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Eager O'Neill overcomes foul trouble, sparks UK Hoops to SEC-opening win

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Point guard Jennifer O'Neill scored 11 of her 17 points after halftime in UK's 76-69 victory over Florida on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Point guard Jennifer O'Neill scored 11 of her 17 points after halftime in UK's 76-69 victory over Florida on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jennifer O'Neill hadn't gotten to play in a Southeastern Conference game for almost two years and foul trouble was keeping her off the floor in her return. After she sat out all of the 2011-12 season with a foot injury, she was limited to eight minutes in the first half before picking up her third less than three minutes into the second.

Matthew Mitchell knew he would need his starting point guard on the floor down the stretch against a tough Florida team, so he sent her to the bench. It wasn't where she wanted to be, so O'Neill split time between encouraging her teammates and annoying assistant coach Danielle Santos.

"Just sitting on the sideline, I was kind of anxious to go back in," O'Neill said. "I kept telling Coach Santos, 'I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready.' "

Almost seven minutes later, Mitchell called the sophomore's number with 11:38 remaining. The Gators had just made the latest in a seemingly interminable series of runs that prevented the Wildcats from building a comfortable lead and the score sat at 50-47. Another player might take a few moments to get into the flow of the game after coming in cold.

But not O'Neill. She came out firing.

On her first possession after checking back in, O'Neill drilled a 3-pointer on a play designed for her. Barely a minute later, she hit another trey, this one heavily contested. The next time UK had the ball, she nailed a 2-pointer with her foot on the line. In 1:52, O'Neill scored eight points. In the 5:35 she spent on the bench with her third foul, UK scored just two as a team.

"When we were really stagnant and struggling to score and Florida was playing such great defense, she just made some plays for us that I thought really lifted our team," Mitchell said. "I thought we were getting close to a point of discouragement on offense because of Florida's good play."

A'dia Mathies - who scored 13 of her team-high 20 points in the first half - thought O'Neill's outburst was just what the doctor ordered.

"She's a great shooter and for her to come off the bench for such a long time and knock down pretty much three 3s, they called one of them a 2, but knock down some big shots, it was much-needed to give us a little spark and a little run," Mathies said.

By the time O'Neill's spurt was done, UK had built a nine-point lead. Of course, Florida would respond with two more runs, but O'Neill had helped stop the Gators in their tracks when looked to be at their most dangerous and the Cats went on to a hard-fought 76-69 victory in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.

She also wasn't done impacting the game either.

O'Neill hit a free throw when Florida had trimmed the UK lead to two with less than six minutes left. She dished an assist to DeNesha Stallworth with 3:18 left and hit a layup with less than two minutes left to help salt away the game.

She doesn't look at it that way though. O'Neill just thought she was doing her job.

"I just did what (Mitchell) asked me to do," O'Neill said after scoring 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting.

That's what was on her mind all day after Mitchell summoned his point guard for an 8:30 a.m. meeting on Thursday.

"He just told me what he wanted me to do and how this was a big game that we needed to win," O'Neill said. "I really did just try to go out there and do everything he told me to do."

As a freshman in 2010-11, she may not have been able to put that message into practice. Spending a full season in street clothes may not have been much fun at the time, but it's helped her become the player that has averaged 17 points her last three outings.

"Last year I got a chance to sit back and watch everything and see what we needed," O'Neill said. "This year, Coach Mitchell's really been on me to push the ball and set the tempo for the game. That's what I've been trying to do."

Using that attitude, O'Neill has emerged as UK's best option at the point. The Cats have had many different kinds of players at the position in recent years, but never a scorer as explosive as O'Neill, save for the minutes Mathies has spent there. The value of that added dimension was certainly on display against Florida.

"She's a great player," Florida head coach Amanda Butler said. "I think (she) gives them a really big advantage this year, her speed and quickness and her ability to score."

O'Neill is still far from a finished product though. She had five turnovers against the Gators and now has 11 in her last three games. But then again, she has shown herself capable of leading a team to a win over a quality SEC opponent, a win that happened to be a school-record 12th a row for the Cats. Ten of those wins have come with O'Neill in the starting lineup.

"I'm really proud of her," Mitchell said. "I think she wants to be a good player. I think she is working hard. I thought she still had one breakdown tonight, mental fatigue, that led to some bad plays, but she's getting much better. The good thing about Jennifer is I think she still has room for improvement."

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