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Stallworth, Cats accept Mitchell's halftime challenge, take down U of L

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DeNesha Stallworth had 15 points and six rebounds after halftime in UK's comeback win over Louisville on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth had 15 points and six rebounds after halftime in UK's comeback win over Louisville on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell didn't mince words with his star senior at halftime.

DeNesha Stallworth had just turned in a one-point, two-rebound first half, missing all six of her shots as Kentucky fell behind on its home floor, 36-27.

There are times in practices and games when Mitchell uses softer, more measured motivational tactics with Stallworth, but this wasn't one of them. Not with UK's archrival in town for a matchup of top-10 teams.

"DeNesha Stallworth did not have a good first half," Mitchell said. "And so, we had a very pointed conversation at halftime about her first half."

Stallworth allowed a few early misses from short range to derail her and she entered the locker unsure exactly what was going on in her own mind. Mitchell's frank talk crystallized that for her.

"He basically just told me that I'm not playing how I could be playing and just play relaxed and stop being so selfish," Stallworth said. "And I was being a little selfish, just not helping my team. So I just took that personal and tried to contribute more to my team, whether that's rebounding or scoring points or doing the little things that matter."

In the second half, she did all of the above.

Stallworth played 17 minutes as UK rallied from a deficit that grew to as large as 14 points. She scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed six rebounds and the No. 7 Wildcats moved to 8-0 with an early-season signature win over No. 3/4 Louisville, 69-64.

"To her credit, she turned it around and we certainly would not have won without her big second half," Mitchell said. "She is a really good player and I am glad we can learn a lesson out of a win instead of having to learn it through the pain of defeat."

Stallworth isn't the only player who has lessons to learn even though UK defeated a top-five opponent at home for the first time since 2000 on Sunday afternoon. She also wasn't the only player who heard from Mitchell at the break.

"We kind of got punched in the mouth in the first half and when Matthew came in and started, you know, basically yelling at us and telling us what we needed to do and what we weren't doing, it just made us want to play and show him we came here to play, we're ready to compete and we didn't work this hard to get where we're at to just give up a game like this," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half.

The focus for the Cats was simple in the second half: It was all about defense and rebounding.

Louisville built its first half lead on the strength of a 23-13 rebounding edge. The Cardinals scored nine second-chance points to UK's zero in the first 20 minutes, using those extra opportunities to shoot 50 percent from the field.

"It was definitely frustrating knowing that a lot of their points were from the o-boards and from free throws," Stallworth said. "We knew if just limited those two things and just boxed out and got those rebounds, it would be tougher for them to score."

In the second half, Stallworth was proven right.

UK outrebounded U of L 26-21 and immediately began cutting into the nine-point halftime deficit. The Cardinals would hold the lead until the 10:54 mark, but it was then that Bernisha Pinkett hit the first of her two 3-pointers to give UK its first lead since the opening minutes. Seventy-two seconds later, she hit another to put the Cats up 51-45.

"This was not my first year being in a big game," Pinkett said. "I knew when I got in, whatever he needed me to do I had to be ready; whether it was getting a stop on defense, getting a rebound, or making a 3. It so happened to be me being down and ready for the kick out for the 3. I was just saying when I get this ball, put your elbow in, knock it down and get back on defense.

U of L would answer with two 3s by Shoni Schimmel to tie it, but the sellout crowd of 7,963 in Memorial Coliseum wasn't about to let UK lose from there.

"A terrific game today and a terrific atmosphere, we really appreciate all the fans that came out," Mitchell said. "... Really, really appreciate our fans for coming out and making it a sellout and for providing such a great atmosphere for women's college basketball."

Benefitting from that electric atmosphere, UK beat Louisville for the 16th straight time in Memorial and third consecutive overall.

"It's really, really cool," Pinkett said. "That's just one team that, whenever it's time to play them, we get super, super fired up and it was just one of those nights we weren't going to let them come in our house and win."

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