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By Boyd Hayes | @KernelHayes
There is a new rivalry cooking in the SEC pot.
The chefs: head coaches Matthew Mitchell and Dawn Staley. The main ingredients: their teams, No. 4/5 UK Hoops (18-1, 6-0 SEC) and No. 18 South Carolina (16-3, 4-2 SEC).
“I think that this is really becoming one of the most hotly contested rivalries in our conference,” Mitchell said. “We play South Carolina two times every year and as you go back and review the history of these games over the past five or six years, it’s two teams that really, really play hard and get after each other.”
The teams match up like two heavyweights, punch for punch. Both have been known for their guard play and tight defense, and that continues to be true this season. Playing each other twice per year has familiarized the two opponents.
“It appears that the players have great respect for each other and play real hard and compete really hard,” Mitchell said.
One player South Carolina will recognize is UK senior guard A’dia Mathies. The SEC veteran has been on fire lately, scoring a combined 45 points in the Cats’ last two games. Even more impressive, she shot 60 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from three-point range during that stretch, stats that helped her get SEC Player of the Week honors.
Mathies doesn’t under estimate South Carolina, however.
“Every year we play them, I know they have great guard play. They remind us a lot of ourselves,” Mathies said. “They’re very quick.They’ve got good post players, good rebounders. They’re an overall good team and a great coach.”
The two teams will pit their strong defenses against each other.
The Gamecocks have held 18 of their 19 opponents this season to fewer than 60 points, landing them at first in the SEC in opponent scoring at 47.6 per game. The Cats, on the other hand, lead the nation in turnover margin at +10.47.
The difference is that the Gamecocks, though able to keep their opponents’ scores low, have been struggling to score themselves, only scoring 61.2 points per game. Conversely, UK is having one of its best offensive seasons to date, placing second in the SEC at 79.3 points per game.
“I just think we’re more gifted offensively this year,” Mitchell said. “Our starting five, when you have those five kids on the floor, all five of them can put the ball in the basket.”
Whether it comes down to whose defense plays the toughest or who can pull in the most rebounds, this game is certain to continue a rivalry that grows more contentious with every meeting. The two similar teams may prove who is tougher.
“This will be a real test for us,” Mitchell said. “One of the toughest defenses we’ve gone up against in quite some time. We will have to put everything we can into this one and play extremely well to earn a victory at South Carolina tomorrow night.”
The Cats and the Gamecocks will tip at 7 p.m. on Thursday, and the game will be televised on Fox Sports South.