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Stallworth, O'Neill remind everyone why UK can be special

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DeNesha Stallworth had 19 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth had 19 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Six days ago, Matthew Mitchell offered a prediction about DeNesha Stallworth, the star forward who was then still trying to find her form after a December knee injury.

"One of these nights she's going to go for 18 or 20 (points) and eight or 10 rebounds and that's when you'll know she's back," Mitchell said last week.

The night was Thursday.

Stallworth nearly hit those forecasted numbers on the head in a 108-78 Kentucky victory. In just 22 minutes against Ole Miss, Stallworth posted 19 points and 11 rebounds.

"It feels good to have our All-American back," Jennifer O'Neill said.

Stallworth made 7-of-12 field-goal attempts in her best performance since her injury, registering her second straight double-double in the process.

"We need to get her the ball a little bit more because we're missing her, but just the effort and the willingness to go to the boards is important," Mitchell said. "It's being talented and being able to get up there and have strong hands."

The senior said afterward that she feels "a hundred percent," an encouraging sign for a UK team trying to shake off a prolonged slump in SEC play during which the Wildcats (18-6, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) lost five times in nine games.

"I think I was kind of a big piece that we were missing, but this is not always all on me," Stallworth said. "I think we all have out little parts as a team. But it just feels good to be back out there and playing hard and playing with a purpose. It's just a great feeling, especially to get a win."

When Stallworth had it going pre-injury, UK was one of the best teams in the country. The Cats sprinted to a 9-0 start with her in the lineup, taking down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor in the process. Since then, UK has never looked better than they did against the Rebels (10-16, 1-11 SEC).

"It was exciting to see that we could get back to playing the way we were once before," O'Neill said. "Even though we still have a lot of stuff to work on, it was really good just to get a win."

The win started with entry pass after entry pass.

UK built a first-half lead by getting the ball to Stallworth and she delivered with 10 points and six rebounds. At halftime, Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell -- a Mitchell assistant at UK until last season who received a big ovation when he was introduced in Memorial Coliseum -- had no choice but to adjust.

The inside game established, O'Neill -- the sharp-shooting point guard -- had ample room to operate.

"D's always preaching, 'Throw the ball inside, throw the ball inside,' " O'Neill said. "And we try to play inside-out and sometimes we miss the post a lot -- not sometimes -- we miss the post a lot and it was just good because it made her draw more attention and it allowed me to get open easier."

Taking advantage, O'Neill was dominant in the second half. She poured in 19 of her 27 points after the break, drilling 5-of-6 shots from the field and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.

Watching O'Neill and Stallworth playing well together, it's not difficult to remember why UK was so good to start the season.

"They're real good when DeNesha Stallworth plays," Insell said. "They're even better when Jennifer O'Neill plays. And so you get both of those clicking together on the same night like they had tonight, that's a team right there that has a chance to play in Nashville."

The Cats have a trip to the Volunteer state on their mind, but to a city about 180 miles east of this year's Final Four site.

"It just felt fantastic, especially going into the next game versus Tennessee," Stallworth said of UK's Sunday trip to Knoxville, Tenn.

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