Jennifer O'Neill's big second half in her return home to New York sent Kentucky past Navy and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell believed the two weeks between games was good for his team.
He was right and he was wrong, depending on what half of basketball you watched Sunday afternoon in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament first-round game with Navy.
The Wildcats looked rusty and a bit out of sorts after the layoff. Though Mitchell was encouraged by his team's effort and energy in practice over the past two weeks, no one was sure what to expect when the team finally got back on the floor. It didn't take long to find out how much the time off would affect the team.
Navy came out and gave UK its best shot from the tip and caught the Wildcats off guard. Kentucky was out of rhythm and struggled putting the ball in the basket for much of the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Navy was getting exactly what it wanted.
The Midshipmen were overmatched athletically, and they knew that coming in. They wanted to slow the game down, move the ball, exploit Kentucky's trapping on defense, and shoot a lot of 3s. In the first half, those were falling and the Wildcats were staggering.
Kentucky did not look like Kentucky. They were rusty.
"I thought we were really off-balanced and rushing around the rim," said Mitchell. "Where the rust might come through is we're a very rhythm-oriented team defensively and we were just a step or two late on some rotations. I thought we were giving some good effort in traps, but late on rotations."
Navy knocked down five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game and completely grabbed the momentum, eventually building a seven-point lead with 6:29 left to go in the first half. But Kentucky relied on its full-court pressure defensively to scrap back. Kentucky had a chance to head into the locker room with the lead, eventually grabbing a one-point advantage, but Navy's April Bernal hit a jumper with 36 seconds left to give the Midshipmen a 26-25 lead at intermission.
When the Wildcats came out for the second half, they came out a different team, or a more familiar one that Mitchell had been accustomed to seeing for 27 wins this season.
Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper and her players noted that UK played a brand of basketball that they had never seen before, when in reality, Kentucky was just getting back to its old ways.
The second half started out with a readjusted Jennifer O'Neill who decided to start imposing her will. After trying to let the game come to her for the first half, she began attacking and asserting herself on both ends of the floor.
O'Neill blitzed Navy with a personal seven-point run in the first minute and 13 seconds and before Navy could blink, a one-point advantage turned into a four-point deficit. While the offensive outburst was impressive, the key to it may have been a purely defensive spark.
"The run was sparked by Jennifer O'Neill's defensive intensity," said Mitchell. "She scored a bunch of points and assisted on some points, but I really thought it was her defensive intensity coming out of the break."
Kentucky's team defense turned up a notch as well in the second half.
The Cats forced Navy into 14 second-half turnovers including four steals by O'Neill in the half alone. Without her decision to come out and impact the game, the Wildcats may not have ever gotten on a roll.
"I do feel like I am changing the game because my teammates start going," said O'Neill. "Coming into the media timeout, Coach Mitchell ran out to me and he was telling me, 'Now we are playing like this because you are playing defense and you are being intense on defense.' "
O'Neill finished with a big day in her homecoming in New York, scoring 12 points with four assists to go along with five steals. While she set the tone defensively and was a necessary sparkplug for the Cats, DeNesha Stallworth was steady throughout in the post.
The UK center worked well in tandem with post mate Samarie Walker. Kentucky's size coupled with its athleticism made it hard for Navy to contain the Wildcats on the block.
Stallworth scored nine points in each half to finish with a game-high 18 points to earn a double-double in her first NCAA Tournament game as a Wildcat. With Kentucky struggling to get anything going offensively through the first 20 minutes of action, it was the work done in the post that helped weather the storm.
"I felt like we were just a little rusty," said Stallworth. "We haven't played in a couple of weeks. I think we played hard, tried to stay focused and not let that bring us down. That was the adversity that we did face. The team did a great job just keeping our heads up and knowing the game is 40 minutes."
Though the first-half performance was unsettling, at no point was there a sense of panic. Due to Kentucky's recent success and another great run in the Southeastern Conference this season, the Wildcats are going to get their opponent's best night in and night out. What Mitchell can always rely on his team's defensive pressure to get UK back on track when the offense isn't flowing.
