Staff report | @KyKernelSports
No. 18 South Carolina upset No. 5 UK Hoops, 55-50, in Columbia, S.C., Thursday night, giving the Cats their first loss since November.
In 40 minutes of what has become a contentious rivalry, defensive stalwarts South Carolina (16-3, 5-2 SEC) and UK (18-2, 6-1 SEC) went blow-for-blow, with the Gamecocks ultimately coming out on top.
“All the credit needs to go to South Carolina tonight,” said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell in a news release. “They just wanted the game more, and they really did play tough, tenacious and really physical basketball. We just weren’t as tough as them tonight.”
Competing with the Gamecocks’ defensive toughness is no small feat. South Carolina lead the SEC in opponent scoring, holding their opponents to 47.6 points per game.
That trend continued Thursday, as UK’s 50 points were the fewest the Cats have scored in a game this season, a minimum previously set in UK’s only other loss this season, an 85-51 defeat at No. 1 Baylor.
Eight minutes into the first half of play, the Cats carried a 12-6 lead, much on the backs of junior center DeNesha Stallworth and redshirt sophomore Jennifer O’Neill.
After taking the lead, however, the Cats suffered an eight-minute scoreless run.
With 3:50 left in the half, senior guard A’dia Mathies ended the Cats’ offensive drought, and the two teams entered the locker room tied up 19-19 at the half, with 11 of the Cats’ 19 points scored by O’Neill.
Mathies’ overall performance was modest in comparison to her last two outings, as she scored 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting (0-of-3 from 3-point range).
This after a 45-point run against Mississippi State and Auburn, in which she shot 60 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from behind the arc.
“They just played really good D and were committed to stopping her and really just (playing) all-around fantastic defense,” said Mitchell of the Gamecocks’ ability to hold Mathies to 12 points. “I don’t know that that is extraordinary for a team like South Carolina, who is so good on defense.”
Despite Mathies’ relatively limited performance and a 18-4 second-half run from the Gamecocks, the Cats were still within reach of the lead late, trailing 53-50 with 16.4 seconds to play.
South Carolina senior forward Ashley Bruner got her hands on a UK inbound pass in the final seconds to seal the deal and put the Cats away.
The Gamecocks’ top performer was senior guard Ieasia Walker, with 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
Sophomore forward Aleighsa Welch also had a strong night, collecting 11 points and seven boards.
“South Carolina just wanted to win the game, and they played much more physical, and when that happens then we get beat,” Mitchell said. “Our desire has been great all season, and we were just not up to match the physical challenge that South Carolina put on us.”
The Cats will have a chance to rebound Sunday as they return home to play LSU. Tip-off will be at 3 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum.
The game will be televised live on Sports South, Fox Sports Southwest and Sun Sports.