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Defense-sparked second-half surge propels UK to NCAA's second round

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Jennifer O'Neill's big second half in her return home to New York sent Kentucky past Navy and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill's big second half in her return home to New York sent Kentucky past Navy and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell believed the two weeks between games was good for his team.

He was right and he was wrong, depending on what half of basketball you watched Sunday afternoon in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament first-round game with Navy.

The Wildcats looked rusty and a bit out of sorts after the layoff. Though Mitchell was encouraged by his team's effort and energy in practice over the past two weeks, no one was sure what to expect when the team finally got back on the floor. It didn't take long to find out how much the time off would affect the team.

Navy came out and gave UK its best shot from the tip and caught the Wildcats off guard. Kentucky was out of rhythm and struggled putting the ball in the basket for much of the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Navy was getting exactly what it wanted.

The Midshipmen were overmatched athletically, and they knew that coming in. They wanted to slow the game down, move the ball, exploit Kentucky's trapping on defense, and shoot a lot of 3s. In the first half, those were falling and the Wildcats were staggering.

Kentucky did not look like Kentucky. They were rusty.

"I thought we were really off-balanced and rushing around the rim," said Mitchell. "Where the rust might come through is we're a very rhythm-oriented team defensively and we were just a step or two late on some rotations. I thought we were giving some good effort in traps, but late on rotations."

Navy knocked down five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game and completely grabbed the momentum, eventually building a seven-point lead with 6:29 left to go in the first half. But Kentucky relied on its full-court pressure defensively to scrap back. Kentucky had a chance to head into the locker room with the lead, eventually grabbing a one-point advantage, but Navy's April Bernal hit a jumper with 36 seconds left to give the Midshipmen a 26-25 lead at intermission.

When the Wildcats came out for the second half, they came out a different team, or a more familiar one that Mitchell had been accustomed to seeing for 27 wins this season.

Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper and her players noted that UK played a brand of basketball that they had never seen before, when in reality, Kentucky was just getting back to its old ways.

The second half started out with a readjusted Jennifer O'Neill who decided to start imposing her will. After trying to let the game come to her for the first half, she began attacking and asserting herself on both ends of the floor.

O'Neill blitzed Navy with a personal seven-point run in the first minute and 13 seconds and before Navy could blink, a one-point advantage turned into a four-point deficit. While the offensive outburst was impressive, the key to it may have been a purely defensive spark.

"The run was sparked by Jennifer O'Neill's defensive intensity," said Mitchell. "She scored a bunch of points and assisted on some points, but I really thought it was her defensive intensity coming out of the break."

Kentucky's team defense turned up a notch as well in the second half.

The Cats forced Navy into 14 second-half turnovers including four steals by O'Neill in the half alone. Without her decision to come out and impact the game, the Wildcats may not have ever gotten on a roll.

"I do feel like I am changing the game because my teammates start going," said O'Neill. "Coming into the media timeout, Coach Mitchell ran out to me and he was telling me, 'Now we are playing like this because you are playing defense and you are being intense on defense.' "

O'Neill finished with a big day in her homecoming in New York, scoring 12 points with four assists to go along with five steals. While she set the tone defensively and was a necessary sparkplug for the Cats, DeNesha Stallworth was steady throughout in the post.

The UK center worked well in tandem with post mate Samarie Walker. Kentucky's size coupled with its athleticism made it hard for Navy to contain the Wildcats on the block.

Stallworth scored nine points in each half to finish with a game-high 18 points to earn a double-double in her first NCAA Tournament game as a Wildcat. With Kentucky struggling to get anything going offensively through the first 20 minutes of action, it was the work done in the post that helped weather the storm.

"I felt like we were just a little rusty," said Stallworth. "We haven't played in a couple of weeks. I think we played hard, tried to stay focused and not let that bring us down. That was the adversity that we did face. The team did a great job just keeping our heads up and knowing the game is 40 minutes."

Though the first-half performance was unsettling, at no point was there a sense of panic. Due to Kentucky's recent success and another great run in the Southeastern Conference this season, the Wildcats are going to get their opponent's best night in and night out. What Mitchell can always rely on his team's defensive pressure to get UK back on track when the offense isn't flowing.

"There was no panic in the first half because we were pretty clear on what we needed to do to get a different result," said Mitchell. "I knew that if we could get some sharpness to our defense, I felt like we could do what we did in the second half. There was no panic.

"I was just more so trying to get us to settle down offensively. Just really hurrying, poor shot selection from the standpoint of just in a hurry and not letting it come to us and getting better rhythm."

 Once Kentucky imposed its will on the defensive end, that was it for Navy. The Midshipmen could never get back into an offensive rhythm themselves in the second half managing just 15 points in the final 20 minutes. UK held Navy to 23.8 percent (5 of 21) from the field in the second half and hit the boards hard to outrebound Navy 43-30.

After Navy hit five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Mids were just barely able to match that point total in the entire second half as they managed just one 3-pointer for the rest of the contest (6 of 22).

Kentucky will try to continue to apply that pressure in the second round, which could be an even greater advantage on Monday. The Wildcats will face Dayton, who defeated St. John's 96-90 in double overtime. With that extra mileage and energy spent to advance, Kentucky will likely look to exploit the Flyers to take advantage of additional wear and tear from a hard-fought overtime battle.

The Wildcats will take on the Flyers at 7 p.m. ET Tuesdat night back at Carnesecca Arena broadcast on ESPN2 as Kentucky looks to continue its quest for a Final Four berth.

"I had a lot of family and friends here, but the game wasn't big because of them," said O'Neill. "The game was big because it's the NCAA Tournament and we have a goal of making it to New Orleans. That what made this game big."

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