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Stallworth, Cats flip the switch in second half

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DeNesha Stallworth scored all 13 of her points in the second half of UK's 75-70 win over Florida on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth scored all 13 of her points in the second half of UK's 75-70 win over Florida on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
DULUTH, Ga. -- Time is running out on DeNesha Stallworth's decorated Kentucky career.

In fact, heading into UK's Southeastern Conference Tournament opener on Friday, Stallworth was guaranteed to play just two more games as a collegian.

That made the moment when she picked up her second foul early in the first half against Florida and the nearly 18 minutes on the bench that followed particularly painful.

"It was very frustrating, but my assistant coaches and Coach (Matthew) Mitchell just did a great job of just helping me to stay in the game and I think that really helped me in the second half," Stallworth said.

With Stallworth unable to play due to foul trouble, UK appeared on the verge of a third defeat at the hands of the Gators and an early SEC Tournament exit. The Cats were down 36-29 headed to the locker room and could not be certain of how ready Stallworth would be to contribute in the second half after being out for so long.

Stallworth -- in spite of being adversely affected in similar circumstances in the past -- was sure she'd be alright.

"In the past I would probably get frustrated and check out but I knew my team needed me," Stallworth said.

She was anything but checked out when she checked back in.

Within 45 seconds, she hit her first shot of the game, a layup. In the next two minutes, she had a pair of steals as UK rallied to within one point of the Gators by the first media timeout of the second half.

All told, Stallworth scored all 13 of her points after the break, hitting 5-of-7 shots and adding four second-half rebounds, but she was hardly the only Wildcat to step it up as UK (23-7) rallied to a 75-70 victory over Florida (19-12). With the win, the Cats set up a semifinal matchup against top-seeded South Carolina at noon ET.

Florida built its halftime lead on the strength of inside play, leading Mitchell to issue a challenge to his post players.

"I thought we sort of stepped back from the challenge in the first half," Mitchell said. "We didn't have a lot of toughness in the post in the second half of the first half. I just didn't think we were competing very hard in the paint. I thought Florida was much tougher in the first half."

The next time he was in front of his team in the locker room postgame, there's no way he could have said the same.

UK had 22-16 rebounding edge in the second half and 42-29 for the game en route to outscoring Florida in second-chance points, 16-6. The Cats also had 20 of their 34 points in the paint after the break.

"I thought our play on the interior really stepped up and battled there and played tougher in the second half," Mitchell said. "We made some real tough buckets."

 UK would need every basket it could get because the Gators simply refused to wilt.

When the Cats took their first lead of the second half on a Linnae Harper free throw, Lily Svete answered with one of Florida's 10 3-pointers to put the Gators back in front at 53-51 with 9:30 left.

Two freshmen orchestrated UK's response, scoring or assisting on each of the Cats' next four baskets. Makayla Epps started the stretch with a pretty pass to DeNesha Stallworth for a layup before Linnae Harper grabbed a defensive rebound and hit a step-back jumper. Epps took back over from there, feeding Stallworth for another layup, then taking a pass from Stallworth for a layup of her own.

"Their result today was because they've been working so hard and they're extremely talented," Mitchell said.

Epps and Harper combined to help UK build a five-point lead, but there were no signs of the Cats pulling away, at least not until Stallworth hit a layup with 2:15 to go to give UK a six-point advantage. But those in The Arena at Gwinnett Center who thought the outcome was no longer in doubt quickly learned otherwise.

Cassie Peoples, who tied for the game high with 18 points, hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute sandwiched around a Stallworth turnover. The game, all of a sudden, was tied at 70-all with 1:29 to go.

This time, UK turned to more veteran players.

Janee Thompson (10 points, five assists) hit a jumper to give the Cats a lead, Samarie Walker had a clutch tip-in and Stallworth hit a free throw as UK came up with defensive stops on Florida's final three possessions to close it out.

"Florida played really, really hard," Mitchell said. "They have a very good basketball team. Beat us twice this year. Our players have worked really hard to improve since the last time we played them. So it was very gratifying to win this game and also to shake off a very poor first half."

The Cats couldn't help but go back to what happened during the 15 minutes that followed the first half in explaining why they were able to do that.

"The way we responded in the second half shows how much poise we really had going into the locker room," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored eight of her 11 points in the second half.

That poise manifested itself in a unique scene.

The Cats always spend halftime discussing what they did well in the first half and what they need to improve in the second, but usually only a select few voices are heard.

Not this time.

"That was the first time I heard everybody say something," O'Neill said. "From that moment, you could just tell that people were listening to what Matthew was saying about having poise, about coming out and playing for the first four minutes."

South Carolina another third-time challenge for Cats

Florida was responsible for two of UK's losses in SEC play, but the Cats got a measure of revenge on Friday.

In a Saturday semifinal, UK will look to do the same against South Carolina.

The Gamecocks have taken down Kentucky twice this season, most recently in a dominant 81-58 performance in Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 20.

"We have to play better defense than we did in Lexington," Mitchell said. "We didn't have a good defensive night at all. South Carolina really took it to us that night. We're going to have to battle a lot harder."

The Gamecocks shot 52.6 percent from the field in that game and 57.1 percent in a 67-48 quarterfinal win over Georgia on Friday. South Carolina certainly looks like the SEC champion and a potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed, but UK is not without reason for optimism.

"I think this team has worked really hard since that game as well," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a really tough game, and we just have to get our minds ready to battle for 40 minutes."

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