Doug Feinberg, Associated Press
11:07 AM PDT, March 24, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) — After a sluggish first half, Kentucky finally shook off its rust and put away Navy.
DaNesha Stallworth scored 18 points and Jennifer O'Neill added nine of her 12 points in the second half to lead the second-seeded Wildcats to a 61-41 win over the 15th-seeded Midshipmen on Sunday in the opening round of the NCAA women's tournament.
The Wildcats (28-5) trailed by one at the half before O'Neill, who grew up in New York, took over. She hit a quick 3-pointer to start a 12-2 run. The sophomore guard had seven points, a steal and an assist during the burst.
Kentucky had been off for 14 days since losing in the SEC tournament title game and looked rusty early on. Two-time SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies didn't have a field goal for the first time in her career.
Alix Membreno and Jade Geif scored nine each to lead Navy (21-12), which was trying to become the first 15 seed to win a game in NCAA tournament history.
The Wildcats will play the winner of No. 7 Dayton vs. 10th-seeded St. John's on Tuesday night in the second round of the Bridgeport regional.
Kentucky, which was coming off a loss in the SEC title games to Texas A&M, has made the NCAA tournament four straight seasons and matched its best seeding. Each time Kentucky has struggled in the first round. The Wildcats had won by six, four (in overtime) and six in the previous three seasons in their NCAA opener.
On Sunday Navy wasn't intimidated. The Mids led most of the first half buoyed by strong 3-point shooting. They hit five 3s in the first half and led 26-25 at the break.
Then O'Neill got the Wildcats going, much to the delight of the huge cheering section that came to support her. Stallworth capped the game-changing run with a three-point play that made it 37-28 with 16:50 left.
The Wildcats led 41-35 with 10 minutes left before they finally got some breathing room with an 8-0 run. Mathies, who missed all five of her shots and finished with five points, hit two free throws to start the spurt. Stallworth followed with consecutive layups to give the Wildcats their first double-digit lead of the game with 7:18 left.
Navy could only get within nine the rest of the way.
The Wildcats played without backup center Samantha Drake who was suspended by coach Matthew Mitchell.
"We have a standard we want to uphold as Kentucky basketball players and she hasn't been doing that," he said. "It's not one particular thing, it's a series of things. We want her to try to strive to do her best and that's not happening right now."
The Midshipmen were making their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament after winning the Patriot League tournament. Navy lost to Maryland last season and DePaul the year before. With the Mids' loss, 15 seeds remained winless in the NCAA tournament at 0-76.
This was one of the closer efforts by a No. 15 seed. While most of the games have been blowouts, a handful of the lower seeds have scared opponents. Texas-San Antonio had the best chance in 2009 when the Roadrunners took Baylor to overtime in 2009 — the year before Brittney Griner showed up on campus.
Navy coach Stefanie Pemper wasn't deterred. She had been part of the greatest upset in tournament history as an assistant for Harvard when the Crimson pulled off the first and only victory by a 16 seed over No. 1 Stanford in 1998.
She couldn't make history a second time.
The Midshipmen were also trying to buck a losing trend by the Patriot League, which has now dropped its past 21 games in the tournament since Holy Cross knocked off Maryland in 1991.