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UK relies on defense to overcome ETSU

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Averaging 98.5 points entering a game on Sunday, Kentucky had grown accustomed to relying on its offense. The Wildcats had allowed 215 points in their last two games, but had beaten both Baylor and DePaul, serving as further reinforcement.

Against East Tennessee State, however, it was a different story.

"I thought East Tennessee State played really, really hard and obviously caused us some problems today and competed tough," Matthew Mitchell said. "We had to win it with our defense today and that is something that has been different for us from previous games."

UK appeared poised to threaten triple digits on the scoreboard once again after a 49-point first half, but the Cats went cold over the final 20 minutes. Kentucky shot just 8 of 25 (32.0 percent) from the field in its lowest-scoring half of the season, but still won 73-56 to tie a school record with an 11-0 start to the 2013-14 season.

"I think you need to give a lot of credit to East Tennessee State I think they played hard and came in with a lot of fire today," Mitchell said. "It was a different situation for our team to be in, probably made them a little uncomfortable."

Even through those offense struggles, ETSU managed to trim UK's 20-point halftime lead by only three. For the game, the Lady Buccaneers shot 36.5 percent and managed just 0.709 points per possession.

"I am glad we were able to tighten up there in the second half and really shut them down for a long period of time," Mitchell said. "That was a big difference in the game."

It was somewhat of a throwback for Kentucky, which ascended the ranks of women's college basketball largely on the strength of defense. So in some ways, Sunday served as a reminder of just how important that end of the floor is.

"Defense is always important to us," said Samarie Walker, who tied for the team high with 12 points. "That's one of our main focuses on this team. I wouldn't say our offense wasn't really working today. We just weren't playing that hard, in my opinion. But defense is always good to fall back on when we aren't doing as well as we'd like to on offense."

Walker, at least in part, attributes that subpar offensive effort to the brutal December schedule UK has faced. It began with a home win over then-No. 4 Louisville. Next, UK traveled to Dallas and Chicago within the span of a week before turning around and hosting ETSU three days later.

Now, UK has some time to rest. The Cats have a week off before hosting No. 2 Duke in Rupp Arena next Sunday, though they will have to contend with finals in between. UK won't practice on Monday or Tuesday, meaning the Cats will take the next two days to study and clear their minds.

"Coach talked about that today, just moving forward," Walker said. "Once we come back to practice on Wednesday, kind of learn from it and then let it go and move on and focus on our next game."

Epps 'blessed' to play after car accident

UK has dealt with injuries and adversity all season, but no moment has been scarier for the Cats than the one Makayla Epps faced on Saturday evening.

Driving back from a funeral on the Bluegrass Parkway, Epps lost control of her car. Her vehicle flipped several times and the freshman was taken to the hospital, but she walked away with only a neck sprain.

And less than 24 hours later, she suited up and played against ETSU.

"I didn't see this one coming at all," Epps said. "I didn't think I was going to get to play today. Real grateful to get out there with my teammates and be able to contribute, as always."

Epps provided an immediate boost of energy when she checked in at the 13:20 mark, scoring all eight of her points in the first half and hitting a pair of 3s.

"I was proud of her to be able to come back and being able to play," Mitchell said. "We needed her out there today. She made some great hustle plays and those were at a premium today because we had a hard time getting the crowd going."

Epps, in spite of the traumatic experience, considers herself "blessed" to be healthy and playing.

"I'm here, that's the best thing," Epps said.

Live blog: UK Hoops vs. ETSU

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Video: Mitchell's pre-ETSU press conference

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Video: Highlights from UK Hoops' 96-85 win at DePaul

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Video: UK Hoops prepares for DePaul

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DeNesha Stallworth will miss three-to-four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee on Wednesday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth will miss three-to-four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee on Wednesday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
For the third time in six weeks, UK Hoops has been bitten by the injury bug.

In October, freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was lost for the season due to a blood clot. Less than a month later, Samantha Drake went down for the year with a knee injury.

The latest Wildcat to be sidelined is DeNesha Stallworth, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body in her left knee.

"Not the kind of news you want to hear, but we are glad it was nothing serious," Matthew Mitchell said.

Stallworth -- a Naismith Trophy watch list selection -- is expected to miss three-to-four weeks. She was evaluated on Monday after experiencing persistent swelling following UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Friday night and had successful surgery on Wednesday.

