No. 5 South Carolina's SEC Tournament stay ended with a 68-58 loss to No. 12 Kentucky in the semifinal round.
South Carolina was looking to make its first ever appearance in the SEC Championship game, and the door was wide open. All the Gamecocks had to do was get by an opponent in Kentucky that they had already beaten twice this season, including an 81-58 rout in Lexington. But it was clear from the start that it would not be the Gamecocks' day.
"This was the first I've seen our team play this poorly all season long," head coach Dawn Staley said.
After Elem Ibiam scored the first basket of the game, Kentucky went on a 12-0 run. South Carolina had no answers on either end of the court, and Kentucky had its way. South Carolina turned the ball over nine times during the stretch, leading to eight Kentucky points.
"It was all us making really uncharacteristic decisions with the basketball," Staley said. "It came from everywhere."
The Gamecocks went on a quick 7-0 run to make it 12-9, but Makayla Epps score five points in a 7-2 run that put the Wildcats back in control for good.
That was the blueprint for Kentucky. Every time South Carolina would get a stop and string together a couple of baskets, someone in blue would make a jump shot. South Carolina made its last push with about six minutes to play. Aleighsa Welch made a floater in the lane and the Gamecocks got a defensive stop. Welch drove again and was fouled. Going to the line with a chance to draw within six, Welch bricked both free throws, and then DeNesha Stallworth drilled a jumper on the other end to put Kentucky back up double digits.
"I missed them at bad times," Welch said. "It hurts. You have to be able to knock them down."
Welch, who made only 4-10 free throws, thought that her misses killed the momentum South Carolina was trying to create.
"If I'm going to go to go to the free throw line that many times, I've got to hit them," she said. "I take a lot of responsibility for it. It's something I've got to correct. I don't want to feel the way I feel after this game because of missed free throws.
Meanwhile, not only were the Gamecocks not making jump shots, they weren't making anything. Normally so reliable around the basket, the Gamecocks saw one layup after another rim out. The Gamecocks finished a respectable44.2 percent shooting from the floor, but the percentage does not reflect how many easy baskets were off the mark.
"Our focus has always been working inside-out," Staley said. "When we're able to work inside out we're a very efficient basketball team. When we stray away from that, you get results like today."
"I don't want their spirits up at this point," Staley said of her players. "They need to feel the disappointment of this loss. They need to feel our performance because if we perform this way again it would be a huge disappointment for our season."
Ibiam was South Carolina's only reliable offensive threat for much of the game and led all scorers with 16 points. Welch added 12 points, and Tiffany Mitchell, who had a subpar game, finished with 11 points on 4-12 shooting.
Bria Goss led Kentucky with 14 points, ten in the first half. Stallworth and Linnae Harper had 12, and Epps finished with 10.
The Gamecocks will now wait to find out where they will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Tournament selection show will be on March 17... South Carolina took care of the ball much better after the awful start, finishing with 16 turnovers... Kentucky turned the ball over just five times, tying a season low for Gamecock opponents... Kentucky ended the game with 16 points off turnovers. South Carolina had four.