No. 10 South Carolina held off a furious rally from No. 9 Kentucky to defeat the Wildcats 68-59 Thursday night at the Colonial Life Arena.
The Gamecocks (15-1, 3-0) led by as much as 22 in the second half but then faded down the stretch as Kentucky went on a 17-4 run to get back within single digits. Kentucky (13-3, 1-2) closed to eight on a four-point possession with 90 seconds left in the game. Samarie Walker made a short jumper and was fouled.
She missed the free throw but Alaina Coates lost the ball off her foot out of bounds. Denesha Stallworth added a layup off the inbounds to get Kentucky back within eight for the first time since the first possession of the second half.
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"We know they had a run in them," said Aleighsa Welch, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. "It was just a matter of how you handle the run. Basketball is a game of runs so we knew we had to tighten up."
Coates answered with a turnaround jumper and a foul that got the crowd back into the game and stunted Kentucky's momentum. Coates missed the free throw, which was a familiar refrain down the stretch. After making 81.5 percent of their free throws against Vanderbilt, they fell back to earth with a thud against Kentucky. The Gamecocks shot only 14 of 25 in the second half, 56 per cent, including several front ends on one-and-ones. The trips to the line also took the Gamecocks out of their offense and allowed the Wildcats to control the tempo of the game.
"What Kentucky was doing to us is kind of what we were doing to them to get that lead," said head coach Dawn Staley. "(They) pushed it down our throats and forced us to play up-tempo. We missed some easy shots and got behind them from a defensive standpoint."
At the beginning of the game, South Carolina was unprepared for Kentucky's fast-paced, physical style of play. Kentucky raced out to a 10-4 lead and appeared on the verge turning the game into a rout. But South Carolina adjusted. Welch took over for Tiffany Davis as the primary ball-handler and effectively negated Kentucky's press.
Khadijah Sessions came off the bench in her first action in five games and provided an offensive spark. Her first basket was a three pointer from the corner, and she energized the Gamecock offense. Down 16-15, the Gamecocks went on an 8-2 run over five minutes to take the lead for good. Then, continuing a season long trend, they strung together a pair of runs around the halftime break.
Leading 25-22, South Carolina ran off a quick 7-0 run behind Tina Roy, who played perhaps her best game of the season. Roy, who scored 11 points, all in the first half, nailed a three-point jumper, Tiffany Mitchell had a steal and layup, and then Roy found Coates open underneath for a layup to take a double digit lead. After a pair of free throws by Samarie Walker, Welch made a spinning layup as time expired to secure the ten-point halftime lead.
"I try to get in the gym and now I'm seeing that what you put in will come out in the game," Roy said.
Out of the break, the Gamecocks relentlessly pounded the ball into the paint as they sprinted to a 20-8 run and that 22 point lead. Defensively, they guarded the rim to keep the Wildcats from scoring and setting their defense. In the first five minutes of the half, the Gamecocks had five blocks, four by Elem Ibiam. Ibiam finished with six blocks, tying a school record for blocks in an SEC game.
"Elem did a great job at the start of the second half to get us going," Staley said.
Coates continued her stellar play in conference, finishing with her fourth straight double-double. Coates had 10 points and 17 rebounds, setting a USC freshman record. She also contributed to the Gamecocks' dominance in the paint with four emphatic blocks. Mitchell led all scorers with a quiet 17 points, and most importantly, had only one miss out of eight free throw attempts.
Notes: The victory marked South Carolina's first win over a top 10 opponent since it beat No. 5 Kentucky almost exactly a year ago - Jan. 24, 2013, in Columbia... Attendance for the game was 5,689, keeping the "Drive for 5" alive...Kentucky lost Sunday against Florida, and has now lost consecutive games for the first time in two seasons... The Wildcats were held to their lowest point production and worst field goal percentage (31.5) of the season... The Gamecocks had 16 turnovers, but that tied for the fewest forced by the Wildcats this season...Sessions finished the game with three points, a rebound, and turnover in 15 minutes of action, but also made several hustle plays. "Physically she looked pretty good," Staley said. "I thought from a cerebral standpoint (...) she looked a little rusty." ... The Gamecocks are 3-0 in the SEC for the second time in three seasons... South Carolina hits the road against Auburn on Sunday at 2:30pm. The game will be televised on SportSouth.