It’s just that they don’t send each other Christmas cards.
South Carolina and Kentucky respect each other. They’re similar programs – neither team was doing much before their current coaches were hired, and since then it’s been a lot of hard work leading to a lot of wins. Each has claimed an SEC championship, each has advanced to at least the Elite Eight.
It’s just that they don’t go fishing together.
“Especially when I came in, I was told they were our rival,” Gamecock center Alaina Coates said, “so it was just embedded into my brain that we don’t like Kentucky, so when we play them, that’s what it is.”
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“Seems like Kentucky has some sort of target on our backs. I don’t know what everybody has against us,” Wildcat guard Makayla Epps said. “It’s rough out there; it’s tough out there. Some things might get said out there, but that’s heat of the moment, heat of the game.”
Since being paired as permanent rivals, ensuring that they’ll play at least twice per season, USC and Kentucky have played physical, hard-fought games. “Bitter” and “aggressive” could also be thrown in there. Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell holds a 9-6 lead over Dawn Staley since they’ve been competing with each other in the SEC, but USC has won four of the last seven.
It would have been five but the Gamecocks were thumped 67-56 last year in Lexington to close the regular season, denying them a perfect 16-0 SEC record. There was an excuse – star Aleighsa Welch was fighting a stomach bug – but USC also missed 18 shots in the paint against a Wildcats team that had just that week told its coach the season was about to fall off a cliff.
Think that’s on a few minds, especially with how the series went last year? Each team won a game but Mitchell was ejected in the first, a USC win, after throwing a tantrum (Mitchell later thanked USC’s medical staff for taking care of Wildcat Janee Thompson, who was lost for the year with a broken leg and dislocated ankle). Staley apologized after the last game for questioning a late timeout in Kentucky’s win, thinking that Mitchell was trying to rub it in.
“The root canal … Columbia, the root canal,” Mitchell said of Thursday’s game in Lexington, after being reminded he had compared games at USC to a dental appointment. “Maybe something less. Maybe you’re getting a filling or something. Root canals are tough, and South Carolina is tough. And they always are tough.”
The No. 9 Wildcats (13-1, 2-1 SEC) have earned kudos for taking a thin bench (four players left the team either before or during the early season) and beating solid competition, their one loss to Auburn. The No. 2 Gamecocks, two-time SEC regular-season champs and gunning for a third, are 15-0 and have won their three conference games by an average of 29.3 points.
It’s Kentucky’s system (”40 Minutes of Dread,” featuring constant running) vs. USC’s galaxy of stars. The Gamecocks have the revenge storyline, the Wildcats the underdog.
“It kept us from being outright league champions. That’s definitely adding fuel to the fire,” Coates said. “Especially on their home court, because they really did a number on us last year. We wanted to show up and give the message that it’s not going to happen again.”
“I give them loads of respect,” Epps said. “We’re a really good team; I don’t know if they respect us, but maybe we could change that tomorrow night if they don’t.”
USC hasn’t been at its best 100 percent of the season but has still beat everyone it’s played. Tiffany Mitchell is back to her usual take-over-if-necessary self, Coates and A’ja Wilson are handling the block and if the Gamecocks play anything close to the first-half defense they released on Missouri, Kentucky’s in for a long night.
“We’re looking back at that game and taking it personally, and going in and try to get a win this time,” Khadijah Sessions said. “We just like to play Kentucky. We love the atmosphere that they bring when we go there.”
The Wildcats’ ferocious style affected USC last year, Coates shooting 1-of-7. After a Mizzou game where the Gamecocks won by 25 but still missed 11 shots in the paint, to repeat it in Lexington makes it an extensive evening for USC.
“They’re not like a lot of post players that we meet, but I feel like we have a good chance,” Alexis Jennings said. “We’re ready to compete with them.”
Each team has bigger rivals (Clemson, Louisville) but they’re not in conference. Coates described Kentucky as the Gamecocks’ biggest out-of-state rival, and the memory of that one loss still stings.
“It’s been in the back of people’s heads. I feel like it was either a lack of energy or there was just too much energy,” Coates said. “We were thinking ahead, like we were trying to be outright champions, trying to go 16-0. There were all kinds of things that factored into all of it, and it just kind of messed with our game a little bit, us getting ahead of being in the moment.”
They’ll shake hands before tipoff.
But it’s just that they don’t eat Sunday dinner together.
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Gamecocks vs. Wildcats
Who: No. 2 South Carolina (15-0, 3-0 SEC) at No. 9 Kentucky (13-1, 2-1)
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Probable USC starters
G Khadijah Sessions,
5-8, Sr. (6.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
G Tiffany Mitchell,
5-9, Sr. (14.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
G Asia Dozier, 6-0,
Sr. (4.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg)
F A’ja Wilson, 6-5,
So. (15.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg)
C Alaina Coates, 6-4,
Jr. (12.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg)
Probable Kentucky starters
G Janee Thompson,
5-7, Sr. (12.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
G Makayla Epps,
5-10, Jr. (16.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
G Maci Morris,
6-0, Fr. (9.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg)
F Evelyn Akhator,
6-3, Jr. (12.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg)
F Alexis Jennings,
6-2, So. (10.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
South Carolina missed 18 shots in the paint in its loss to Kentucky last year. The Gamecocks also had a hard time in their last game against Missouri this year, missing 11.
Player / Missed shots
Alaina Coates 6
A’ja Wilson 5
Jatarie White 1
Elem Ibiam 1
Asia Dozier 2
Tiffany Mitchell 1
Khadijah Sessions 2
Player / Missed shots
Khadijah Sessions 3
A’ja Wilson 2
Doniyah Cliney 2
Jatarie White 1
Tiffany Mitchell 2
Bianca Cuevas 1