Kentucky breezed into Colonial Life Arena on Thursday with two 100-point performances, averaging more than 80 points per game and had but one loss on the season — to top-ranked Baylor.
During their 17-game winning streak, the No. 5 Wildcats made their bones by breaking the backs of their opponents. Facing one of the most physical teams in the nation, USC women’s coach Dawn Staley knew the Wildcats were going to punch her Gamecocks in the mouth.
“You have to hit first,” Staley said.
USC did that. And the No. 18 Gamecocks also landed the final blow.
USC 55, Kentucky 50.
“Give all the credit to South Carolina tonight,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “They clearly wanted the game more. They played so hard and I just don’t know how much more we could compliment them.”
After a season of near-misses against ranked opponents, including a nail-biting loss against then-No. 1 Stanford, USC made certain Thursday would not be about moral victories.
It was hard to tell what tone the game would take by halftime, however. The two teams were knotted at 19-19 and showed no ability to make a shot from the field. Kentucky had shot 24.2 percent to USC’s 27.6.
But both teams picked up the pace during a rollercoaster second half. Twice, Kentucky pushed ahead to a six-point lead only to have USC reel it in. It was the type of answer USC offered all season as long as the game was not on the line. In crunch time against ranked foes Stanford and Georgia, the Gamecocks crumbled.
On Thursday during the second of those deficits, USC answered the bell.
Trailing 40-34, the Gamecocks went on a 10-2 run with two points each from five players. When Kentucky knotted the game at 44-44 with a pair of free throws, USC responded with eight consecutive points for a 52-44 lead with 3:34 remaining.
Clamping down once more on defense, USC was able to maintain its lead the rest of the way.
A big part of the Gamecocks’ success was the work done by Sancheon White against Kentucky’s leading scorer, A’dia Mathies, who scored Kentucky’s final eight points, but had four until that time.
Another unlikely standout for USC was Elem Ibiam, who had eight points and eight rebounds, including a big basket and rebound during the eight-point run that gave USC the lead for good.
“I was asking for (the ball) pretty much all week in practices,” Ibiam said. “I focused on me asking for the ball in the lane and being ready when it’s time.”
Ieasia Walker led USC (17-3, 5-2 in SEC) with 16 points and contributed eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Aleighsa Welch added 11 points and seven rebounds. White had no points, but her defense against Mathies was worth a double-double.
“It feels great. All our losses are to ranked teams,” Walker said. “To finally get a win like this means a lot.”
Mathies got her 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting and four free throws. Jennifer O’Neill led Kentucky (18-2, 6-1) with 17 points, but just six came after halftime.
After losing at then-No. 13 Georgia 42-40 on Jan. 13, Staley theorized if such a physical, defensive game was played at Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks would have prevailed.
That theory was proven on Thursday night.
“It was. I think the crowd was a huge lift for us, especially when we didn’t score as much as we would have liked,” Staley said. “The crowd really put the life back into us. We came up with some big plays and fed off the energy in the building.”
Walker 1-2 2-6 4, Stallworth 6-11 0-0 12, O'Neill 6-16 1-1 17, Mathies 4-14 4-4 12, Goss 1-7 0-0 2, Thompson 0-0 0-0 0, Pinkett 0-0 0-0 0, Drake 0-1 0-0 0, Evans 1-3 0-0 3, Henderson 0-4 0-0 0, Bishop 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-58 7-11 50.
SOUTH CAROLINA (17-3)
Bruner 2-9 1-4 5, Welch 4-7 3-5 11, Walker 5-11 5-8 16, White 0-6 0-0 0, Mitchell 2-7 2-4 7, Sessions 3-8 2-4 8, Ibiam 4-5 0-2 8. Totals 20-53 13-27 55.
Halftime: Tied 19-19. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 5-15 (O'Neill 4-9, Evans 1-2, Goss 0-1, Mathies 0-3), South Carolina 2-6 (Mitchell 1-1, Walker 1-3, Sessions 0-1, White 0-1). Fouled Out: O'Neill, Stallworth. Rebounds: Kentucky 41 (Stallworth 10), South Carolina 40 (Ibiam, Walker 8). Assists: Kentucky 11 (Mathies, Stallworth 3), South Carolina 8 (Walker 4). Total Fouls: Kentucky 21, South Carolina 15. Attendance: 3,149.