Linnae Harper helps No. 5 Kentucky pull past DePaul in homecoming

CHICAGO -- Despite the distractions of her first visit back home, Kentucky freshman Linnae Harper managed to be all business Thursday.

The Wildcats reserve guard, a former Chicago high school star, scored 18 points to lead No. 5 Kentucky to a 96-85 victory over DePaul.

"I was very nervous, I hadn't been home in a few months and I was excited to be here," said Harper, a 2012 state champion at Whitney Young High School. "But it was a business trip, and we had to come out and play hard."

The Wildcats were without senior forward DeNesha Stallworth, the team's No. 2 scorer and rebounder, who is out two to four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her left knee Wednesday.

So it was up to her teammates to pick up the slack, and all 10 active players scored.

Kastine Evans scored 14 points, Samarie Walker had 13, Jennifer O'Neill 12 and Makayla Epps 10 for the Wildcats.

"It's a tough situation when you lose a significant contributor. (Stallworth) is very important to us scoring, rebounding, defensively," Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Tonight we needed a balanced game from all 10 players. I didn't think we could get it done with five. Everyone had to play hard and tough, and the bench was outstanding."

Harper's 18 led a 45-point production from the reserves.

"I'm real proud for her," Mitchell said. "This could have turned out to be a real poor showing with coming back to Chicago and the emotion all tied into it. Tonight was the result of how she's been practicing."

Kentucky pulled away from a 44-all halftime tie and took the lead for good when Harper's jumper put the Wildcats ahead 60-59 with 14:15 left in the second half.

Brittany Hrynkko scored 20 points, Megan Rogowski had 19, and Megan Podkowa and Jasmine Penny added 17 apiece as DePaul (4-3) lost for the third time in four games.

"We played unintelligently after we earned an 11-point lead in the first half," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "We have to play with intelligence and we didn't. We have to defend, we didn't. And we got killed on the boards by a team that's the same size we are."

Kentucky entered the game third in the nation in scoring at 98.8 points per game -- including a 103.8 per-game average over its previous five.

DePaul's Podkowa and Rogowski each had two 3-pointers and combined for 17 points as the Blue Demons took a 21-10 lead less than seven minutes in.

Kentucky pulled within three points on five occasions over the next nine minutes but DePaul replied each time until the final minute of the half.

Hrynko's 3-pointer gave the Blue Demons a 44-37 lead with 2:43 to play in the first half, and Jasime Penney's layup kept it at seven with 1:28 left.

The Wildcats closed the half with seven consecutive points in the final 38 seconds, including five from Goss and a fast-break layup by Azia Bishop with 12 seconds left, to tie the score at 44 at the break.

Kentucky took its first lead since the opening minutes at 50-49 on Evans' layup with 17:30 left in the second half. It was short-lived, as Penny replied 20 seconds later with a jumper.

From there the game featured five lead changes and two ties until the Wildcats pulled ahead for good at 60-59 on Harper's jumper. Kentucky opened a 66-61 lead on Epps' jumper a little more than two minutes later.

Kentucky's lead hit double digits at 83-73 with 4:07 to play on Evans' two free throws during a 9-0 run.

"We had to find enough defensive energy and get enough stops," Mitchell said. "DePaul really was terrific tonight and made some tough shots and were motivated to win. ... (But) our players found a way and really upped their energy level in the second half."

The game also was a homecoming for Wildcats sophomore starter Janee Thompson.

Both starred on Whitney Young's 2012 unbeaten Class 4A state champion team and had their respective numbers retired by the school Wednesday.

The Blue Demons went in ranked fourth in Division I with 13.5 steals per game.

DePaul's loss was just the third in 25 games at its on-campus home. The Blue Demons now are 13-15 all-time against top-25 teams.

Kentucky is four wins away from 700 all-time.