Last weekend’s victory over Mississippi State (#6 nationally and 2nd place in the SEC) was an upset and one the Cats needed desperately as they navigate the home stretch and fight for seeding in the SEC Tournament. On Sunday, Coach Matthew Mitchell’s team was presented with yet another opportunity for an upset victory and also get the added bonus of providing a little payback to Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Back on January 2, the #1 Gamecocks handed the Cats their worst defeat of the season, curb-stomping Kentucky 99-72. Yes, a great opportunity for perhaps a program-defining win, but one that went unrealized as South Carolina managed a 9-point victory, 67-58.
With a solid opening 5 minutes, the Cats matched the Gamecocks blow for blow and showed no signs of intimidation even after January’s drubbing. UK’s all-everything Rhyne Howard had less wrapping on her injured left hand, so that provided additional hope things would go well. Then Kentucky hit the wall. The dreaded cold-as-ice couldn’t-hit-the-ocean-from-the-shoreline shooting drought. A 2-point Wildcat lead was suddenly a 13-point Gamecock advantage as South Carolina went on a scoring spree. When the first quarter came to a close, the Gamecocks were leading 27-14. The scary part, it wasn’t because of 1 or 2 players that were on point. It was even scoring spread across the board, which is a lot more difficult to stop.
But as has happened on more than a few occasions this season, the Cats put together a much better 2nd quarter and by halftime, it was a 10-point game. While that wasn’t an earth-shattering decrease in the 1st quarter deficit, the Cats’ demeanor coupled with USC’s uncharacteristically poor shooting made this game feel much closer. Led by Howard with 12 points and 6 rebounds, the Cats had kept themselves within striking distance and an upset was still very possible.
But Staley’s teams don’t go down easily and getting the victory would require a near-perfect effort from Kentucky. And the 3rd quarter was far from perfect. Time again UK missed shots inside of 5 feet and compounded that with other unforced errors like a couple of traveling calls as well as shot clock violations. There were also more than a few ill-advised drives to the basket when there were several Gamecocks lying in wait to swat away any shot attempt (South Carolina finished the game with 8 blocks). As the seconds ticked off toward the end of the 3rd, it felt like USC was ready to put the game away as their lead had ballooned to 16 points, 59-43.
Perhaps fueled by the packed house (announced attendance was 7,174) and the less than stellar play by USC, the Cats began to mount a threat in the 4th quarter, twice cutting the lead to single digits and holding the Gamecocks to a very meager 8 points for the period. But Staley’s team is #1 in the country for a reason. If one of their key players is effectively shut down (Aliyah Boston – 3 points, 11 rebounds), they find ways to compensate. The Gamecocks were led by Zia Cooke, who scored 20 points, then followed by 3 players (Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Tyasha Harris, and Lele Grissett all added 10 points each, with Herbert Harrigan also grabbing 8 rebounds).
For Kentucky, Rhyne Howard once again led the team with 24 points and 11 rebounds. No other Cat could crack double figures though KeKe McKinney did score 9 points and had 4 rebounds and 2 blocks. Jaida Roper had 7 points and 2 assists to round out the leaders. Coach Mitchell said his team will learn from this and noted the growth the team had experienced since their last game against USC in January.
The loss moves the Cats to 20-6 (9-5) and they drop to 5th place in the conference, 1/2 game behind Arkansas, who is in action against Florida today.
The Cats have one final hurrah in Memorial on Thursday night as the Georgia Bulldogs will be in town for Senior Night.
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