COLUMBIA, S.C. — Kentucky left South Carolina with more questions than answers and a huge hole to fill.
After the 68-60 loss to the top-ranked, undefeated Gamecocks, the most pressing question for the No. 10 Cats will be how to move forward without point guard Janee Thompson, who had a horrific injury on a loose ball play late in the game.
The junior's injury, diagnosed as a dislocated left ankle which resulted in a broken fibular, jarred her Kentucky teammates and the 17,156 fans at Colonial Life Arena, but it likely didn't decide the game.
That likely was decided in the first 10 minutes of the second half when Kentucky missed all but two of its first 14 shots and struggled to find any offensive rhythm against the Gamecocks' matchup zone.
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"It was a very pathetic performance offensively against the zone, and that's on no one but me," Coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game in which his point guard left the floor on a stretcher and he was ejected two minutes later for arguing fouls he thought should've been called.
"That's not on the players; that's on me. Very poorly coached in zone offense this afternoon."
He thought Kentucky (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) did well attacking the Gamecocks' man-to-man defense, grabbing a seven-point lead late in the first half over a team that had only trailed at the break twice before this season.
With her team trailing 38-35 at the half, Coach Dawn Staley told South Carolina to change the tone of the game.
"In the first half, I thought Kentucky controlled the tempo of the game," she said. "In the second half, we took our time, we kept them on defense. We were a little bit more calculating in what we wanted to do."
And the zone helped, too, Staley and her players said.
"We played the best zone defense we've played all season," said guard Khadijah Sessions, who scored 12 points, including three three-pointers when she'd only hit four the entire rest of the season. "It was mostly a 3-2 matchup, but we did a great job communicating. It was a great call by coach."
At the half, Staley also reminded her team of its size advantage over Kentucky.
"It was just a matter of focusing and finishing," said forward Aleighsa Welch, who had nine points, 11 rebounds and three of South Carolina's 10 blocked shots. "We had the height advantage, so it was just a matter of focusing in when we got the ball."
Tied at 20-20 on rebounds in the first half, South Carolina dominated the boards in the second half and ended the game with a 55-37 advantage.
While Kentucky struggled against the zone, the Gamecocks (16-0, 4-0) were able to take advantage with a 12-4 run to open the second half that was part of a 20-8 spree.
"In this type of game, a 5-0 run or you hit a big three can sway it or give you the momentum," Staley said. "It's a tough, slug-out, SEC basketball game and I'm glad we were playing at home and in front of 17,000 folks that willed us to a win."
Reigning SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell led the Gamecocks with 19 points, 13 coming in the second half, five rebounds and four assists.
Kentucky, which was paced by Jennifer O'Neill's 13 points, cut the lead to six points twice after that second-half surge — the final time a few seconds before Thompson's injury — but never got closer than that.
Freshman Alexis Jennings added 10 points and four rebounds for UK, which also got nine points apiece from Linnae Harper and Thompson.
"They are a tough team and played hard and are well coached and gave a great effort today," Mitchell said of South Carolina, which will face UK on Senior Day (March 1) in Memorial Coliseum.
"Tough day for us. I thought our players played real hard, just didn't execute well enough to win the game."