack, counteracted quite a bit of Mitchell's signature pressure defense. The visitors had success over the top against the press, found cutters going to the basket, and more importantly handled themselves admirably against Kentucky's full-court press. Though the Red Foxes finished with 27 turnovers on the game, when they broke the pressure, they often got a good shot out of it.

The ability to knock down big shots while also limiting Kentucky's opportunities in the post gave Marist a real opportunity to make things interesting. Kentucky clung to a 12-point lead at halftime, and the Red Foxes jumped all over the Cats in the second half, cutting the deficit to eight points twice.

As O'Neill and Stallworth traded baskets, senior guard A'dia Mathies emerged after a quiet first half. Mathies was bothered by two injuries that kept her out of action for pieces of the first 20 minutes. She looked to be fully healthy in the second half, however, hitting a pair of jumpers with active hands on defense.

As Mathies put up a quiet 10 points for the game, she became the fourth-leading scorer in program history with 1,608.

With the victory, UK moves to 12-1 on the season and will head into the Southeastern Conference portion of its schedule. After rolling over Alcorn State two days prior, this type of game against Marist was exactly what the doctor ordered as the Cats start to prepare for conference play.

"I think that you have a better idea about things that you need to work on as we lead up to our first conference game," said Mitchell. "I think it's much more beneficial than a blowout win.

"We'll have a good idea of where we are headed into Thursday."

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