LEXINGTON — University of Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell readily admited that a coach cannot treat all of his or her players the same.
Athletes are motivated in different ways, in other words. Some players respond to criticism and some need a kinder, gentler approach.
But at halftime of the Kentucky-Louisville game Sunday afternoon, with the Wildcats down 36-27 and star center DeNesha Stallworth playing a terrible, lethargic game, Mitchell unleashed verbally on Stallworth.
Stallworth responded with an outstanding second half, contributing 15 of her 16 points and six of her eight rebounds in that stretch, sparking No. 7-rated Kentucky to a 69-64 win over No. 4 Louisville in front of a sold-out crowd at Memorial Coliseum.
The Wildcats improved to 8-0, while the Cardinals fell to 7-1.
“We spend a lot of time building relationships with our players and trying to figure out how to get to them,” Mitchell said after Kentucky’s third consecutive win in this rivalry. “But there comes a time in a game like this when there’s only one tone you can use. This is Kentucky-Louisville. This is a big game. If you’re going to come out and not play, that’s just unacceptable.
“During the week, I try different types of tones with DeNesha. I try not to jump all over her — that’s not the best way for her to get information — but at halftime of the Kentucky-Louisville game, when you’re dragging around and just not playing when your team needs you, there is only one tone to take. That is: You’ve got to get it going here, and if you don’t, you’re putting your team in jeopardy.
“Thanks goodness she played in the second half. We needed her badly.”
Said Stallworth: “He basically just told me that I’m not playing how I could be playing and just to play and relax and stop being so selfish. I took that personally and just tried to contribute more to my team, whether that’s rebounding or scoring points or doing the little things. I didn’t play well in the first 20 minutes, but I had another 20 minutes to bounce back.”
Indeed. Stallworth looked like a new player in the second half, and, consequently, Kentucky looked like a new team.
“She got two or three rebounds to start the second half, and that got her going,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of Stallworth. “She’s a big-time player. There’s no question about it. But I think her willingness to go to the offensive glass is the second half is what got them going.”
“We needed to keep circling her and be physical with her, and not allow her to get easy touches,” Louisville junior forward Sara Hammond said of Stallworth. “We did that in the first half, but in the second half she did a good job of working hard, and her team got her the ball and got her open shots.”
The Cardinals clearly had the initiative early on, racing out to a 21-7 lead midway through the first 20 minutes, out-hustling Kentucky at every turn.
But UK freshman swing player Makayla Epps then hit two consecutive 3-point shots to keep the Wildcats within striking distance. Epps played only six minutes in the game, and those six points were all her scoring.
“Makayla’s 3s really saved us because we had nothing going at the time,” Mitchell said.
“We should have been up 14-15 at halftime,” Walz said. “We missed some easy opportunities that you have to make.”
The second half was all Kentucky. This time it was a pair of 3-pointers by senior guard Bernisha Pinkett that put the Wildcats into another gear.
The first of Pinkett’s 3s, with 10:54 to go in the game, gave the Wildcats their first lead, 46-45, since the opening seconds of the game.
“I was strongly encouraging the ball to go in when she shot it,” Mitchell said. “I wanted that badly.”
The Cardinals out-rebounded the Wildcats, 44-39, though Kentucky held a 26-21 second-half edge on the boards that spoke volumes.
UK shot 22 of 61 from the field for 36.2 percent, to Louisville’s 22 of 60 for 36.7 percent.
The home team was 17 of 25 from the free throw line, and the Cardinals were 14 of 19.
Sophomore guard Janee Thompson followed Stallworth on the Kentucky scoresheet, with 13 points. Samarie Walker scored just two points but added eight rebounds.
Jennifer O’Neill scored 12 points, and Azia Bishop had seven rebounds.
Senior guard Shoni Schimmel led Louisville with 17 points, but was just 6 of 18 from the field. Schimmel added seven rebounds, four assists, three steals, a blocked shot and five turnovers.
Louisville turned the ball over 24 times to 17 for Kentucky.
Hammond had 12 points and seven rebounds for the Cardinals, and senior forward Asia Taylor added 10 points and six rebounds.