Posted: Dec 30, 2012 3:21 PM
Updated: Dec 30, 2012 5:58 PM
(AP) - Jennifer O'Neill admitted she didn't have the best pregame shootaround - missing shot after shot.
It didn't take long for O'Neill to put it behind her against Marist.
The sophomore scored a career-high 21 points, including 13 in the second half, and No. 7 Kentucky pulled away Marist 78-56 to earn its 11th straight victory.
O'Neill's play on both ends helped wear down Marist. Kentucky's 3-point leader coming in at 39 percent, she hit 4 of 7 attempts and 7 of 11 overall from the field to easily surpass her previous best of 15 points. O'Neill also set career highs with four steals and four 3-pointers.
"Coach (Matthew) Mitchell just motivated me to go out there and play my hardest and that's what I tried to do," O'Neill said of her shooting from behind the arc. "I always feel comfortable with my outside shot, but I probably started to feel it with my third one."
O'Neill's two 3-pointers in the second half were crucial to keeping the Wildcats safely ahead of the determined Red Foxes. Her first one at 18:25 gave Kentucky a 13-point lead and while her second nearly nine minutes later made it 58-43.
"That was a great offensive lift that she gave us," Mitchell said of O'Neill. "Marist forced us to step up on the perimeter and she made some big shots."
Marist rallied to get within eight points twice in the final 7 Â½ minutes before Kentucky forward DeNesha Stallworth made three free throws to stretch the lead to 11. O'Neill made one of two foul shots for a 64-52 advantage and Kentucky pulled away after that.
Stallworth also finished with 21 points on 8 of 14 shooting.
For Kentucky (12-1), Marist offered just the non-league challenge the Wildcats needed. The defending Southeastern Conference regular season champions open the league portion Thursday against Florida.
Kentucky can take heart in overcoming some early sluggishness and two early deficits before its depth and defense eventually wore down the Red Foxes late in the game.
"It was a tough turnaround today to get ready in one day and now you can exhale a little bit and take some time to reflect on a very successful non-conference portion," Mitchell said. "I have to believe that our players are tremendously excited for what we considered the most important part of our season. We are really excited about that."
Kentucky scored 35 points off 27 Marist turnovers.
"We focused on fewer turnovers, which we didn't accomplish," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "And, actually we had done a pretty decent job until late. ... . Our plan, at least defensively, was to make them beat us from the perimeter. That's what they did. They hit a lot of big shots from the perimeter."
Elizabeth Beynnon had 15 points for the Red Foxes (5-6), who fell to 1-17 against ranked opponents.
The Wildcats had a tough act to follow after crushing Alcorn State. They also set a school record Friday by holding the winless Braves to 20 percent shooting.
Marist offered much more of a challenge, having won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference the past seven seasons. The Red Foxes had four players averaging at least nine points.
Nearly five minutes passed before Beynnon scored Marist's first field goal, but that was all the Red Foxes needed to get warmed up and stay close to Kentucky through much of the first half. Physical defense helped Marist, which disrupted the Wildcats' passing and movement.
Marist's problem was containing Stallworth, who scored six of Kentucky's first eight points off layups and 12 of the Wildcats' first 28 overall.
Kentucky got a brief scare when A'dia Mathies went out in the early minutes after hitting her head on the floor during a loose-ball scramble. The senior went to the locker room for observation but returned about four minutes later.
Mathies left the game again with 3:54 remaining in the first half, this time holding her left wrist after being tied up under the basket. She later described it as a funny bone aggravation and returned to score 10 points.
Fortunately for Kentucky, the Wildcats had enough talent to cover Mathies' absence and now aim to show it against the SEC.
"We got some new players and some players that didn't play last year, including these two right here (O'Neill and Stallworth)," Mathies said. "We're just coming together offensively and defensively as a team and making steps towards become a better team heading into SEC play."
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