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Second-half surge propels UK Hoops to coveted SEC championship shot

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DeNesha Stallworth's 12 second-half points led UK to the SEC Tournament Championship set for Sunday evening at 6 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth's 12 second half points led UK to the SEC Tournament Championship set for Sunday evening at 6 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Apparently Kentucky women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell delivered one spirited halftime message to his team Saturday night, as the Wildcats trailed Georgia in the SEC Tournament semifinal, 24-19. Whatever was said, it got Kentucky's full and undivided attention.

"I don't think I can say what Coach said in the locker room," said senior guard A'dia Mathies as she and the media laughed.

The first half was ugly. There's no denying that.

Kentucky came out flat and Georgia took it right to the Cats. They had greater energy, determination and focus. Bulldog players crashed the glass, grabbing offensive rebound after offensive rebound, while UK took punch after punch. Despite a lackluster first 20 minutes, the Wildcats only face a five-point halftime deficit.

Kentucky was lucky it wasn't worse. Georgia was abysmal from the 3-point line, making only one shot from beyond the arc all evening. Meanwhile, forward Jasmine Hassell was wearing out Kentucky post defenders, scoring 15 first-half points, mostly off of offensive stick backs.

The offensive rebounds were killing Kentucky, and Mitchell knew it.

"I just wrote the number 12 on the board and the number three on the board," said Mitchell about his halftime message. "Georgia had 12 offensive rebounds and we had three; I thought Georgia played with so much more intensity and desire in the first half.  I was just livid about that."

Kentucky's guard play also suffered through the first stanza. Point guard Jennifer O'Neill did not appear to be the same player from a night prior where she scored eight points with a pair of assists. She struggled to get Kentucky into its offense, turned the ball over and lacked the energy she had brought against Vanderbilt, managing just a point while turning it over four times in 15 minutes.

She wasn't alone, however. Mitchell wasn't pleased with anyone. They only had 19 points at the break and with their mission to win an SEC Tournament Championship on the line, he wasn't about to let that first-half trend continue.

So he let his players hear about it.

"We came down here believing we had a chance to win this tournament," said Mitchell. "(It's) just really unacceptable not to compete at a high level.  
"We just talked really about... sort of had a rollcall at halftime and talked to some individual people that were acting like it was no big deal."

The second half Wildcats did resemble the team that steamrolled Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals. In fact, UK dominated Georgia in the second half. The Bulldogs really never stood a chance.

Kentucky's depth was a critical component to its victory on Friday night over the Commodores, but it was also Friday night's depth that gave UK's starters plenty of rest to allow them to keep energy in reserve for the Cats' second half dismantling of a suddenly bewildered Georgia squad.

The Wildcats second-half response was so impressive that their 41 points in the second half would have been enough to defeat Georgia alone as UK's defense managed to hold the Bulldogs to 14 points over the final 20 minutes. Saturday evening's semifinal final score of 60-38 could not have better illustrated a Jekkyl and Hyde performance, and that goes for both teams.

While Georgia may have outplayed the Cats in the first half, it's quite possible the Lady Bulldogs left everything they had on the floor in the initial 20 minutes. When the second half rolled around, the Dogs were panting while the Cats had plenty left in the tank.

"We use our depth as an advantage every game," said Mathies. "We weren't hustling in the first half.  We were only down by like four or five points.  In the second half, it really changed.  It shows what we do when we're out there hustling, focused, having fun."

Not only was the message loud and clear for Kentucky going into the second frame, but the Cats executed the plan quite flawlessly. They made defensive adjustments and players took their halftime criticisms in stride.

O'Neill responded just as Mitchell hoped she would. In UK's previous three losses in the SEC, Mitchell pinned a lot of the blame on his point guard. O'Neill didn't back down from the challenge, and it was evident from the first whistle after halftime that she was dialed in.

Less than a minute into the first half, O'Neill rose up and buried a 3-pointer in front of the UK bench to cut the deficit to four. It was then her layup at the 17:18 mark that tied things up at 26, and Kentucky never trailed from there.

She would finish with nine points (eight in the second half) with four assists, three rebounds and a steal in 30 minutes of action as she set the tone and guided Kentucky to a 41-point outburst in the second half

"The second half Jennifer is the one I think is the best point guard in this league," said Mitchell. "I think we are a very dangerous team when we can have her playing the way she did in the second half.  She's a terrific player right now, at least she was in the second half today."

Defensively, Kentucky made terrific strides with its post defense Saturday night. While Hassell dominated the first half, UK defenders made her disappear in the second. Mitchell ran defender after defender on her, from DeNesha Stallworth to Samarie Walker to Azia Bishop, and their physicality just beat her down.

Throughout the second half, Hassell caught the ball farther and farther away from the basket and UK post defenders pushed her off the block. She was tired of battling in the paint as Kentucky defenders completely took her out of the game.

"Just playing more physical," said Stallworth. "Just not staying behind her and letting her always go right, have it her way.  (We) Definitely played her tougher, more ball pressure helped.  We did it as a team."

While Hassell went dormant, Stallworth ignited her game in the second half. With a game-high 18 points, two-thirds of the junior's scoring came in the second 20 minutes as UK poured it on.

It only took the first six minutes, as UK built its lead to eight, to have a pretty strong feeling that Georgia was merely a speed bump on UK's road to the SEC championship game against Texas A&M on Sunday at p.m. ET.

After all, that's what Kentucky came to Duluth, Ga., in the first place. If Kentucky gives two halves equal to its second-half effort against Georgia, UK could walk away with their coveted SEC championship.

"The thing that's sweet about it is having a chance and opportunity tomorrow," said Mitchell. "You can't imagine how much respect I have for the Georgia program and Coach (Andy) Landers, who is one of the best absolute coaches of all time, has been a great, great source of wisdom for me over the years.  We have tremendous respect for Georgia's team.

"It's only sweet not because of the opponent, but because our kids got it together at halftime and are now giving themselves an opportunity to win a championship we want very badly."

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