NEW YORK — After a two-week layoff, it took Kentucky awhile to get going. Once the second-seeded Wildcats did, Navy was done.
DeNesha 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.
“We were a little rusty not playing in a couple weeks,” Stallworth said. “We played hard and stayed focus and not let the start bring us down.”
Kentucky will next play No. 7 Dayton on Tuesday in the second round of the Bridgeport regional. The Flyers beat 10th-seeded St. John’s 96-90 in double overtime.
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. She 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.
“I’m not worried; she’s a great player,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
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.
“You can’t start examining margin of victory or how you play,” Mitchell said. “This time of year you need to be happy to win and move forward and get focused on whoever we have next.”
For 30 minutes, Navy hung with Kentucky. The Mids (21-12) led most of the first half thanks to strong 3-point shooting. They hit five 3s in the first half and led 26-25 at the break.
Then O’Neill took command, 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.
“We knew they were going to come out strong,” said Jade Geif, who led Navy with nine points. “O’Neill was going to come out in her home state. She hit some key shots. The just were hitting and we weren’t.”
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 came no closer than nine the rest of the way.
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.
“We expected more. It was the first time we’ve been up at half,” Navy coach Stefanie Pemper said. “We were close with DePaul and Maryland but we weren’t up. We’re frustrated how we ended the game.”
The Midshipmen were trying to buck a losing trend by the Patriot League, which has dropped its past 21 games in the tournament since Holy Cross knocked off Maryland in 1991. None of those losses has been close.