The South Carolina women's basketball team inched it's way closer to being considered a 'bubble' team for the NCAA Tournament after Thursday's 66-61 upset over #15 Kentucky at the Colonial Life Arena. Carolina is now 14-10, 6-5 in the SEC. Ieasia Walker and La'Keisha Sutton each scored 17 points as the Gamecocks continuously attacked the basket.
"We wanted to attack the basket and use our speed," Walker said. "We thought we were quicker than the guards that were guarding us so we took advantage of the mismatch."
South Carolina used an up-tempo style to avoid that Kentucky press that has wreaked havoc on many opponents. The Wildcats force 25 turnovers per game, and then uses those turnovers to help an offense that averages 74 points per game. The Wildcats were unsuccessful with either on Thursday. South Carolina only turned the ball over 14 and actually outscored Kentucky on points off turnovers, 21-13.
"I think our players really made a concerted effort to take care of the ball, and when we didn't take care of the ball defend our turnovers," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Throughout the course of the game I thought we did a tremendous job of taking care of the ball and if we did turn it over we defended or turned them over. If you look at the stat sheet we scored more points off of their turnovers. Sometimes when you give a team their strength back at them sometimes they don't handle that part well. I thought our players executed the gameplan to a tee - very little lapses in the game. They were up to the challenge and when they put their minds to doing things you can see where they could be very, very successful."
Carolina trailed 12-8 early, but Markeshia Grant came off the bench to spark a rally. Grant scored eight of South Carolina's next 10 points as the Gamecocks reversed the four point deficit on Kentucky and led 18-14. Grant finished the game with 12 points. South Carolina would never trail again as they fought off several Wildcat runs to stay out in front.
"Markeshia played great," Staley said. "She's very confident - she knows she's going to play. When you know you're going to play your psyche is going to be a little bit different and your focus is a little bit different. You couldn't ask for more from her coming off the bench."
One of the key match-ups was going to be how to defend the defending SEC Player of the Year, Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap. Dunlap entered the game averaging 18 points per game, but Carolina completely shut her down in the first half. Dunlap ended the half with just two points. Dunlap had 13 for the game, but most of those came late as Kentucky tried to get back in the game.
"I told our post players they couldn't have played better defense against her," Staley said. "What we tried to do is make her into a jump shooter and just sit on her right hand and make her do something different than driving to the basket. It was totally remarkable what they did on that match-up."
After trailing most of the second half around 10, Dunlap and defending SEC Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies put the 'Cats on their backs over the final three minutes. The duo scored the final 13 Kentucky points to help the the Wildcats hang around, but the Gamecocks were able to make their free throws down the stretch. South Carolina made 11-of-12 free throws during that time frame to salt the game away. For the game, the Gamecocks made 16-of-21 (76%).
"It's always an emphasis to make free throws," Walker said. "We always shoot a lot of free throws during practice so we're going to keep doing that because it seems like a lot of our games come down to free throws."
South Carolina has won four out of their last six games, including wins over ranked opponents Georgia and Kentucky. Including wins over LSU and Arkansas, the Gamecocks have won four games over potential NCAA teams. Before the Gamecocks can get too excited, they need to look back to last season. The Gamecocks were 6-5 and had three of their final five at home. The Gamecocks lost all three home games and four of five to end the season on a sour note.
"We're just taking it one game at a time," Staley said. "I don't want to get ahead of ourselves because if you look back on last year we were in this position right here. For us we're just going to focus on Mississippi State at this point."
South Carolina will hit the road for its next two games. They will travel to Starkville Sunday to take on Mississippi State before heading up to Rocky Top to take on the #5 Tennessee Vols. Tip for Sunday's game is set for 2:00 and will televised by the SEC Network.
SEC Standings (After Thursday's games)
Tennessee - 11-0
Georgia - 8-3
Vanderbilt - 8-3
Kentucky - 7-4
LSU - 7-5
Auburn - 6-5
South Carolina - 6-5
Arkansas - 4-7
Florida - 4-8
Mississippi - 3-8
Mississippi State - 2-9
Alabama - 1-10
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