"There was no panic in the first half because we were pretty clear on what we needed to do to get a different result," said Mitchell. "I knew that if we could get some sharpness to our defense, I felt like we could do what we did in the second half. There was no panic.
"I was just more so trying to get us to settle down offensively. Just really hurrying, poor shot selection from the standpoint of just in a hurry and not letting it come to us and getting better rhythm."
Once Kentucky imposed its will on the defensive end, that was it for Navy. The Midshipmen could never get back into an offensive rhythm themselves in the second half managing just 15 points in the final 20 minutes. UK held Navy to 23.8 percent (5 of 21) from the field in the second half and hit the boards hard to outrebound Navy 43-30.
After Navy hit five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Mids were just barely able to match that point total in the entire second half as they managed just one 3-pointer for the rest of the contest (6 of 22).
Kentucky will try to continue to apply that pressure in the second round, which could be an even greater advantage on Monday. The Wildcats will face Dayton, who defeated St. John's 96-90 in double overtime. With that extra mileage and energy spent to advance, Kentucky will likely look to exploit the Flyers to take advantage of additional wear and tear from a hard-fought overtime battle.
The Wildcats will take on the Flyers at 7 p.m. ET Tuesdat night back at Carnesecca Arena broadcast on ESPN2 as Kentucky looks to continue its quest for a Final Four berth.
"I had a lot of family and friends here, but the game wasn't big because of them," said O'Neill. "The game was big because it's the NCAA Tournament and we have a goal of making it to New Orleans. That what made this game big."
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell led practice on Saturday at Carnesecca Arena in preparation for UK's first-round game against Navy. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It will have been exactly two weeks since the Kentucky women's basketball team played an actual game when the Wildcats tip off against Navy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
Kentucky's last game, a forgettable loss to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship, occurred on March 10 in Duluth, Ga. After the loss, head coach Matthew Mitchell gave his players three full days away from basketball to let them clear their minds and refocus on a new goal.
"We are ready to go out there and get a win," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "The ultimate goal is to go to the Final Four so, just to have that goal, it'll be very achievable. We're just excited to play."
The previous goal that UK had focused on heading into the season was winning the SEC regular-season crown for the second season in a row. After falling just short, the Wildcats regrouped and set their sights on the tournament title. There, Kentucky came one win short of reaching that mark yet again.
Now UK, a team who has reached the Elite Eight twice in the last three years, is looking to take that next step and reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four. That achievement would likely trump any SEC aspirations the Wildcats had going into the season.
"I think we tried to refocus and get our minds right to know that we have another opportunity, our last opportunity to try to win another championship," said junior forward DeNesha Stallworth. "I think all our minds are straight, just taking 40 minutes at a time and one game at a time."
While some teams may struggle to regain rhythm during a two-week layoff, the time off has served as an important developmental period for Mitchell's squad. After some much needed time recharging the batteries, the Kentucky players came back to practice rejuvenated and ready to work towards their next goal.
"What's been so great about this time is that we had a really good team heading into the SEC Tournament and then we had some time to get better," said Mitchell. "So from our practices we have certainly seen more aggressive play in the post and playing physically with poise. That's been a really good result from the practice time."
Mitchell's been quick to make sure that he doesn't dismiss Navy as a formidable opponent for UK's first-round game. However, a two seed has never fallen to a 15 in the history of the Women's NCAA Tournament. But whether it's Navy or Baylor, Kentucky is focused on itself and playing its own game rather than the opponent.
The Midshipmen (21-11) were the winners of the 2013 Patriot League Tournament and earned the automatic bid to this year's Big Dance. That achievement in its own right is something that Kentucky was unable to accomplish on its way to its school-record fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid.
For Kentucky to reach that ultimate goal of a Final Four appearance, it all starts with taking care of business in the first round beginning Sunday at 12:05 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, N.Y.
