By Boyd Hayes | @KernelHayes
The ball dropped Monday night to bring in the New Year. On Thursday, the ball was tipped off to bring in the SEC portion of the schedule as No. 6 UK Hoops (13-1) grinded out a 76-69 victory over the Florida Gators (11-4).
In a season full of new faces, such as the likes of junior transfer DeNesha Stallworth and freshman Janee Thompson, it was veteran senior A’dia Mathies who controlled the tempo of the game against the Gators. Not new to the rigors of SEC play, the reigning SEC Player of the Year proved again her worthiness of the title.
She led the Cats in scoring with 20 points, adding six rebounds and four assists, as well as taking four charges. Head coach Matthew Mitchell took notice of her leadership entering SEC play.
“I thought she played like the best player in the conference tonight because she was so solid with defense and offense,” Mitchell said. “I thought she really came out tonight wanting to set the tone for SEC play and helping us get that victory. She was outstanding. She’s a terrific player and we’re glad she’s on our team.”
Behind Mathies’ steady play, a few new faces shined as well. Redshirt sophomore Jen O’Neill missed last season with an injury, but she was quick to put her stamp on SEC play with 17 points against the Gators. After sitting for much of the start of the second half, she came on and hit two three-pointers and a long two-point field goal to end different Florida runs and tilt momentum back in UK’s favor.
“When we were stagnant and struggling to score, and Florida was playing such great defense, (O’Neill) just really made some plays for us that I though lifted our team,” Mitchell said.
Stallworth also gave a noteworthy performance, recording a double-double in her first career SEC game. She had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“(Stallworth) did a lot to help us win tonight. (She) played a lot of defense and got (10) rebounds, so she had a really good game,” said Mitchell.
Florida led once towards the end of the first half, after which UK quickly regained the lead into halftime. The Gators hung with the Cats straight through to the end, answering almost every UK run with a run of their own. Despite shooting 13-of-20 from the free throw line for the game, the Cats made their free throws down the stretch at the end of the game to put away the Gators.
UK plays next at Alabama on Jan. 6 at 3 p.m. ET. The Cats look to extend their win streak to 12 games, after setting a school record with 11 after the win over Florida.