"Certainly when you lose someone like DeNesha everybody has to rally and really come together and work hard and pick up the slack that's created by her absence," Mitchell said. "I think that our team is certainly capable of doing that and I think they will want to do that."

Stallworth's temporary absence leaves UK with just three healthy players listed as forwards or centers on the roster. Azia Bishop -- who is averaging 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 17.0 minutes of reserve duty -- is one of them and will slide into a starting role alongside Samarie Walker.

"You add another eight minutes to her and we are hoping to see those numbers go up with extra time on the floor," Mitchell said. "Now she will have to get that done. I think she is playing probably her best basketball since she has been at Kentucky."

With Stallworth out, Mitchell reports Bishop had two solid days of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, positioning the junior to take a step forward in her development.

"It is good for Azia because you fast forward a year from now, we are certainly going to need her to be in a featured role in the post," Mitchell said. "It is all good and very good that she can have this opportunity."

Jelleah Sidney also will see her role expand, while freshman Makayla Epps will shift full time to the 4 position after previously splitting time between the post and the perimeter. Though certainly not ideal, the athleticism of Sidney and Epps can impact the way the Cats play in a positive way.

"Jelleah is so active in the press and does such a good job in the press," Mitchell said. "I think we can play a little bit more up-tempo defensively and turn up the pressure a little bit. Then Makayla, being able to focus on one position for the next four weeks can really help her progress."

And in a pinch, Mitchell won't hesitate to go to a four-guard lineup with Stallworth out.

In that memorable win against Baylor, Mitchell went to that look for extended stretches, often with both halves of his two-headed point-guard monster playing together. Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill combined for 63 points in 65 minutes of the 133-130 victory.

"No matter who has the ball they're a real, real threat to go to the basket or get into the paint and make the defense shrink and guard the paint and then whoever's out there and has the ball kicked to them can make 3s," Mitchell said. "They're a lethal combination when they are on the court together."

That lethal combination has gotten plenty of attention following the Baylor win, UK's second in a row over a top-10 opponent, as has Mitchell's program as a whole.

"It's been so nice around town because the game against Baylor was so exciting and people around town are complimenting us, but we're almost a week removed from it and people are still talking about it," Mitchell said. "As a player and as a coach you have to move forward and understand what's real. It's real that we won that game, but it's over and done with."

With the Baylor victory in in the rearview window, the Cats are shifting their thoughts to a tough road test at DePaul on Thursday (7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1). The Blue Demons (4-2) are averaging more than 85 points a game and have reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments under head coach Doug Bruno.

"It's a high-octane offense and they can really spread the floor," Mitchell said. "They can get five players out on the perimeter and put stress on your defense, especially a defense like ours that likes to put pressure on a team and tries to get out in passing lanes."

DePaul is the latest in a string of challenging December opponents for Kentucky, but the first UK will have to face without Stallworth. Losing the senior forward is a blow, but not one the Cats can't absorb.

"It's like I told our team, I think we're as well-equipped to handle it as anybody because we've had some kids who have sacrificed to come here that maybe don't play as many minutes that they might at other places, but they are very good very players," Mitchell said. "We have 10 really good players available for us tomorrow night at DePaul."

And due to the relatively short-term nature of Stallworth's injury, her absence could end up benefitting Kentucky down the road.

"I think any time you have to focus and do a better job and sort of raise your level of play, I think it gives you an opportunity to be better and stronger when she comes back," Mitchell said. "I do think you have to believe that if you are going to remain positive and move forward positively."

Jennifer O'Neill scored a school-record 43 points in UK's 133-130 win over Baylor on Friday night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill scored a school-record 43 points in UK's 133-130 win over Baylor on Friday night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Reflecting on the game she had just played in and won, Jennifer O'Neill realized she lost track of time.

The top-10 matchup between Kentucky and Baylor lasted an astounding four overtimes, seemingly taking on a will of its own to delay the second half of a men's and women's doubleheader as long as possible.

Wrapped up intently in every one of the 60 minutes the Wildcats and Lady Bears played on Friday night in massive AT&T Stadium, O'Neill thought it lasted even longer than it did.

"I thought it was more overtimes than four, to be honest," O'Neill said. "I thought we were going to break the Syracuse record (of six overtimes against Connecticut in 2009)."