"They spread the floor and they have the capability to make threes at all four positions," said Mitchell. "But for us, we need to focus on what we do well. We need this to be a fast-paced game and try and speed Navy the best we can. It's a big challenge for us and we really need to do everything we can to be as close to our identity to defeat Navy tomorrow."
Though the focus is ultimately on Navy, Mitchell is perfectly fine with his players looking somewhat ahead to goals further down the road. After all, the only way Kentucky can win a national championship is by winning a regional championship.
"We're very focused on our region and trying to advance through it and win four games," Mitchell said. "I am really happy to hear them say that. That's what we want to do. We want to beat Navy tomorrow. We have to beat Navy tomorrow to get to the Final Four. I think that is exactly where our minds need to be.
"I told them last night they have a great chance to beat Navy tomorrow and when we do that, we'll have a good chance on Tuesday night against whoever that may be. We just need to keep trying to understand where we're headed right now, and I have no problem with their goal being the Final Four."
A Final Four appearance could be the crowning achievement that Mathies has been searching for in her senior campaign. Mathies made it clear that her aspirations and expectations were to win an SEC Tournament title this season. As the career of the most decorated Wildcats in program history, Mathies is looking to see just how long she can extend her run with plenty of basketball left to be played.
"This will be the last time I'm playing for Kentucky," said Mathies, "But it's still a long season. If you go all the way, you're playing for another three weeks. I'm just focused on winning one game at a time and you know we already have our goal. I think if we just stick to that, we should be playing for a long time. When it's done, it's done. I can't think about that right now."
One thing is for sure: Kentucky is happy to finally get out of SEC play.
After finishing the regular season with five out of its last seven games on the road and three straight days of play in the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats should be well tested for their opponent Sunday afternoon. If the Wildcats continue to bring that rediscovered energy and enthusiasm that they've brought to the practice setting over the last two weeks, expect to see Kentucky in the Bridgeport Regional as UK looks to execute its way to its final goal.
Kentucky will travel to Queens, N.Y., near the hometown of point guard Jennifer O'Neill. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky women's basketball team is going to the Big Apple, but don't expect sightseeing to be a priority this weekend.
Earning a two seed for the second year in a row, the Wildcats will be paired up with Navy for their first-round game at 12:05 ET at Carnesecca Arena with the winner of host St. John's and Dayton waiting on the other side.
Kentucky's body of work, despite a disappointing loss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game, was more than enough to give UK the second seed in the Bridgeport Regional. It was a favorable draw for the Wildcats as the coaching staff had circled Queens, N.Y., as its most coveted first- and second-round landing spot.
"We were so excited about that possibility," said an energetic Matthew Mitchell. "As you work your way through the options, you sort of felt like we were a two seed, so you started at places you could possibly go. When Queens looked like some place we could go, clearly with Jennifer (O'Neill) and Jelleah (Sydney), that was the most exciting and attractive place for us."
O'Neill and Sidney each hail from New York, and no one in Mitchell's jam-packed basement watching ESPN's Selection Show was more elated than O'Neill when "Kentucky" flashed up on the television in the Queens bracket.
"(O'Neill's) the most excited," said SEC co-Player of the Year A'dia Mathies. "She didn't even want to fill out her bracket any more, but I mean it's good because we'll have a lot of support up in New York."
With all of O'Neill's teammates coming to her home city, she would love to be able to show them all of the sights and sounds that New York has to offer. But with Kentucky on a business trip and not vacation, she's not sure if they'll have time.
"If we have a chance to do that, I would love to, but I don't think that's going to happen," said O'Neill with an irrepressible smile on her face.
The bracket sets up nicely for Kentucky with the Wildcats drawing UConn as their No. 1 seed and likely Elite Eight matchup if UK were to make it that far. Last season, the Wildcats did. And last season, they played the Huskies in that very game.
Storylines would write themselves if that matchup came to pass for the second consecutive season.
