The Wildcats (5-7), who led by just two, 36-34, early in the second half, went on a pair of sizeable runs – 12-2 and 10-0, respectively - to go up 52-39 with 5:33 left in the game. Kentucky hung on for the win with strong free-throw shooting, connecting on 6-of-6 charity shots in the game's final 18 seconds for the win.
"We are very happy to win this game," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It was our first road win this year. We didn't have an easy travel day yesterday and to get a win here is good for us."
Watkins tied Kentucky's school record for free-throw percentage in a game (minimum 10 attempts), going a career-best 13-of-13 from the charity stripe en route to a career-best 17 points. She has now connected on 17 consecutive free throws, dating back to the Cats' Dec. 20 game vs. Louisville.
"I don't know if we win this game without Lydia Watkins," Mitchell said. "She played with fire and passion and is doing a great job. She was a huge, huge factor in this game tonight and I'm real proud of her."
Chowning hit two three pointers and brought down a career-high seven rebounds.
"I am so proud of Chelsea," Mitchell said. "She is a joy to coach and knows what it takes to win. She didn't play a minutes vs. Old Dominion and you would have thought she played 40. She is a great representative for UK. It was just a match-up situation against Old Dominion. . I told her that there will be nights when she plays 35 minutes and nights when she plays none. It just shows you how mentally tough she is to bounce back from that."
Senior center Sarah Elliott (McKee, Ky.) scored 15 points to notch her third consecutive double-digit point performance – her ninth such performance in 12 games this season. Senior guard Samantha Mahoney (Detroit) also finished in double figures with 11 points and tied her season high with seven rebounds. Freshman point guard Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.) recorded a career-high two blocks in her fourth career start.
Kentucky's bench out-scored the South Alabama (10-3) bench 27-21 and the Wildcats scored 14 points off of 15 turnovers by the Lady Jaguars. UK out-rebounded 45-35 in the game.
The Wildcats limited South Alabama to 33.9 percent (20-of-59) shooting from the floor in the game, including a 25.9 percent clip in the opening period. Kentucky shot 37.7 percent (20-of-53) from the field.
Kentucky broke to a 9-2 advantage to begin the game after six consecutive points by Elliott before South Alabama went on an 11-2 run of their own to take a 13-11 lead with 7:41 remaining in the opening half. That run prompted Mitchell to burn a timeout that inspired the Cats to an 11-0 run of their own that included a pair of three-pointers by Chowning to allow UK to reclaim the lead at 22-13 with 4:33 left until intermission. The Lady Jaguars closed out the half on a 9-4 streak as the Wildcats took a 26-22 advantage into the locker room at intermission.
Kentucky limited USA to 25.9 percent (7-of-27) shooting in the opening period, but the Lady Jaguars hung around in the game by forcing the Wildcats into 12 first-half turnovers.
The Wildcats opened the second half on a 6-0 tear that included a pair of baskets by Elliott to go ahead 32-22 with 17:31 to go in the game. South Alabama responded by whittling its deficit down to two, 36-34, after a 12-2 run over the next 4:09. Leading 42-39, Kentucky went on a 10-0 run to extend its advantage to 52-39 with 5:33 left in the game after a basket by Smith. Back-to-back baskets by the Lady Jaguars allowed them to come within nine, 60-51, with 26 seconds left, but the Cats' solid free-throw shooting allowed them to hang on for the win.
Kentucky rings in the New Year by facing Xavier on Tuesday, Jan. 1. Tip-off in Memorial Coliseum is slated for 7 p.m. EST and the game will be carried live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio) with Neil Price.
UK Hoops down South Alabama 66-56
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