As Kentucky women's basketball fans hoped for and expected in 2013-14, there was a team in Memorial Coliseum late in this season looking every bit like a Final Four contender.
Unfortunately for UK backers, it was not Kentucky.
Playing like the best team in the Southeastern Conference — and the No. 4 team in the country — South Carolina (24-2, 12-1 SEC) pulverized No. 15 UK on the glass (44-19) and on the scoreboard, 81-58, Thursday night before a shell-shocked crowd of 5,958.
"We got whipped tonight," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We have to find a way to get our tenacity back ... because we didn't compete nearly as hard as South Carolina and that is what makes this disappointing."
Coach Dawn Staley's Gamecocks played with passion, precision and power.
South Carolina had many different ways to attack offensively. Led by standout forward Aleighsa Welch (21 points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots) and the center combination of 6-foot-4 junior Elem Ibiam (16 points) and 6-4 freshman Alaina Coates (eight points, six rebounds), Carolina dominated Kentucky's front line at the rim.
Mitchell, seeking any way to stop the onslaught under the bucket, finally went to a 2-3 zone. So South Carolina guard Khadijah Sessions drained 3-of-3 three-point tries and USC leading scorer Tiffany Mitchell — held scoreless in the first half — dropped in 12 points after halftime.
Defensively, South Carolina imposed its will. In the teams' first meeting, Carolina won 68-59 in Columbia Jan. 9 by holding UK to 23-of-73 shooting and blocking 14 Wildcats shots. Thursday night, South Carolina limited UK shooters to 23 makes on 61 attempts.
Finally, South Carolina seemed far more assertive and aggressive in claiming loose balls, rebounds, all the things coaches call "effort plays."
"I think toughness was definitely lacking," Kentucky guard Jennifer O'Neill (12 points) said of the Wildcats' minus-25 effort on the glass.
In other words, everything people were expecting of UK (now 19-7, 7-6) in this season of high expectations was on display Thursday by South Carolina.
"I think we pretty much gave Kentucky a taste of its own medicine," said Staley, who still looks as fit and fiery on the sidelines as she did in her playing days when she led Virginia to three Final Fours and was part of three gold-medal winning Olympics teams for the United States.
"They like to push the ball and get the ball into the paint, and sometimes when that is your strength, that is also your weakness."
UK, which started the year 11-0 and has gone 8-7 since, appears now to have plenty of weaknesses. It has all but abandoned what had been its signature full-court pressure defense.
Still, with three victories over Top 10 foes and an RPI of 15 before Thursday's beat-down, Kentucky seems certain to make the NCAA Tournament.
Yet for a team whose psyche — and play — has seemed so fragile since January began, you have to wonder how getting whacked by 23 at home so late in the season will impact the Cats going forward.
It doesn't get a whole lot easier, with UK facing a road trip to No. 16 Texas A&M — the only SEC team to beat South Carolina this season — on Sunday.
"It's not like this is our first loss," Kentucky freshman Makayla Epps, a Wildcats bright spot, said after scoring a career-high 16 points. "We've been in this position before. ... We've got Sunday to look forward to. We've got Texas A&M and nobody's said we can't go out there and beat them. We're looking for a bounce-back."
Mitchell said getting run out of Memorial Coliseum by South Carolina will not have any impact on the Cats going forward — unless the Cats let it. "The score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in down and discouraged," he said.
Meanwhile, the UK coach all but raved over South Carolina. "A great, great performance," he said of the Gamecocks.
Back in December, we thought that's what opposing coaches would be saying about the Wildcats' play at this point in the season.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.