The Cats hung with one-seeded UConn for the whole first half, but things got away from them as UK could not put a full 40 minutes together. That game alone was inspiration for Kentucky's "40 minutes" campaign this season after the Cats saw that they could hang with the Huskies despite dropping the game, 80-65.
With UConn in the same regional once again, Mitchell and company would relish in the opportunity of a rematch.
"Boy, that would be great because that would mean we were in the final eight," said Mitchell." (There's) A lot of basketball between us and that matchup, but we would certainly be very excited to play in the Elite Eight, and it's going to be a really tough road with some quality teams in our bracket.
"We definitely learned a lot from that game last year. We felt like we made some improvements this year because we were able to compete against an excellent program, and UConn tests you in a lot of different ways, so it's interesting."
Kentucky is still learning from that game. Just today Mitchell had his team watching video from last season's UConn matchup.
"I think it's definitely interesting," said Mathies. "I think, we watched film actually today on that game and how it slipped away little by little, but we know we're a different team this year and we feel like if we do the things necessary, the things we should be doing, then we definitely should make the Final Four."
Mathies, who was named to the SEC All-Tournament team after multiple dynamic performances in Duluth, Ga., two weekends ago, is still disappointed with the loss in the championship game to Texas A&M. She was adamant leading up to UK's first game that the Cats were the team to beat in the tournament, and not delivering in the manner that they did was not acceptable.
Now she'll look to make an impression in this 2013 NCAA Tournament as she plays in her final games in a Kentucky uniform, and like the SEC Tournament, she thinks if they take care of business, they can win it.
"I think confidence is a big thing," said Mathies. "We definitely feel like we should have won the SEC (Tournament), we just didn't come out. We were very lethargic in the championship game, and we know that that's not acceptable. If we come out and play the way we should be playing, then a game like that won't happen and we should win every game here on out."
For now, Kentucky can't look too far ahead with Navy on Sunday. In order for the Cats to have that opportunity to meet with Geno Auriemma's Huskies, they'll first have to take care of each step along the way. Mitchell doesn't know much about the Midshipmen yet, but he knows that if they've made the field, they've done the work to deserve it. And he'll make sure he and his staff works hard to be ready this weekend.
"Clearly they've done a great job to be in the tournament," said Mitchell. "We will be prepared to investigate everything we can about them and find out what we face here in that first round game."
Men's basketball - Kentucky went 1-1 on the week which included a critical upset of No. 9/11 Florida on Saturday. - Freshman Archie Goodwin was sensational in leading the Cats with an average of 18.0 points, five rebounds and three steals in two games this week. Goodwin snatched a career-high four steals in the upset of the Gators and had a team-high 16 points. - With the win over Florida, UK improves to 10-0 at home in Rupp Arena against ranked foes in the John Calipari era. - The win also helped seal the No. 2 overall seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has won the tournament twice in Calipari's tenure.
Women's basketball - Kentucky advanced to the SEC Championship game for the third time in four seasons before falling to Texas A&M. - UK logged wins against Vanderbilt and No. 12 Georgia en route to making its title game appearance. - UK outscored the Lady Dawgs 41-14 in the second half, holding them scoreless for the final 6:08 of the game, and 22.2 percent (14-of-63) shooting for the game. - Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies (Louisville, Ky.) added 11 points and grabbed two steals which set a new UK career steals record with 310. The previous record was 309 set by Stacey Reed from 1991-95.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team placed second at the NCAA Championships, shooting a 4670 to place runner-up for a second consecutive year. - Senior Henri Junghänel placed second in individual smallbore, falling by .5 points to claim the silver medal. - Freshman Connor Davis finished fourth individually in air rifle. - Kentucky had six members named All-America, including Connor Davis, Heather Greathouse, Emily Holsopple, Ed Ryznar, Elijah Ellis and Stacy Wheatley. Henri Junghanel would have been selected but was not eligible because he is currently in graduate school.