That record was about the only one that didn't fall in a game that's a massive early favorite to be the best of the year in women's college basketball.

O'Neill scored a school-record 43 points, joining all-time great Valerie Still as the only Wildcat to score 40 or more in a UK Hoops uniform. Given that she didn't know how many overtimes the game lasted, it should come as no surprise she didn't realize she had scored so many until taking a peek at the postgame box score.

"I didn't even know I had that many points, honestly," O'Neill said.

Her coach didn't either.

"You just had to make plays tonight and Jennifer was really, really hot," Matthew Mitchell said. "I do such a bad job; I don't realize what's going on in the game sometimes. I didn't realize she had 43. I knew she was doing a good job and we were trying to get her the ball, but it's an amazing performance. We needed all of them."

No. 5/6 Kentucky (9-0) needed all of them because Baylor star Odyssey Sims was matching O'Neill shot for shot and then some. Sims poured in 47 points, living up to every ounce of the pregame praise lumped on her by Mitchell, who called Sims "the best singular talent" in the country.

Even though she had 13 points and six rebounds of her own and often had the unenviable task of tailing Sims, Bria Goss couldn't help but marvel at the back and forth between the two top scorers.

"It just really makes me excited for women's basketball in general and for more people to get involved with women's basketball," Goss said. "I think, after today, we might have some bandwagoners or just more people in general watching women's basketball."

Sims played much of the evening saddled with foul trouble and finally picked up her fifth late in the first overtime period.

"I don't know that they have a meter that could measure my happiness when she got out of the game," Mitchell said. "The happy meter was broken at that point in time because we pride ourselves on being a pretty good defensive team that gets after and we just couldn't stop her."

Happy as he may have been, the Lady Bears weren't about to back down without Sims.

Imani Wright hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of that first overtime to prolong the proceedings. In the third extra session, No. 9 Baylor (8-1) seemed poised to take control when it grabbed a five-point lead. And in the final overtime, another potential game-tying 3 by Alexis Prince rattled out, finally giving UK its first back-to-back wins over top-10 teams in school history.

"The game was so long, you had time to play bad and you had time to play good," Mitchell said.

Though 10 players fouled out -- including seven for Baylor and six of the game's 10 starters -- there was much more good than bad. Impressive talent inside and out was on display and the result was an offensive explosion the likes of which the women's game has never seen.

"It's hard to put into words this game," Mitchell said. "It was a heck of a game."

UK and Baylor set an all-time NCAA record by scoring 263 combined points. The Cats topped the century mark for the fourth time in six games, breaking the single-game school record for most points in the process.

"Hopefully people see that we have a high level of skill and a high level of athleticism," Mitchell said. "I thought that was a real -- if you weren't coaching in it -- watching it was a real entertaining game tonight."

The talk of what UK-Baylor could do for the profile of women's college basketball is a testament to how good the game was, but Mitchell's more immediate concern is about his team. Barely a year removed from being dismantled by the Lady Bears in Waco, Texas, UK went toe-to-toe with the two-time national champions and came away with the win.

"I think we have a better team than we had last season and I'm really proud of the players," Mitchell said. "They worked extremely hard. They've practiced extremely hard for a long time. You could see the results of that just in their conditioning."

That conditioning translated directly into confidence. Other teams might deflated heading to the sideline with the score tied following yet another five minutes of overtime having elapsed, but not these Wildcats.

"We're in such good condition, every time we went into another overtime we were excited," Goss said. "Like, we get a whole 'nother five minutes. We do this. We're waking up four days a week 6 a.m. in the summer. This is what we train for. I think every time we walked over to the bench we just had this positive attitude."

That positivity turned into downright elation when the score finally went final. Since the preseason, the Cats have talked about this team being special. Getting the job done where there was every excuse not to is perhaps the clearest sign yet that they are ready to make that much more than idle chatter.

"Once the horn went off and we were going to the locker room, it was just like a big relief," said Goss, voice hoarse from reveling in the victory. "Like, this is the team, this is the year."

Video: UK Hoops celebrates Baylor win

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Well, that was something. In four overtimes, the Kentucky women's basketball team broke all sorts of records en route to its second win over a top-10 team in six days. Stay tuned for more later, but watch this video of the Wildcats celebrating the memorable win in the meantime.



And here are highlights, including a bunch of Jennifer O'Neill's school-record 43 points in UK's 133-130 win.


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