Perhaps it was best this way.
South Carolina was kicking No. 9 Kentucky black and blue, leading by 22 points with 9:06 to go. The Wildcats couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn as the No. 10 Gamecocks were owning the paint on each end of the floor. The win already was being celebrated.
The win was still celebrated, 68-59. The Gamecocks won a home matchup of top-10 teams for the first time since 2001-02. And they won it by weathering a massive Kentucky charge in the final nine minutes.
The indifference of the final nine minutes will be addressed. But the immediate aftermath of Thursday couldn’t be anything but jubilation.
“Truly proud of our players,” coach Dawn Staley said. “They’ve worked so hard all season long. That’s a great win for our program.”
The Gamecocks (15-1, 3-0 SEC) beat a perpetual nemesis and are tied for first place in the SEC with Florida. They should be favored in each of their next eight games. The possibility of winning an SEC championship is brightly glimmering.
But too much that went wrong in the final nine minutes to overlook.
“We knew Kentucky had a run in them,” Aleighsa Welch said. “We knew we had to tighten up.”
Tiffany Mitchell’s free-throw shooting, a stickback in traffic from Alaina Coates and a Mitchell steal and pass to Olivia Gaines for a layup tightened the screws on the victory. USC wasn’t happy that it let the Wildcats (13-3, 1-2) back in the game, but it was pleased to get the win after the Wildcats imposed their game from the tip.
The Gamecocks backed down early trying to deal with Kentucky’s frenetic style. They weren’t going to their go-to offense — working the ball inside — and they weren’t defending the paint as the Wildcats’ mix of speedy guards and bullish forwards did what they pleased.
USC got a spark from point guard Khadijah Sessions, playing for the first time in six games, when she drained the first shot she took for three points. Then, as Kentucky missed shot after shot despite penetrating the paint, the Gamecocks began hitting.
Tina Roy exploded for 11 points, all in the first half, as she played several minutes at point guard and drove Kentucky’s defenders into her helping teammates, leaving her an open look. The Gamecocks led by 10 at the half and dominated the first 10 minutes of the second half before Kentucky found its missing shooting touch.
Four Wildcats were in double figures despite their lowest point total and lowest shooting percentage of the season, and after Janee Thompson repeated a second-half theme of driving the lane and sinking a host, it was 59-51. Kentucky had run off 19 points to USC’s five.
The Colonial Life Arena crowd (5,689) got behind the Gamecocks, though, and after a few missed shots from the field and line, USC hit enough and got enough stops to match Staley’s best SEC start.
“Kentucky was doing to us kind of what we did to them to get that lead,” Staley said.
When it was over, Coates had a USC freshman-record 17 rebounds. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots, six from Elem Ibiam and four from Coates. Mitchell led USC with 17 points, Welch had 16 and two more were in double figures.
They’ll take it.
“You have to attack that pressure or else they’ll do it all night long,” Staley said. “We were confident. We didn’t make all the right decisions, but we made enough right decisions to get us the ballgame.”
Stallworth 5-9 1-4 11, Walker 4-8 4-5 12, Thompson 5-9 2-3 12, Goss 1-7 0-0 2, Evans 2-10 0-0 5, O'Neill 1-13 3-4 5, Pinkett 0-1 0-0 0, Sidney 0-0 0-0 0, Harper 0-4 0-0 0, Epps 0-1 0-0 0, Bishop 5-11 2-6 12. Totals 23-73 12-22 59.
SOUTH CAROLINA (15-1)
Welch 5-10 6-9 16, Dozier 0-6 0-0 0, Ibiam 4-8 1-1 9, Davis 0-2 0-0 0, Mitchell 5-11 7-8 17, Gaines 1-1 0-0 2, Sessions 1-3 0-2 3, Roy 5-10 0-3 11, Coates 3-9 4-7 10. Totals 24-60 18-30 68.
Halftime_South Carolina 34-24. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 1-8 (Evans 1-3, Epps 0-1, O'Neill 0-1, Bishop 0-1, Goss 0-2), South Carolina 2-7 (Sessions 1-2, Roy 1-3, Dozier 0-1, Mitchell 0-1). Fouled Out_Stallworth, Thompson. Rebounds_Kentucky 43 (Bishop 11), South Carolina 53 (Coates 17). Assists_Kentucky 10 (Evans, Goss, Thompson 2), South Carolina 14 (Dozier 4). Total Fouls_Kentucky 26, South Carolina 17. Attendance: 5,689.