Gymnastics - The 20th-ranked Kentucky Gymnastics team topped 196 for the third consecutive meet in a 196.375-192.7 win over Bowling Green on Friday. - Kayla Hartley clinched the second-highest team score in school history with a 9.9 floor exercise routine. The performance gave Hartley the event title for the second week in a row. It was also her first 9.9 since the season-opener. The junior has three event crowns from the past two meets. - The Wildcats scored 49.125 on floor, which tied the season high. - Kenzie Hedges took the event honors on vault as she stuck her landing for a career-best 9.875.
Softball - The No. 15 UK softball team started its Southeastern Conference schedule in style by winning its series with the Ole Miss Rebels. UK dropped the first game of the series 3-1, before winning the final two games 5-2. The series win is the sixth consecutive over Ole Miss and marks the second time in three years UK has won the opening series of conference play. The series vs. Ole Miss was the first ever games played in the new UK Softball Complex. - Freshman infielder Christian Stokes led the way for Kentucky, hitting .833 (5-for-6) for the weekend with three RBI and her first collegiate home run. Junior Lauren Cumbess went 3-for-9 over the weekend with a double, while junior Emily Gaines was 2-for-6 with two RBI. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley suffered her first loss of the season in game one before earning wins Saturday and Sunday in a relief effort. Nunley is 12-1 on the year with a 2.02 ERA, striking out a team-best 67 batters. Baseball - Seventh-ranked Kentucky completed a 3-1 week with a series win over Michigan State during the weekend, also picking up a midweek win over Xavier on Wednesday. - UK opened the series with the Spartans with a 2-1 win on Friday night. Sophomore left-hander A.J. Reed worked seven shutout innings, allowing only five hits and two walks. All-American centerfielder Austin Cousino got UK on the board with a first-inning homer, before Max Kuhn slugged his first career homer in the bottom of the eighth as the game-winning bomb. - Kentucky won the series on Sunday in another rubber-match win from junior southpaw Corey Littrell, making his eighth series-deciding start in the last two years. The All-America starter worked seven innings and allowed just one run, striking out a career-high nine.
Men's tennis - The UK men's tennis team fell twice this weekend, to No. 38 Baylor and No. 14 Texas A&M. - Kentucky's road trip continues next weekend traveling to Ole Miss for a Friday showdown in Oxford before continuing the weekend in Starkville against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Women's tennis - No. 44 Kentucky went 1-1 over the weekend, defeating No. 57 Missouri 5-2 on Friday, before falling to No. 4 Texas A&M 5-2 on Sunday. - Freshman Nadia Ravita knocked off sixth-ranked Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar on Sunday 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. The win was Ravita's 13th singles win and fourth win over a ranked opponent this year. - In Kentucky's win over Missouri, the Wildcats received singles wins in slots one through four, with Nadia Ravita, Jessica Stiles, Edmee Morin-Kougoucheff and Caitlin McGraw winning in straight sets.
Track and field - The No. 20 Kentucky women's track and field team finished the NCAA Indoor Championships tied for 20th-place. The Wildcats earned the program's highest team finish since 1994 when they also finished tied for 20th. The Wildcats' 10 team points was the highest total at the National Championship Meet since 1990. - Cally Macumber won the bronze medal in the women's 3,000 meters final to add six points to the Kentucky cause. She also contributed four on Friday night as the anchor in the distance medley relay. - Morganne Phillips, Allison Peare and Chelsea Oswald were the other members of that squad. - Keith Hayes scored two points for the men with a seventh-place finish in the 60-meter hurdles. Hayes lowered his school-record time to 7.69 in the event prelims to reach the final.
Men's golf - The Kentucky men's golf team finished seventh out of the 17-team field at the USF Invitational, shooting 20 strokes over par for the tournament. - Junior Stephen Powers recorded his second top-10 finish of the year, placing tied for sixth at 2-under-par. The Naperville, Ill., native was tied for the lead after the first round, posting a 4-under-par day and concluded his impressive tournament with an even par round two and two-over-par round three. - Junior Ben Stow also finished in the top-20, tying for 14th overall at 1-over-par.
