Second time wasn’t the charm.
Third time was.
South Carolina’s second try at reaching the SEC tournament championship game fizzled out on Saturday as Kentucky beat the No. 5 Gamecocks 68-58, the No. 12 Wildcats’ first win over USC in three tries this year. Kentucky (24-7) will make its second straight appearance in the title game while the Gamecocks will head home and wait for their NCAA tournament destination.
The last time these two teams played, USC ran Kentucky off its home court 81-58. It was the Wildcats’ worst loss of the season.
Holding that memory – and game tape of USC’s 68-59 win in Columbia – the Wildcats corrected their flaws, controlled the game from the start and sent USC packing. The sub-freezing shooting that dogged Kentucky in each of those two games was left behind as the Wildcats shot 42.4 percent.
“We’re disappointed in losing the basketball game but more disappointed in how we played,” coach Dawn Staley said. “That’s the first I’ve seen our team play this poorly all season long. The first half was one we couldn’t recover from.”
The Gamecocks tried to do what they’ve done all year – work the ball inside, then take advantage of the collapsing defense by letting their guards slash or shoot jumpers. Kentucky began swarming Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates whenever they got the ball, and with SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell again unable to hit anything outside the paint, Kentucky took advantage.
USC’s interior passes became turnovers, and its transition defense was nearly non-existent. The Wildcats pushed inside for layups, and when USC employed its zone defense to stop it, Kentucky hit the outside shots that it couldn’t hit in the regular season.
The Gamecocks hung in, but Kentucky’s initial burst was enough to propel it to the championship game. USC shot 44.2 percent, took much better care of the ball after 11 first-half turnovers, improved its free throw shooting from Friday – and lost.
“It was all us. All us making really uncharacteristic decisions with the basketball,” Staley said. “It came from mainly our starting five, with the exception of Elem (Ibiam).”
Ibiam sparkled with 16 points, going 7-of-10 from the field, but Aleighsa Welch had 12 (held back by 4-10 from the line) and Tiffany Mitchell had 11 on 4-12 shooting. Alaina Coates had a mere six.
“I think we were just playing a little too fast,” Welch said.
The NCAA tournament will announce its field on March 17. The Gamecocks are in contention for one of the top four national seeds, but after losing two of their past three games, may be beaten out. Tennessee is making a hard charge to be a No. 1 seed and beat the Gamecocks to close the regular season.
Staley isn’t thinking about it. The Gamecocks won 27 games to four losses and the SEC regular-season championship. She’s hoping that being the best over 16 games weighs more than being the best over three.
The Gamecocks were also hoping that their not-great two days in Duluth were simply a product of playing in a strange gym. Since they’ll play in strange gyms for the duration of the season, it’s a concern.
“They need to feel the disappointment in this loss,” Staley said. “If we perform this way again, it will be a huge disappointment for our season. We’ve got a few weeks to figure it out and try to rectify that.”
Stallworth 5-14 2-5 12, Walker 3-6 0-0 6, Thompson 0-2 0-0 0, Goss 3-7 6-7 14, Evans 1-2 3-4 5, O'Neill 3-6 0-0 7, Pinkett 0-0 0-0 0, Sidney 0-0 0-0 0, Harper 5-9 2-6 12, Epps 4-9 1-3 10, Bishop 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 25-59 14-25 68.
SOUTH CAROLINA (27-4)
Welch 4-8 4-10 12, Dozier 0-7 0-0 0, Ibiam 7-10 2-2 16, Sessions 1-3 0-0 2, Mitchell 4-12 2-2 11, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Montout 1-1 0-0 2, Davis 1-1 0-0 2, Morrison 1-1 0-0 2, Roy 2-4 0-0 5, Coates 2-5 2-4 6. Totals 23-52 10-18 58.
Halftime_Kentucky 37-29. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 4-9 (Goss 2-3, O'Neill 1-1, Epps 1-3, Thompson 0-1, Evans 0-1), South Carolina 2-10 (Roy 1-2, Mitchell 1-2, Sessions 0-2, Dozier 0-4). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Kentucky 34 (Walker 6), South Carolina 39 (Coates 9). Assists_Kentucky 11 (Epps, Harper, O'Neill, Thompson 2), South Carolina 12 (Mitchell, Welch 3). Total Fouls_Kentucky 18, South Carolina 19.