For 30 minutes of Sunday's game between #24 South Carolina and #9 Kentucky, the Gamecocks had the Wildcats right where they wanted them. However, Carolina fell apart in the final 10 minutes, allowing the Wildcats to come back from a nine point deficit and escape Columbia with a 66-58 win to remain undefeated in conference play.
When you render your opponent’s star player to less than half of her season average on your home court, you have to win if you want to take the next step up in the SEC to one of the premier programs. The 24th-ranked South Carolina women’s basketball team was not able to do that Sunday afternoon as they came unglued late in the second half in a 66-58 loss to #9 Kentucky at the Colonial Life Arena. Carolina limited A’dia Mathies, who is coming off a 34-point performance in a win over Tennessee, to just eight points and only one in the second half, but 28 turnovers – many of which were simply unforced errors – proved too much to overcome for a Gamecock team that outrebounded the Cats 40-30 and made 6-of-15 three pointers.
“It’s constant; It just keeps coming and coming,” head coach Dawn Staley said of the Kentucky pressure. “I thought we did a pretty good job with it considering they went into a zone to change it up. We have to take some good from it. They don’t play a whole lot of zone and we saw some zone today, so you have to kind of contribute that to us being able to get to the basket. We just couldn’t overcome the turnovers.”
It was a meltdown of epic proportions as Carolina took a 45-36 lead after Ieasia Walker drained a three pointer and Aleighsa Welch made one of two free throws with 10:01 left to play. Turnovers and cold shooting led to an 11-0 Kentucky run to grab the lead and a bigger 20-4 run gave the Wildcats a 56-49 lead over a 6:15 stretch. The lone Carolina basket during the run was a Sancheon White three-pointer that gave Carolina a 48-47 lead at the time. An Ashley Bruner lay-up finally broke the run, but it was too little too late as the Gamecocks shot just 39% from the floor in the second half and made just 6-of-16 free throws. Bruner made just one of her eight free throw attempts.
“That’s been our nemsis all year long,” Staley said. “We did a pretty good job at LSU, but home is a place we should find some comfort at the charity stripe. The people that usually hit them didn’t hit them. Ashley is a different story; she’s been struggling at the line all year. We’ve been messing with her mechanics so hopefully she can raise her percentage”
Carolina just could not keep up with the speed and depth that the Wildcats hit them with. An obviously tired Gamecock team found shot after shot coming up short late in the game, a clear sign of fatigue. That led to many of the Gamecock turnovers at the ends of each half, and especially the meltdown down the stretch. Walker, who had seven of the turnovers at the point guard position, especially felt the speed of the Wildcat defense.
“I think they were very active and they did sub a lot of players so they kept fresh legs on the floor, which was able to tire me out and it kind of makes you make bad passes and bad decisions sometimes,” Walker said. “They were very active with their feet and hands.”
Early on South Carolina struggled with the speed and physicality of Kentucky in a game that officials let the players play, turning the ball over seven times in the first 4:28 seconds as the Wildcats jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
“I think so, just because they’re quick and active and they’re strong as well,” Sutton said of the physicality early on. “It was one of the most physical (games) so far.”
The Gamecocks would continuously find themselves fighting an uphill battle, finally tying the game 18-18 on a Walker three-pointer with 8:33 left in the half. A jumper from Welch on the next possession gave Carolina its first lead, 20-18, but Kentucky came back with four straight to regain the lead. Sancheon White nailed a three-pointer with just five seconds left in the half to give the Gamecocks a 29-28 lead heading to the locker room.
After the two teams traded baskets early in the second half, Carolina went on 14-4 run to turn a 32-31 deficit into the 45-36 lead that would evaporate in less than two minutes.
“It’s disappointing because we were in the game, but it’s nothing we are going to hang our heads on and dwell on,” Sutton said. “We have a 24-hour rule; we get over wins and losses in 24 hours, so we’re going to move on to the next game”
Walker led the Gamecocks, who are now 14-4 on the season and 3-2 in conference play, with 14 points, Sutton added 12, and Welch finished with 11. Sutton and Walker, two of the primary ball-handlers, combined for 15 of the 28 turnovers.
“Turnovers killed us,” Staley said. “Any time we were in a position where we had them in a halfcourt set our defense held up. Any time we gave them uncontested shots because of our turnovers it hurt us. They got 30 of their 66 points off turnovers. We outrebounded them, we went to the free throw line more, but turnovers killed us.”
Keyla Snowden came off the bench to score a game-high 15 points for Kentucky, who moved to 15-2 and is now the only undefeated team in conference play at 5-0. Amber Smith finished with nine and Mathies, Brittany Henderson, and Samarie Walker all finished with eight.
South Carolina, who has now lost two straight for the first time this season, will head back on the road for the next two games, traveling to Auburn Thursday night and Vanderbilt on Friday.
“We keep turning the page,” Staley said. “We played two of the top upper echelon teams in this conference and we played them to single-digit games. I think they will consider our games very good and competitive games. We’re continuing to grow, but we put ourselves in position to where we need to start winning these games; we were right there. They outplayed us the last few minutes of the game and some costly turnovers didn’t help.”
Kentucky – 5-0
LSU – 4-1
Georgia – 4-1
Tennessee – 4-1
South Carolina – 3-2
Vanderbilt – 2-2
Florida – 2-3
Mississippi – 2-3
Mississippi State – 1-3
Arkansas – 1-4
Auburn – 1-4
Alabama – 0-5