LEXINGTON — For the first time in recent weeks, the Kentucky Wildcats showed some grit to go along with their considerable talent, and the result was a come-from-behind, 68-58, win over the Arkansas Razorbacks Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.
Afterward, UK coach Matthew Mitchell largely blamed himself for a recent slump that saw his Wildcats slip to 15-4 overall and 3-3 in the Southeastern Conference, placing them squarely in the middle of the conference standings.
The low point was Thursday’s humiliating, 57-55, loss to lowly Alabama.
Mitchell indicated his players had grown soft during the slide.
“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” Mitchell said after the win over the Razorbacks Sunday, a game that saw his team rally from a 44-34, second-half deficit. “No more telling them how everything is going to be all right.
“That just has not worked,” he added. “They have not responded to that. We’ve worked hard to build this program to be known for something, and that’s what we are going to do, or if we don’t, it’s not going to be comfortable around here.”
Junior guard Jennifer O’Neill and sophomore guard Janee Thompson spearheaded Kentucky’s comeback Sunday.
O’Neill was superb throughout, leading the Wildcats with 21 points (8 of 12 from the field, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range), six rebounds and five assists.
Mitchell said O’Neill was one of several players moping around campus Sunday morning before the game, so he had a talk with his point guard.
“I just had a conversation with her (O’Neill), and this morning we were dragging around like we were feeling sorry for ourselves and the weight of the world was on us,” Mitchell said. “Jennifer was in that boat and had to step up. She is a very talented player, and you could see today she was the best player on the floor.”
“I just spoke with Matthew before the game, and I told him, ‘I need to know what you want me to do,”’ O’Neill said. “It’s something that he did before, and he stopped doing it, but I told him it helped me.”
Thompson provided both points and energy through the middle stages of the second half, scoring nine of her 13 points during Kentucky’s 34-14 game-ending run.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” Thompson said. “Actually, seeing my teammates do well and seeing (O’Neill) knock down all of those shots, seeing Bria (Goss) do so well, got me excited.”
Goss added 10 points and six rebounds, and junior center Azia Bishop had six rebounds to go with six points.
Freshman forward Jessica Jackson was superb for the Razorbacks, leading all scorers with 23 points.
O’Neill and Thompson said they welcome the bad cop side of Mitchell.
“Like he said, his mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to intense, and that’s going to reflect on us,” O’Neill said. “I feel like you guys will see that in the games from here on out.”
“I do think he was being a little light on us,” Thompson added. “His mentality is now better because it lights a fire under us and makes us play harder. That showed today.”
Kentucky, 16-4 and 4-3, has a tough week ahead, playing at Georgia Thursday and home to LSU Sunday.
“This is a critical juncture for us,” Mitchell said. “We need to build on it.”
Arkansas fell to 15-5.