No. 6 Kentucky tops Florida 76-69

GARY GRAVES AP Sports Writer Published:

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky and Florida have played plenty of close games recently. A'dia Mathies and Jennifer O'Neill just wanted to make sure the Wildcats came out ahead again.

Mathies scored 20 points and O'Neill had 12 of her 17 in the second half and No. 6 Kentucky topped Florida 76-69 in the teams' Southeastern Conference opener on Thursday.

"I just knew I wanted to come out very aggressive," said Mathies, who added six rebounds and four assists.

"For whatever reason, Florida's always a great game for us. I just knew I wanted to come out aggressive and play as hard as I could for the team."

DeNesha Stallworth added 17 points and 10 rebounds for her fourth double-double as the Wildcats (13-1, 1-0) won their school-record 12th straight game.

Last season's regular-season conference champions had to work hard and often for their sixth straight win over rival Florida.

Kentucky trailed just once, but had to withstand several rallies from Florida.

O'Neill helped with consecutive 3-pointers and eight straight points overall to give Kentucky its biggest second-half lead at 58-49. Her layup with 1:59 remaining provided a 70-62 lead.

"Sitting on the sideline, I was kind of anxious to go back in," said O'Neill, who finished 3 of 4 from 3-point range and has scored 38 points the past two games. "Coach (Matthew) Mitchell called my name and I just did what he asked me to do."

Added Mitchell, "when we were stagnant, she makes a great play that lifted our team. ... She was big in the game tonight."

Florida got within 72-68 with 21 seconds remaining, but Kentucky sealed it with four free throws, the final one by O'Neill in the final second.

Jaterra Bonds scored a game-high 21 points for Florida (11-4, 0-1), which had its six-game winning streak end. January Miller had 17 and Jennifer George 14 for the Gators.

Bria Goss added 10 points for the Wildcats, who also tied a school record with their 30th straight home win.

Better shooting made the difference for Kentucky, which was 27 of 62 (44 percent). Florida, despite out-rebounding the Wildcats 40-36, shot just 37 percent (21 of 57).

"I felt like sometimes we got lazy on defense and let them catch inside easily," George said. "I think that they are very good in the post and that hurt us. We could have boxed out a little more. They had a lot of easy offensive rebounds and put backs that we can learn from."

Thursday's game typified recent close meetings between the schools, the past four won by Kentucky by a total of 12 points. In last season's SEC quarterfinal, the Wildcats won 71-67 with Mathies scoring a game-high 24 while George led Florida with 18.

Both players factored into this matchup that only featured two lead changes.

Mathies' steal and layup and two free throws and Stallworth's jumper gave Kentucky a 6-0 lead after two minutes, a quick start helped by the Wildcats' pressure defense and Florida's early inaccuracy.

The Gators missed their first three shots before Bonds' jumper at 17:10 and two later free throws brought her team within 9-6. But it was a little while before Florida got closer, thanks to a combination of its mistakes and Kentucky's man pressure.

The Gators committed nine turnovers through 10 minutes, allowing the Wildcats to get their transition and perimeter games going. Kentucky hit 5 of 12 3-point attempts in the first half, including back-to-back shots by Kastine Evans and Mathies for the Wildcats' biggest lead at 23-12.

Florida didn't wilt. Miller's consecutive transition layups and five straight points by Bonds got the Gators within 23-21 and set the stage for their best stretch and only lead of the half.

A 14-4 run including eight straight points over 2:05 put Florida ahead 35-34 as George had six points in the spurt with Miller and Kayla Lewis adding baskets and Bonds two free throws.

Kentucky quickly grabbed it back on Goss' jumper and Evans' second 3-pointer for a 39-35 lead at the break. While the Wildcats' 48 percent shooting provided an edge, the Gators outrebounded them 19-14 including 6-3 offensively.

The second half was much the same as Kentucky never led by more than eight and Florida got within one at 48-47 on Lewis' two free throws.

"We got off to a slow start and that was unfortunate, but I loved how we took care of the ball in the second half and loved how we fought," Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "We just have to regroup."