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January 24, 2013

WBB: SHOCKER! USC tops No. 5 Kentucky

As the buzzer blared, Ashley Bruner and Wilka Montout embraced at mid-court, leaping up and down in each other's arms. They were quickly met by a crowd of happy Gamecocks, grinning ear-to-ear.

Finally got one.

Eighteenth-ranked South Carolina unleashed its nasty defense on No. 5 Kentucky on Thursday and knocked the Wildcats from the ranks of the SEC unbeatens, 55-50. It was USC's first win over a Top-5 opponent since 1998 and although the Gamecocks just about gave it away with turnovers throughout the final minutes, they didn't.

They got the win, a huge win, and proved that they could indeed match the production that their defense provides. Their three losses this year were because they could knock heads on defense but couldn't get the points to out-score anyone; when it looked its bleakest on Thursday, the Gamecocks' offense found its missing stroke.

"We don't win this game if we're not in Colonial Life Arena," coach Dawn Staley said. "It's exhausting to play as hard as we played defensively and then you get good looks, and don't make them, and the wind kind of goes out of your sails. The crowd put life back into us."

USC (17-3, 5-2 SEC) fought back from an early six-point deficit in the second half to make it a two-point game, and Aleighsa Welch tied it with a layup. Khadijah Sessions, playing better and better each game, then took a feed from Ieasia Walker and scored to take a 46-44 lead.

A Sessions jumper and a Welch free throw made it 52-44 with 3:34 to play, but Kentucky wasn't done yet. Three USC turnovers got the Wildcats within two at 52-50 with 25 seconds to play, and Kentucky (18-2, 6-1), knowing what had to be done, did it.

The Wildcats fouled, knowing that the Gamecocks can't hit free throws. Walker went to the line knowing that two shots clinched it, one got Kentucky back into it.

"Coach (Nikki) McCray kept saying to me, 'Nothing short,'" Walker said. "I was just thinking of shooting high and leaving nothing short, not of missing or anything like that."

Walker made one and Kentucky hurried downcourt, but threw the ball into the paint where nobody was. The turnover forced the Wildcats to foul again, and Welch went to the line for two shots.

Her first shot missed as the crowd groaned. Was this one going to be given away too?

"After she missed the first one, she had another opportunity," Staley said. "I just wanted her to shoot our average, which is 50 percent. She made the second one, so you can kind of exhale a little bit. We had a little cushion."

Welch calmly swished her final shot for a four-point lead with 12.7 seconds to play, and the crowd began to realize. The Gamecocks were finally going to have their signature win.

They only get 24 hours to celebrate it, but man, did it feel good at the moment.

"It feels great," said Walker, who scored 16 points with eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks. "All of our losses came to ranked teams. We're ranked but we're not beating the teams that are good, that are considered better. We definitely needed this one in the long run."

It was as complete of a team effort as USC has ever had, and the Gamecocks only played seven. The Gamecocks overcame a rotten shooting performance in the first half to post a respectable 37.7 percent for the game, with Welch joining Walker in double figures (11) and Sessions and Elem Ibiam scoring eight each.

Sessions and Ibiam each put the team on their backs at points of the game, Sessions continuing her heroics from the win at Florida by picking off a pass and going coast-to-coast for a 49-44 lead and Ibiam demanding the ball in the post. "I was asking for it pretty much all week in practice," Ibiam said. "We were focused on me asking for the ball, clearing the lane and being ready when the time came."

Then there was how USC locked down on Kentucky star A'dia Mathies, first with defensive specialist Sancheon White and then Walker, when White went down with a knee twist (she returned to the game). Mathies finished with 12 points, eight in the final stretch, but shot 4-of-14 from the field.

The Wildcats had scored 100 points twice this season and at least 90 five other times, but only managed 50 against USC. The Gamecocks' defense, coach Matthew Mitchell said, was extremely physical and as he said, USC wanted the game more.

The Gamecocks got it, and hope they can keep using it. USC carries a three-game winning streak into Sunday's game at Arkansas.

"It's huge," Staley said. "I'm happy for our players, because they prepped well all season long and we kept coming up short to the Kentuckys and Stanfords and Tennessees."

"I think it gives us a lot of confidence going into the next game," Walker said. "We got the win and we're very excited about it, but we're focused on the next game."

Team SEC Overall
Tennessee 6-0 15-3
Kentucky 6-1 18-2
South Carolina 5-2 17-3
Texas A&M 4-1 14-5
Georgia 4-2 16-3
Vanderbilt 3-2 13-5
LSU 3-3 12-7
Missouri 2-3 13-6
Auburn 2-4 13-6
Florida 2-4 13-7
Alabama 1-4 11-7
Arkansas 1-4 13-5
Ole Miss 1-5 8-11
Mississippi State 0-5 8-10
Thursday's scores
Alabama at Auburn
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Mississippi State at Texas A&M
Missouri at Arkansas
South Carolina 55, Kentucky 50
Ole Miss 88, Florida 81

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