South Carolina has never won a Southeastern Conference title, but it more than looked the part of a champion on Thursday night, handing Kentucky its worst loss of the season, 81-58.
The fourth-ranked Gamecocks won their eighth straight in a dominant fashion over No. 15 Kentucky, using a 17-4 run to open the second half and run away with it.
"We got whipped tonight," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said simply. "We just didn't compete nearly as hard as South Carolina and that's what makes tonight so disappointing."
The Gamecocks (24-2, 12-1 SEC), who hadn't won in Lexington in nine straight tries, made it look easy at Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, leading by as many as 21 points early in the second half and outrebounding the Cats 44-19.
"Toughness was definitely lacking," said Kentucky guard Jennifer O'Neill, who had 12 points and no rebounds. "We didn't have enough people going to the boards, boxing out. I don't think enough people wanted to grab rebounds, to be honest."
South Carolina had plenty of people, led by Aleighsa Welch, who had 10 boards to go with her game-best 21 points and five blocked shots. Welch was one of four Gamecocks in double figures with Khadijah Sessions adding 18 points, Elem Ibiam 16 points and Tiffany Mitchell pouring in 12 points, all in the second half.
The junior forward impressed Kentucky's coach.
"Aleighsa Welch has got to be the best player in our league," Mitchell said. "She's just really, really talented and we just didn't compete nearly hard enough."
Welch called it a "total team effort."
It was tough to disagree.
"It was just a great, great performance by South Carolina," Mitchell said. "They did what they had to do to win the game and we just didn't make nearly enough plays to win."
Dawn Staley, ever demanding and seemingly never satisfied, couldn't find much to be disappointed about with her Gamecocks, who shot 52.6 percent from the field.
"Considering we've never won here and you look at the scoring margin, the rebounding margin, I just thought we played a complete game on both sides of the basketball," South Carolina's coach said. "We just responded like a team that had been there before."
It wasn't necessarily what Staley expected from her team coming in. The Gamecocks had to replace three senior starters and have role players move into more important jobs.
Did she see this coming? "I didn't, honestly," she said.
It's been a seemingly flawless transition for the Gamecocks, who have a two-game lead in the league with just three games left to play.
Kentucky is back to a familiar place: Trying to bounce back from a difficult loss where there were more questions than answers to be found on game tape.
The Cats (19-7, 7-6) don't have much time to figure things out. They have a matchup at No. 16 Texas A&M on Sunday afternoon.
UK's lone bright spot might have been Makayla Epps' career-high 16 points.
Before going to the tape, Mitchell said he saw his team start to sputter when it had an offensive lull in the first half, when the Gamecocks seemingly found another gear and scored 10 unanswered to extend their lead to 34-21 with 3:25 to go before the break.
"I thought it really affected our energy level and our competitiveness and you just can't let that happen," Mitchell said of the nearly four-minute UK drought. "There's no excuse for that."
UK used a flurry before the half, including five points from Janee Thompson, to cut the lead to 36-28 at the break.
But then South Carolina used that 17-4 run out of the locker room and never looked back.
Kentucky managed to cut the lead to 11 points with 9:30 to go on an Epps drive through the lane, but the Gamecocks responded with eight straight to extend the advantage again.
"It was more of a collective effort tonight," Mitchell said of the loss. "We weren't very good; none of us. We've got to come back tomorrow and see if we can get better."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.