Hoops comeback win creates storybook ending



By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3

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“A tale of two halves” is how UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell put it.

And if Mitchell wants to compare his sixth-ranked squad’s victory over No. 20 Texas A&M to a Charles Dickens novel, that’s good enough for me.

The first half was the worst of times.

The Cats looked rattled by Texas A&M’s athleticism. The Aggies scored at will in the lane, thanks to some nifty interior passing between post-players Kristi Bellock and Kelsey Bone. At halftime, A&M had doubled UK’s points in the paint, 24 to 12.

A&M was hot, UK was not. The Aggies shot a sweltering 59 percent from the field, the Cats a chilly 38 percent.

The double-double machine that is junior forward DeNesha Stallworth seemed to be malfunctioning, scoring only five points and grabbing two rebounds before halftime. If not for senior guard A’dia Mathies and sophomore guard Jennifer O’Neill, UK could have said goodbye to a spring of hope and settled into a winter of discontent.

But with the second half, there came the best of times.

UK came out of the gate with purpose. Stallworth nailed a 3-pointer. O’Neill swiped at shaky dribbling, gathered a steal and dished to sophomore guard Bria Goss for a layup. O’Neill would then drive it herself, kissing the ball off the glass to give UK its first lead of the game, 41-40, with 16:42 remaining.

From there ensued a physical, toe-to-toe battle, with UK becoming the aggressor on both offense and defense. The Cats played as if it was the age of wisdom, not the first half’s age of foolishness.

No easy baskets were surrendered. A full-court press baffled A&M for a key stretch, holding them scoreless for more than three minutes late in the second half.

And when Aggies guard Peyton Little’s last-second shot to tie it flew askew, the roar of the Memorial Coliseum crowd welcomed the Cats directly to heaven, when in the first half it looked like they were going directly the other way.

“I just can’t say enough about the effort in the second half,” Mitchell said. “We needed great defensive energy from everybody, and we just turned it up. Found another gear, another level we could take our defense to. They were 58 percent that first half, 32 field goal percentage in the second half, and that was more like a Kentucky defense.”

Mathies, who led the Cats with 23 points and a team-high four 3-pointers, said she and her teammates were ready to compete for a full 40 minutes, just like the team mantra says they should.

“We knew it wasn’t a 20-minute game at halftime,” she said. “We knew it was a 40-minute game, and every 40 minutes we just go out there and try to play as aggressively as we can, on offense and defense.”

Forty minutes, two halves, full of scrap and fight and determination is what the Cats will need to succeed in the SEC this season. UK showed its grit after the intermission, extending its home win streak to a school-record 31 straight (the 14 straight wins overall are also a school record).

Games like this one can take a lot out of a team. A&M coach Gary Blair attributed some of his team’s lack of execution down the stretch to being worn out.

Mitchell and his players, likely pretty worn out themselves, can now go to a far, far better rest than they have ever known.

At least until Sunday, when the Cats travel to Columbia, Mo., to take on the Missouri Tigers. Then they get to do it all over again.

And with the great expectations (another Dickens title, by the way) both the team and fans have for this season, UK will need more halves like the second and less like the first to make a serious run.