Kentucky’s PA played “Under Pressure” as South Carolina was being introduced on Thursday. Perhaps a tribute to the late David Bowie; most likely some gamesmanship, reminding the No. 2 Gamecocks what Memorial Coliseum has done to them.
Pressure creates diamonds.
Or in this case, pearls.
The Gamecocks’ A’ja Wilson, last season’s SEC Freshman of the Year never seen in public without a string of the white jewels around her neck, shouldered USC in a 73-62 comeback win over the No. 9 Wildcats on Thursday, avenging last year’s loss in Memorial Coliseum and keeping the Gamecocks perfect. Wilson, a year after clinching the FOY prize with an incendiary performance in a losing cause at Memorial, improved the Gamecocks to 2-6 in the building under Dawn Staley with 26 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high eight blocks.
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She shrugged it off, saying she didn’t know how close she was to a triple-double and describing her defense as, “you know you’re just going to have to kind of swat here and there, hopefully don’t draw a foul.” The Wildcats (13-2, 2-2 SEC) filled in the rest.
“That’s NBA numbers,” guard Makayla Epps said.
The Gamecocks (16-0, 4-0) were out of sync in the first half, doing the same things they had done in last year’s loss. Guards couldn’t get the ball inside without it being touched or deflected, posts wouldn’t take the ball up aggressively when they did and USC couldn’t slow down Kentucky’s transition offense.
A team that plays one woman 6-foot-3 or above was thrashing USC (with three players 6-4 or above) in the paint. With Tiffany Mitchell on the bench with two fouls, the Gamecocks were staring at their biggest deficit of the season.
“When we’re taking unexpected shots, turning the ball over, it’s really hard,” Staley said. “Their strength is pushing the ball. You have to adjust.”
USC began to climb back in it by narrowing the halftime deficit to four, and then turned to its greatest weapon. Wilson had had a strong first half, but now it was time to take over.
“It’s the system of the game – if someone’s hot, you go to them,” Wilson said. “And you just keep going.”
The Gamecocks asserted their advantage in the paint. They began getting back on defense, the Wildcats suddenly finding the 6-5 Wilson standing there with arms up when they tried to slice into the paint. She wasn’t swatting shots – she was volleyball-spiking them, and then finding the rebounds for transition points.
Khadijah Sessions began driving the lane with Mitchell doing the same, and the Gamecocks took their first lead at the end of the third. Starting the fourth ahead 51-50, USC sensed the momentum swinging – and wasn’t about to let it go the other way.
“They had A’ja Wilson,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell sighed, “and we didn’t.”
The Gamecocks eked ahead, saw Janee Thompson tie the game with a 3-pointer and then stomped on the gas. Sessions hit a 3, Alaina Coates grabbed rebounds and through it all was Wilson, doing whatever had to be done.
She also had two assists and a steal. Outside of bricking five free throws, it was a career performance. “I just think that was kind of the game plan,” she said.
Staley agreed, and added bad news for the SEC.
“Lot of times you see triple-doubles or close to triple-doubles in blowouts, but when you’re able to get close to it in a game of this magnitude, it really shows how special a player A’ja Wilson is,” she said. “And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The final plays of the third period, where Mitchell gave the Gamecocks their first lead, Batouly Camara took it back for the Wildcats and Wilson took it back for USC. Suddenly, the Gamecocks led for the first time all night and it was a 10-minute game.
Star of the game: Wilson. Epps said the closest thing Kentucky has to game-planning for her is to practice against 6-5 assistant coach Adeniyi Amadou.
Play of the game: Wilson put back a Sessions miss and was fouled, but she missed the and-1. Mitchell somehow got the rebound and threw it back in for a 67-58 lead with 4:38 to go.
Stat of the game: The Gamecocks won points in the paint 38-34. It was 24-12 Kentucky at halftime.
FROM THE BASELINE
OK, no more questions: There aren’t any more concerns that USC hasn’t played its best. If the Gamecocks can win at Memorial, which has given them the old-shoe treatment most of their stay in the SEC, they can win anywhere.
Tiebreakers: Long way to go, especially with another game against Kentucky, but winning the first on the road will loom once the SEC tournament comes around. And with Mississippi State losing on Thursday, USC is all alone in first place.
Who: South Carolina vs. Texas A&M
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
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No. 2 SOUTH CAROLINA 73, No. 9 KENTUCKY 62
SOUTH CAROLINA (16-0)
Wilson 11-16 4-9 26, Coates 3-4 3-4 9, Sessions 3-5 1-3 8, Mitchell 5-13 5-5 16, Dozier 0-2 0-0 0, Cuevas 0-7 2-2 2, Cliney 0-2 0-0 0, Roy 4-11 0-0 12, Imovbioh 0-2 0-2 0, White 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-63 15-25 73.
Jennings 2-9 4-4 8, Akhator 3-6 0-3 6, Thompson 7-15 0-1 16, Morris 2-6 0-0 5, Epps 6-15 4-6 16, Camara 3-7 1-2 7, Murray 1-3 2-2 4, Rice 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 24-64 11-18 62.