The Gamecocks (20-8, 9-6 SEC) got huge nights from their post players, including Ashley Bruner's double-double, but the Wildcats sealed the game at the free throw line and defended the final in-bounds play to preserve their victory and remain undefeated at home this season.
The game was a flurry of activity in the first half with both teams either scoring or turning it over. The Gamecock offense was off and running first, opening an 8-5 lead behind a pair of baskets from the right block from Charenee Stephens and scores from La'Keisha Sutton and Ebony Wilson.
The lead stretched to 13-9 with 10:54 left in the half as Ashley Bruner scored three straight points. Kentucky answered with seven straight points thanks to a turnover and a couple defensive rebounds. South Carolina's guards answered immediately with the game's next eight points.
Markeshia Grant's baskets book-ended the run with Ieasia Walker driving for a score and Sutton hitting a transition layup in between. Meanwhile, the defense was keeping the Wildcats off the scoreboard for over six minutes, forcing tough shots and crashing the boards to prevent second-chance opportunities. Kentucky returned the favor in the final five minutes of the half, though, to take a 23-21 lead into the locker room.
The second half was just as frenetic as the first as neither team could wrest control through much of the period. Kentucky had better luck putting together back-to-back scores, though, and crept out to a 33-27 lead as the Gamecocks turned it over on three straight possessions. South Carolina would not go away, scrapping for every possession and every basket, many of which came from Stephens and Bruner who were pounding defenders inside.
Kentucky took a nine-point lead, 48-39, with 4:59 to play, and the Gamecocks kept up the pressure. Bruner sored on the right block, and, following a defensive rebound, Stephens drove across the lane for a bucket to get South Carolina within five with 4:12 on the clock. A'dia Mathies beat the Gamecocks' fullcourt pressure for a layup, but Walker took the ball to the rim on the next possession and drew a foul, hitting one of her two free throws. South Carolina forced a turnover and went right back inside to Stephens for a basket, making it a 50-46 game with 2:50 to play.
Both teams turned it over on their next possessions, and Bruner came up big on the defensive glass on Kentucky's next trip up the floor. She followed that with an offensive rebound and put back on the other end to close the gap to 50-48 with 42 seconds on the clock. The Wildcats survived the Gamecock pressure and hit three free throws to go up 53-48 with 4.2 seconds to play.
Still believing, South Carolina did not give up and nearly stole one on a Wildcat miscue. As Kentucky went for the steal on the in-bounds pass, the player called timeout when the team did not have any left. Sutton stepped up and hit both resulting free throws to pull within three with 3.1 seconds on the clock. The Gamecocks got the ball back, but had to go the full length of the floor and hit a 3 to force overtime. The long in-bounds pass did not find its target, however, and Kentucky escaped with the win.
Sutton led the offense with 14 points and was second on the team with six rebounds. Bruner's 11 rebounds led the way on the glass, and she added 13 points, many of which came from her six offensive rebounds.
Stephens joined the duo in double figures, netting 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting. The Gamecocks out-shot the Wildcats 44.2 percent to 39.2 percent from the field, although Kentucky hit one 3-pointer to none for South Carolina. The Gamecocks won the battle in the paint, out-scoring the Wildcats 42-30. Kentucky could point to an extra eight points from the free throw line as its deciding factor in the game.
The Gamecocks close out their regular season with a 2 p.m. game against Arkansas on Sun., Feb. 26, at Colonial Life Arena. South Carolina will honor its five seniors - Grant, Courtney Newton, Stephens, Sutton and Wilson - approximately 20 minutes before tipoff.
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