Who: No. 13 South Carolina (19-6, 11-1 SEC) vs. No. 16 Kentucky (21-5 8-4 SEC)
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Watch: SEC Network
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Series history: South Carolina trails Kentucky in the all-time series, 31-33, but has won nine in a row against the Wildcats and has not lost to UK at home since January 2012.
Last meeting: Earlier this season, South Carolina traveled to Lexington and overcame a sluggish start and sloppy finish to beat Kentucky, 74-70. Alexis Jennings led the Gamecocks with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
Kentucky projected starting lineup: Senior guard Maci Morris, senior guard Taylor Murray, freshman guard Rhyne Howard, sophomore forward Tatyana Wyatt, sophomore forward KeKe McKinney
Lessons from last time: When the Gamecocks and Wildcats faced off on Jan. 31, South Carolina led by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter and seemed well on its way to a statement win before Kentucky mounted a furious 24-11 run to end the game, closing to within three points in the final seconds and giving USC a bit of a scare.
What particularly concerned coach Dawn Staley after the game were the three turnovers Carolina committed in the final 1:02 of the game, giving Kentucky life when the final result should have been settled.
Looking ahead to Thursday’s game, however, Staley expressed confidence that those issues won’t repeat themselves.
“That’s really uncharacteristic of us, so hopefully it doesn’t rear its ugly head again,” Staley said. “I think we’re at a good place. They’re locked in. We got players, we can go 12, 13 deep with a team like this and hopefully we’ll find somebody on the bench that’s going to be able to execute.”
That sentiment was seconded by redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings.
“I felt like we could have done a better job of boxing out. Late in the game, they got some key rebounds, they cut the lead and they got them pretty close, but we’ve capitalized on that and we’ve had two great days of preparation, so I feel like we’re going to do really well going into the game,” Jennings said.
Post play vs. guards: South Carolina has built a reputation as a guard-oriented team this season, using three point guards in its starting five. But Kentucky is one of the few teams in the SEC against which the Gamecocks are better served focusing on their forwards, especially on offense, Staley said.
“That is our advantage, to play in the paint, pound it in there, see if they can stop us. They do have some really good guards that put us back on our heels and they can knock down 3-point shots, so they can spread you out,” Staley said.
Chief among those guards for Kentucky is freshman Rhyne Howard, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. Containing her was an emphasis in the teams’ first meeting, and it will be so again on Thursday.
“I thought we had her under control for the most part, and then towards the end of the game, she hit some big shots for them,” Staley said of the first matchup. “She was just who we saw on film.”
For South Carolina, Jennings will be relied upon to keep up her strong play of late — against UK on Jan. 31, she had 18 points, and this past Sunday against Florida, she had a season-high 22 points. Of her last eight games, she’s scored in double figures in seven.
“I’m feeling really comfortable. My teammates are finding me in good positions, and when they put me in good positions I’m able to do good things, so I’m very grateful for that,” Jennings said.
At the other forward position for USC, junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan has regressed slightly after putting up eight double-digit scoring performances in a row earlier this year. Over her last five games, she’s averaged 6.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game, all below her season average.
“Just emotionally, she’s been inconsistent with how she’s been able to let things roll off her back and continue to play,” Staley said. “I think she’s feeling a little bit of pressure to perform. And you want that, you don’t want her to lie down and die. She wants to do something about it, and she gets pretty frustrated when she’s not able to hit shots like she normally does. But I think there’s other areas in the game in which she can be productive — rebounding and defending. She’s making a concerted effort to do that in practice at least.”
Postseason positioning: USC is locked into a top-four spot in the SEC standings, guaranteeing Staley’s team a double-bye in the conference tourney. Defeating Kentucky would ensure the Gamecocks could finish no worse than second in the league.
It would also give South Carolina a pair of wins against the same ranked opponent and bolster the team’s momentum heading into a final stretch in which it is trying to secure a top-16 hosting seed and favorable regional in the NCAA tournament.
“I like to play teams that have a high RPI, that’s a tournament team. I like to play them twice because they can boost your schedule,” Staley said of playing Kentucky again. “They can boost your RPI, they can make your profile, your resume look a lot better than if you played somebody that’s not a winning basketball team.”