Kentucky didn't have to try too hard to simulate its next opponent in practice this week.
South Carolina's aggressive, in-your-shorts defense is quite familiar to the fifth-ranked Cats.
"They remind us a lot of ourselves a lot of times," senior guard A'dia Mathies said of the No. 18 Gamecocks. "They're all strong, and everybody is aggressive. Not one person is going to come out on the court and let down."
So when UK travels to Columbia, S.C., to face the Gamecocks Thursday night, it knows it's in for a real test.
South Carolina isn't just the best defensive team in the Southeastern Conference (holding opponents to 47.6 points a game), but also the third-best defense in the nation. The Gamecocks are sixth in the nation in rebounding margin, too.
Lots will have to go right for Kentucky (18-1, 6-0 SEC) if it wants to extend its nation-best win streak to 18 in a row.
But the Cats are more confident in the offense they're putting on the floor this season than they have been in years past.
"Everything they do can probably test us," Mathies said of South Carolina. "But I think we can come out on top because we have so many weapons."
UK is averaging 84.3 points a game in SEC play and 79.3 overall. It has the eighth-best scoring offense in the country behind Mathies' 15.4 points a game (19.8 points a game in conference play).
But unlike in years past when the offense ran through Mathies and a couple of contributors, Kentucky has multiple scoring options with all five starters averaging 9.4 points a game or better this season.
"More times than not we have five players on the court who can score," Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I was looking at last year's game and we were getting some open shots, but the people who were getting them weren't making them, and we are making more shots this year."
And when the Cats have their scoring droughts, they are shorter because of players like transfer DeNesha Stallworth, who can get them easier shots inside when needed.
Having scoring threats such as Stallworth and Samarie Walker inside has helped free up the outside for shooters. Kentucky is averaging 8.3 three-pointers a game in six SEC games so far compared to 5.6 last season.
Since its only loss this season at Baylor, UK is averaging 44.2 percent from the field, including five games hitting 50 percent or better. Last season, the Cats had just three games where they made that percentage or better.
"Our talent level is better this year and we are more gifted offensively this year," Mitchell said. "When you have our starting five on the floor, all five of them can put the ball in the basket."
Mathies said that "diversity of weapons" is what gives UK an advantage.
"It isn't like you can sag in the paint and play us and then we can't make outside shots," she said. "We can play different styles of basketball and still score a lot of points so I think that's what excites me the most about our offense. You can't shut down one player and then the whole team goes down."
But it's not Kentucky's offense that South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley wanted to talk about. UK is best in the nation in turnover margin, forcing 10.5 more turnovers than it commits. The Cats are second in the league in defense, holding opponents to 51.8 points a game.
The Gamecocks have struggled offensively, averaging just 55.8 points (on 33.9 percent shooting and 21.5 percent shooting from three-point range).
Staley wants her team to show some confidence on offense against UK's defense.
"They're all over it," she said. "They cover a lot of ground and they disrupt you from a defensive standpoint. They create offense from their defense and we've got to find a way to take care of the basketball."
South Carolina (16-3, 4-2) has turned the ball over just 10 times in each of its past two games. Staley would like to see that continue on Thursday against a UK defense that is forcing opponents into 26.2 mistakes a game.
"For us, we have to take care of the basketball," Staley said. "If we prevent them from scoring, they can't play the type of defense they're used to."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com