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January 24, 2013
NO. 5 KENTUCKY WILDCATS (18-1, 6-0 SEC)
NO. 18 SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (16-3, 4-2)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
South Carolina's probable starters: G Ieasia Walker 5-8 Sr. (9.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Sancheon White 5-10 Sr. (5.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-7 Fr. (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 So. (12.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg); F Ashley Bruner 6-0 Sr. (9.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
Kentucky's probable starters: G A'dia Mathies 5-9 Sr. (15.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Bria Goss 5-10 So. (9.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); G Jennifer O'Neill 5-6 So. (9.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg); F Samarie Walker 6-1 Jr. (9.4 pg, 8.2 rpg); C DeNesha Stallworth 6-3 Jr. (14.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina plays its fourth ranked opponent of the season. It has lost the previous three games. Kentucky leads the series 30-18 but USC leads 13-9 in Columbia. The game is USC's turn to promote the "We Back Pat" initiative. The Gamecocks will wear special warm-up T-shirts and CLA will run videos and hold promotions to raise awareness for Alzheimer's disease. USC ranks 20th in the country with 14 turnovers per game, and has had just 10 per game in each of its last two games. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in scoring defense while Kentucky is second in scoring offense. USC hasn't beaten a Top-5 team since 1998. Mitchell won the SEC Freshman of the Week award for the second time this year last week. USC is No. 14 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.
Next game: USC tips off at Arkansas at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
It's time to win one of these.
"It's time," coach Dawn Staley said on Wednesday. "It really is time to put two halves together and get a big win. I think the buildup to this point, I think we're more prepared than any other time to do that, because of the experiences we've had with ranked opponents."
South Carolina, back to No. 18 in the AP Top 25, hosts No. 5 Kentucky tonight. The Wildcats are, as usual, extremely talented and dangerous, cruising along with an 18-1 record (6-0 SEC, and the only loss was to Baylor) and with their sights set on the one elusive goal - the Final Four.
The Gamecocks may be considered on the next tier of SEC supremacy (behind Kentucky and Tennessee, fighting with Georgia and Texas A&M for the last two of the top four spots), but that doesn't mean they have to settle. They know just as well as anyone that their three losses this year have been to Stanford, Tennessee and Georgia and they see no reason to think, "Well, a top-five or top-six finish in the league will be fine."
Everything's still out there. Potentially a first-place finish, or a top-four finish (meaning a bye out of the first two rounds of the SEC tournament), a top seed in the NCAA tournament. With 10 regular-season games left to play, the Gamecocks know they'll have to have a bit of help to overcome tiebreakers to the Lady Volunteers and Lady Bulldogs (USC doesn't play either again), but they also know that they can control their own destiny far up to that point.
Which would be tremendously helped by knocking the Wildcats off the top of the standings. USC lost twice to Kentucky last year as the Wildcats won their first regular-season championship since 1982, and has been waiting for a chance to get Kentucky back on the floor.
The Gamecocks only lost by three points at Kentucky in the final meeting last year, in a game where Aleighsa Welch didn't play due to injury. USC knows it will be substantially harder this year, even with Welch - the Gamecocks have struggled to score, and UK's A'dia Mathies may be the best guard in the country - but love how their defense has responded to challenges thus far.
"I got to play the first time, but I didn't the second time, and being that we were right there the second time it adds a little extra to it," Welch said. "I'm ready for the game."
The Wildcats are lethal on offense, gifted at turning every turnover into points. They pressure the ball up the floor and knock it away, where it seems like there's always a blue jersey around to pick it up and score it. Their half-court sets aren't bad, either, although Kentucky certainly prefers to run.
"For us, we have to take care of the basketball," Staley said. "If we're scoring, if we're able to set up our offense, if we prevent them from scoring, they can't play the type of defense they're used to. A lot of their defense is predicated on them scoring the ball."
USC likes to run, as well. Its defense is also outstanding at forcing turnovers and getting on the break, and with how the Gamecocks have struggled to score lately, they want to cause more fast breaks so they can take higher-percentage shots. With that, and then their usual reliance on a switching, low-guarding defense, they feel they can knock other teams out of their rhythm.
That worked against Tennessee, but a lengthy cold offensive spell opened the door to a 20-point loss. It also worked against Stanford and Georgia, but too many missed chip shots inside cost the Gamecocks two more high-profile wins.
USC knows that perfect game is out there. It knows that it's in very strong position to make the NCAA tournament, being mentioned as a No. 4 seed in the latest "Bracketology" by ESPN.
But the Gamecocks also want to be known as a great team, a team to watch for in March, not just another good team against the small fries and a loser against the big girls.
They can be that tonight.
South Carolina NEWS