Updated: December 9, 2013, 2:00 AM ET

Cats, Cards cap strange week in Commonwealth

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

Slaughter, ONeill, WalzAP PhotosJennifer O'Neill, center, led Kentucky to an epic four-overtime victory, while Louisville coach Jeff Walz and the Cardinals regrouped after losing Antonita Slaughter for the season.
Expressing that magnanimity that perhaps comes with a second-half comeback in front of a full house in your arena, Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell heaped praise on Louisville counterpart Jeff Walz after last Sunday's rivalry game, and then offered what surely seemed a benediction without any hint of foreboding.

"It's a good time for basketball in the Commonwealth of Kentucky," Mitchell said.

Little did he know he was also about to play his part in what proved to be the strangest of weeks for women's basketball in the Bluegrass State, one that turned the basketball court into something of a refuge for Louisville in the aftermath of Antonita Slaughter's collapse and subsequent season-ending diagnosis of blood clots, and a labyrinth impossible to escape for Kentucky in a four-overtime game against Baylor.

So where does basketball in the Commonwealth stand a week later?

That Kentucky ultimately came away with a 133-130 win against Baylor might prove marginally important come NCAA tournament seeding. The victory surely has some measure of mental benefits to those involved -- it at least must have been easier to stretch those tired legs and walk to class Monday morning after winning than it would have been limping in after a loss. But had Kentucky won by three or lost by three, the result probably isn't as important as what the Wildcats got from their guards to keep the game going.

Kastine Evans, Bria Goss, Jennifer O'Neill and Janee Thompson combined to play 175 minutes in the game and accounted for 64 of 93 field goals attempts by the Wildcats. O'Neill's school-record 43 points obviously carried the day, and Goss and Evans didn't shoot all that well, but the guards collectively shot 39 percent and recorded nine assists.

AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyLouisville senior Antonita Slaughter, who collapsed during Tuesday's game, will miss the rest of the season after she was diagnosed with a blood clot in her lung.

Friday's game was not deep in the NCAA tournament with a season on the line. It was an early December game in a venue, AT&T Stadium, that is unlike anything these teams will experience throughout the remainder of the regular season or postseason. But it was a big game -- big opponent, big atmosphere, big gut check by the end.

Now consider that over the past four seasons, Kentucky's top four guards shot a combined 30 percent from the floor in the games in which Kentucky was eliminated (three quarterfinals and a second-round game). The best shooting percentage in any of those four games was last season's 31.6 percent against Connecticut. And in those same four games, the four guards at the top end of the rotation totaled 16 assists -- in 417 minutes on the court.

Kentucky's inability to get off the court in Arlington, while wearying for those involved, was kind of bizarrely fun, a rarely seen quirk of circumstances like the snow in Sunday's football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions, or tennis players at Wimbledon playing for days on end.

What happened in Louisville on Tuesday night, by contrast, was simply scary, Slaughter collapsing while on the bench early in the first half and leaving the arena unresponsive on a stretcher.

Walz said there was never a thought of calling off the game after the incident, but that he received updates on Slaughter's status from the medical staff throughout the game and passed on the information to players during timeouts and even dead-ball situations. Louisville went on to beat Missouri State handily.

"She'd want us to sit there and finish the ball game," Walz said in talking Wednesday about the incident. "That's what our players did, and I was so impressed with them. Just because Antonita wasn't able to tell them, 'Hey, I'm OK; I'm doing fine.' She wasn't able to respond. So when she's being taken off the floor, there is a sense of 'What's going on, is she OK, what's happening?'"

Walz also noted Wednesday that the focus at that time was on Slaughter, that once she knew, and her teammates and coaches knew, what caused the collapse, then they would worry about what came next. That came with the diagnosis of a blood clot, necessitating she take blood thinners that make it impossible to play this season. After all of that, and after she was released from the hospital and visited her teammates, Louisville went out and beat a Wright State team that is better than you think, 99-40.

The form it took was frighteningly new, but this is what Louisville does. Whether it was Monique Reid, Tia Gibbs or Shawntá Dyer with more conventional injuries, or now Slaughter, the Cardinals patch lineup holes as well as any program. Walz has talked about an expanded role for Gibbs, but it might just as easily be a forward like Cortnee Walton or a deep reserve like Megan Deines whose role expands.

The recipe that worked against Baylor last March is gone without Slaughter's 3-point shooting, but ingredients remain in the pantry. Walz is the guy who took a 5-foot-4 walk-on Shelby Harper and saw not a end-of-blowout fan favorite but useful minutes.

It was a strange week, a frightening and bizarre week. But Mitchell was right. Good times are still ahead for basketball in the Commonwealth.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Make room in the rafters

Stores generally seem just a bit too anxious to celebrate the next holiday, any holiday, before it arrives. The displays for Halloween go up right around Labor Day. As soon as the candy and pumpkins are gone, elves and snowmen appear on the shelves instead. It all feels just a tad premature. All of which came to mind when Florida International retired Jerica Coley's jersey during halftime of a men's game on Saturday. It's a wonderful and well deserved honor for a player with 2,316 career points. But, well, doesn't she still need that jersey for another few months?

Heather Butler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhHeather Butler, right, and UT Martin beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Dec. 4. The senior guard is averaging 22.2 points this season.

All the same, it's impossible to argue that the distinction was deserved at some point. Coley scored 25 points with five assists in Friday's win against Prairie View A&M, FIU's lone game this past week. In addition to all the points, and she's averaging 25.9 per game this season, Coley is also averaging a career-best five assists per game.

Obviously seniors like Chiney Ogwumike, Odyssey Sims and Alyssa Thomas will see their legacies honored in due time, but some other players reminded us this past week why they, too, should take their jerseys with them after this season.

Heather Butler, UT Martin: Presumably the Skyhawks will retire Butler's and Jasmine Newsome's jerseys at the same time. It wouldn't be right to split them up after the fact. The two seniors combined for 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a 75-57 win at Alabama on Wednesday, Butler's 22 points leading the way. That was a standard day for a player right on Coley's heels as the leading active scorer in Division I (Newsome is third on the same list).

Jessica Kuster, Rice: Even in a game in which she eventually fouled out after 29 minutes, Kuster finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds in a win against Texas State on Thursday. She's averaging 20.7 points and 13.4 rebounds per game this season. That's nothing new. She averaged a double-double in each of her first three seasons for the Owls and is four rebounds behind the next player on the list for third among all active players.

Ebony Rowe, Middle Tennessee: Putting aside her jersey is a no-brainer. Four players rank among the top 10 active leaders in both points and rebounds: Ogwumike, Thomas, Jordan Hooper and Rowe. She added to her totals with 29 points and 20 rebounds in a win against Austin Peay on Wednesday.


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