NEW YORK -- Having grown up in the Bronx, about five miles away from the Carnesecca Arena in Jamaica, Queens, Kentucky sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill was looking forward to Sunday's matchup with Navy in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament's opening round.
'I was excited to come home and see so many family and friends, but the game was big because it was the NCAA Tournament," said O'Neill, who keyed a 13-2 run in the opening minutes of the second half that propelled Kentucky to a 61-41 victory over Navy. "It was big for me to come home, but more so because it was the NCAAs."
O'Neill scored seven of her 12 points in the first three minutes after intermission and had two assists that led to baskets during the run as the Wildcats (28-5) turned a halftime deficit into an early second-half lead.
"We came into the locker room at halftime (trailing 26-25) and said that we couldn't be so passive," O'Neill said. "So in the second half, that's what I tried to do. I did feel like I could change the game and get my teammates going."
O'Neill started the second half with a long 3-pointer that gave the Wildcats the lead for good, then scored a basket 10 seconds later after collecting a steal. The five-point spurt jump-started the Wildcats.
"We were excited at that point to get our defense going," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It was a very solid defensive effort that let us get things done."
Navy coach Stefanie Pemper thought O'Neill was the key to Kentucky's run.
"We knew we had to find her because she was going to be the one to get them going," Pemper said. "We had two kids not find her. Not one."
DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points and 11 rebounds and Samarie Walker added 14 for the second-seeded Wildcats, who advanced in the Bridgeport Region to face the winner of Sunday's Dayton-St. John's game on Tuesday night in the second round, also at Carnesecca Arena.
Kentucky, which entered the tournament as the seventh-ranked team in the country, didn't have much success against the No. 15-seeded Midshipmen in the first half, trailing at the break, but exerted its strength and size advantage in the second half.
Stallworth had nine points in the second half, including two straight baskets late in the game that sealed the fate of the Midshipmen (21-12).
"Jen did a great job of forcing the tempo," Stallworth said. "She set a great pace and we followed along and continued to play hard. We got the win, that's the most important thing. I think we were a little rusty (after a loss to Texas A&M on March 10), so that hurt us early on. But we kept our heads up and worked hard."
Navy was led by Jade Geif and Alix Membreno, who had nine points each.
Pemper said her team had never faced anything quite like Kentucky.
"We're disappointed that we lost, but we don't face teams like this that are bigger, stronger and faster," Pemper said. "They're extremely different than what we ever played."
"They were a lot stronger in the second half and a lot quicker," Membreno said. "It was something like I never experienced with their speed and their trap defense."
Navy had the better of it in the early going, displaying patience on the offensive end and taking a 16-10 lead on a jumper from Membreno with 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
Kentucky had a tough time making shots in the early moments, misfiring on 14 of its first 17 from the floor.
Audrey Bauer hit a long 3-pointer, giving the Midshipmen their biggest lead at 23-16 with 6:23 remaining in the first half.
But the Wildcats found their legs and their collective shooting touch, concentrating on getting the ball down low. Stallworth scored seven straight points to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game at 25-24 with 2:41 remaining. Then April Bernal's baseline jumper gave the upstart Midshipmen a 26-25 halftime lead.
O'Neill's heroics and Stallworth's conventional three-point play with 16:50 left gave the Wildcats a 37-28 lead.
Navy narrowed the lead to 41-35 on one free throw from Bernal with 9:36 remaining, but Kentucky's leading scorer, A'dia Mathies, hit two free throws to push the lead to 43-35 with 8:31 left. Matheis entered the game averaging close to 17 points per game but finished with only five.
The Wildcats then used their size and strength to put the game away. Stallworth hit two straight power moves and Walker also had a basket down low, giving Kentucky a commanding 49-35 lead with 6:20 left.
"I think the speed of the game got to us," Geif said. "We never were pressed and trapped like that for 40 minutes. I never had to bring the ball up before. It was all different."