As talented as South Carolina’s freshmen are, coach Dawn Staley knew there would be times when the veterans, her beloved “old heads,” would have to carry the team.
They didn’t let her down.
Upperclassmen led a charge out of halftime Sunday as the top-ranked Gamecocks stayed unblemished with a 68-60 win against No. 10 Kentucky. Trailing 38-35 at the break, Tiffany Mitchell, Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam combined to take the lead, then watched Khadijah Sessions stroke her third 3-pointer of the game for the start of the game-ending run.
“It comes down to will,” Staley said. “At some point, I think what we do best is going to show up. Hopefully, we don’t dig ourselves too big of a hole where we can’t get out of it.”
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It seemed headed that way.
The Wildcats (14-3, 3-1 SEC) forced their physical style on the Gamecocks. Mitchell hit the deck early and was shaken up for the game’s duration, and forwards Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson couldn’t find their shots despite getting open looks inside.
A rally at the end of the half cut a seven-point Kentucky lead to three, and Staley didn’t scream, harangue or threaten to pull scholarships. She asked her players what they expected from another SEC opponent, one that has turned into a rival in recent seasons, and then challenged them.
Mitchell shrugged off the injury, drove baseline and hit from the back side. A Kentucky miss became Welch feeding Ibiam. The Wildcats’ Azia Bishop stuck a shot to edge back in front 40-39, then Mitchell hit a free throw to tie the game.
“It’s not often we give up 38 points in a half,” Welch said. “It was just a matter of finishing, really. We missed a lot of layups.”
The shots began to fall, as did Sessions’ third 3 with over 10 minutes to play. USC stretched the lead to as much as 11, Kentucky unable to hit from the field and fouls mounting, but when Alexis Jennings found the bottom of the net, it was 59-53.
The Wildcats’ Janee Thompson was tangled up on a loose ball and went to the floor. The junior’s horrific injury – Kentucky announced a dislocated left ankle – shook each bench, and the Wildcats couldn’t recover.
USC stretched the lead to 61-53 as Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell slammed a towel on the scorer’s table, stomping his feet at a no-call. One technical foul caused some strong language, and the second tech sent him to the locker room for what is believed to be the first ejection of his Kentucky tenure. Tiffany Mitchell aced four free throws to push the game out of reach.
The Wildcats challenged the Gamecocks more than they have been this year, but the Gamecocks answered.
“It’s a tough, slug-out, SEC basketball game,” Staley said. “I’m glad we played at home, in front of 17,000, to will us to a win.”
Sessions scored 12. The Gamecocks’ forwards didn’t blow up the stat sheets, but the team had 55 rebounds and scored 36 in the paint. Mitchell finished with 19, skipping the post-game media session for treatment due to a draining afternoon.
“Probably knocked some things back in place, so she’s doing pretty good,” Staley joked. “With Tiff, I’ll even take her bad halves, because you know good halves are going to follow.”
Note: Freshman forward Jatarie White played five minutes and blocked one shot with three rebounds. She missed nine straight games with a stress fracture in her foot.