KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kentucky finally is playing the way it was expected to perform all season.
Jennifer O’Neill scored 24 points and sparked a late comeback as the 18th-ranked Wildcats rallied for a 75-71 victory over No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday, earning the Wildcats’ first win in Knoxville since 1985.
After winning its first 11 games and being ranked as high as fifth in mid-December, Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC) split its next 12 contests. The Wildcats have bounced back in the last week by trouncing Mississippi 108-78 and snapping the Lady Vols’ six-game winning streak.
“We have a good team,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We knew we had a good team. What we’ve tried to focus on the last couple of weeks is trying to make sure our players knew we had a good team.”
Kentucky had lost to Tennessee (20-5, 9-3) in its last 16 trips to Knoxville since a 76-72 overtime victory on Jan. 23, 1985, at Stokely Athletics Center. Kentucky had never beaten Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena, the Lady Vols’ home floor since 1987-88.
O’Neill had Kentucky’s first six points during a 7-0 run that gave the Wildcats a 73-69 lead in the closing minutes. She started the run by banking in a jumper as the shot clock was about to expire.
“We kept losing games and… we were questioning ourselves,” O’Neill said. “But we came down here and played a good game and got the victory, so that’s all that matters.”
Kentucky led 73-71 with 13.4 seconds remaining when Janee Thompson missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Tennessee one last chance.
After the Lady Vols called timeout with 5.4 seconds left, they threw an inbounds pass to Isabelle Harrison, who had 20 points and 16 rebounds. DeNesha Stallworth knocked the ball away from Harrison to cause Tennessee’s 22nd turnover. Kastine Evans grabbed the loose ball and sank two game-clinching free throws.
“We were trying to get the ball inside to Izzy,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We got what we wanted. They just knocked the ball out of our hands.”
Stallworth had 17 points and nine rebounds for Kentucky, which beat Tennessee for the third time in their last four meetings overall. Kentucky’s previous two wins during that stretch had been in Lexington. Thompson added 15 points and seven assists.
Bashaara Graves had 20 points and seven rebounds for Tennessee. Meighan Simmons had 13 points but missed a potential game-tying 3-point attempt with 38 seconds remaining.
Kentucky grabbed a 38-34 halftime lead by capitalizing on foul trouble to Tennessee’s starting backcourt of Simmons and Andraya Carter. Simmons played just seven minutes and Carter played 10 minutes in the first half.
The Lady Vols already were without point guard Ariel Massengale, who hasn’t played since getting inadvertently hit in the face Jan. 23 in an 89-69 victory over Florida. Massengale has returned to practice and was in uniform Sunday, but she didn’t play.
Tennessee had won the first five games without Massengale, but it faced a tougher challenge Sunday from Kentucky’s ball-hawking defense.
“We haven’t been able to full-court press this year the way that we’d like to, and so the last couple of weeks we’ve tried to become the most ferocious half-court man-to-man defense that we can be,” Mitchell said. “I thought they did that today.”
Tennessee seemed in deep trouble when Carter picked up her fourth foul with 9:02 left. Bria Goss hit each of the two ensuing free throws to give Kentucky a 60-52 advantage.
The Lady Vols responded with a 15-4 spurt to grab a 67-64 lead, but Kentucky wouldn’t go away.
Kentucky trailed 69-66 when O’Neill banked in a jumper with 3:21 remaining. She added a layup after a Simmons turnover that put Kentucky ahead for good with 2:23 left and sank a jumper with 1:39 remaining. Evans made one of two free throws to give Kentucky a 73-69 lead with 35 seconds left.
Kentucky barely hung on from there.
“We have good players,” Mitchell said. “We’ve hit some rough patches, but they could come in here and win today. And they did.”
This represented Tennessee’s annual “Live Pink, Bleed Orange” game to fight breast cancer as part of women’s college basketball’s “Play4Kay” initiative for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Both teams wore uniforms in different shades of pink.
Before the game, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick handed a game ball to Suzanne Barbre Singleton, who played for the Lady Vols from 1974-78 and is battling breast cancer. Warlick also embraced breast cancer survivor and longtime Lady Vols beat reporter Maria Cornelius at courtside and handed her an autographed pink basketball. Warlick then leaned into the first row of the stands and hugged her sister, breast cancer survivor Marion Ferrill.
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