Monday, March 11 Men's golf at Tiger Invitational (Auburn, Ala.)
Tuesday, March 12 Baseball hosts Ohio - 4:00 p.m. Softball hosts North Carolina - 5:00 p.m. Men's golf at Tiger Invitational (Auburn, Ala.) Wednesday, March 13 Softball hosts Southern Illinois • 3:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Cincinnati • 4:00 p.m.
Thursday, March 14 Swimming and diving at NCAA Zones - 10:00 a.m. (West Lafayette, Ind.) Track and field at Bulls Invitational (Tampa, Fla.)
Friday, March 15 Men's tennis at Ole Miss - 2:00 p.m. Women's tennis hosts Ole Miss - 4:00 p.m. Softball at LSU - 7:00 p.m. Baseball at Florida - 7:30 p.m. Men's basketball vs. Arkansas/Vanderbilt - 7:30 p.m. (Nashville) Swimming and diving at NCAA Zones - 10:00 a.m. (West Lafayette, Ind.) Women's golf at Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate (Augusta, Ga.) Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
Saturday, March 16 Baseball at Florida - Noon Softball at LSU - 5:00 p.m. Gymnastics at Penn State - 7:00 p.m. Men's basketball at SEC Semifinals - 3:30 p.m. (Nashville) Swimming and diving at NCAA Zones - 10:00 a.m. (West Lafayette, Ind.) Women's golf at Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate (Augusta, Ga.) Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
Sunday, March 17 Women's tennis hosts Mississippi State - Noon Softball at LSU - 1:00 p.m. Baseball at Florida - 1:00 p.m. Men's tennis at Mississippi State - 1:00 p.m. Men's basketball at SEC Finals - 3:30 p.m. (Nashville) Women's golf at Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate (Augusta, Ga.) Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
It's fairly quiet around the Joe Craft Center today, but there don't figure to be many more slow days in the coming weeks. Men's basketball heads to Nashville for the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, NCAA Tournament brackets will be announced on Sunday for the men and Monday for the women and spring football practice begins next week.
In the meantime, here are a few notes on the day's happenings:
-We're to the point in the season when experts release bracket projections basically every day and Monday is no different. According to Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, John Calipari's Wildcats are slotted for a "First Four" matchup with La Salle as a No. 11 seed. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com also has UK matched up with La Salle in a play-in game, but with both teams seeded 12th. As for the Bracket Matrix, which aggregates dozens of projections, UK is also seeded 12th there. The consensus at this point is that UK played its way into the field with Saturday's win over Florida, but the Cats would be wise to win at least one game in the SEC Tournament to assure their status.
-Sunday's loss in the SEC championship game was certainly painful for Matthew Mitchell and his team, but according to Charlie Creme's latest projections on ESPN.com, it was not costly in terms of NCAA seeding. UK remains a No. 2 there and Creme has UK traveling to Queens, N.Y., for first- and second-round games.
-Nerlens Noel hasn't played a game in nearly a month, but on Monday he was named to the Sporting News All-Freshman Team. That's quite an accomplishment for a player who missed the final third of conference play.
-Speaking of Noel, Coach Cal joined the Dan Patrick Show on Monday. As is customary for the show, he talked about a number of interesting topics, but the update he gave on his fallen star freshman jumped out. According to Calipari, Noel will undergo surgery soon and then two months of rehab. At that point, he will have a decision to make. Calipari said he will advise Noel to return to school if the rehab process is slow. If rehab goes well, Noel will "have options." Here's video of the interview in full.
-Another note on Noel: His dunk against Auburn is one of eight finalists for GEICO Play of the Year. Vote here.
-Last on the men's basketball front, Coach Cal wrote on his website about UK being a "players first" program, not "player first." Give it a read here.
-Saving the best for last, former Wildcat gymnast and eight-time NCAA champion Jenny Hansen was UK's legend at the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. During halftime of Kentucky's game on Friday, Hansen was introduced and she broke out this move. The only way it would have been more impressive is if she had kept her heels on.