In the first quarter, South Carolina made just 25 percent of its shots against Kentucky.
The rest of the way, the No. 10 Gamecocks only missed nine, making a whopping 75.7 percent of their next 37 attempts in an 81-64 victory over the Cats in Rupp Arena.
It didn’t involve magic wand waving or fairy dust sprinkling.
“I just think we got the ball to the right people,” Gamecocks Coach Dawn Staley said.
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The “right people” on Sunday were star A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings, who played her former Kentucky team for the first time since joining the mass exodus from the program two years ago.
Wilson, who has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, and Jennings combined or 43 points and 15 rebounds for the defending NCAA Tournament champions, won their seventh straight over UK.
“It’s hard getting stops against them, and their frontline is really powerful,” Cats Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “It was hard to deal with today.”
Wilson was happy to come off the Gamecocks bench to score a game-best 26 points and in 21 minutes after sitting on the sidelines for the past two games with an ankle injury.
“It kind of sucks being on the sideline and listening to coach yell all the time,” said Wilson, who also had eight rebounds, four blocked shots and three steals. “I’d rather her yell at me. Being out there was a lot of fun and it felt good to kind of be back in it.”
Wilson didn’t look hampered by her ankle issues, making 10 of her 12 shots from the field for the Gamecocks, who shot 60.4 percent for the game, a season high for a UK opponent this season.
“She’s a world-class player,” Mitchell said of the senior. “Probably one of the best human beings on the planet playing women’s basketball. … Tremendous player, tremendous competitor and was hard to deal with.”
Wilson had plenty of help from Jennings, who added 17 points and seven rebounds, in her first time playing her former team, which the forward downplayed.
“It wasn’t weird at all,” she said. “I did what I do best and that’s scoring the ball. So I think I did pretty well.”
Staley did what she could to keep things comfortable for Jennings, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. Several times the head coach subbed out Jennings to make sure the strange situation didn’t get the best of the junior.
“I knew it would be emotional for her whether she let on or not,” Staley said. “It’s different. You started your college career here and you transferred. So you’re going to feel a little bit.
“I thought she handled it well. She played tremendous for us.”
Jennings scored six points as part of a 20-4 surge in the second quarter that ultimately put the game out of reach. Guard Tyasha Harris had 12 points and 13 assists for South Carolina (16-3, 5-2 Southeastern Conference).
Kentucky had a key player return as well, with leading-scorer Maci Morris coming back from a knee injury to score 19 points and add four assists. The junior guard said the bruised knee was improving, but got a little sore late in the game.
The Cats (9-11, 1-5) got 17 points from their other junior guard, Taylor Murray, who led a quick comeback in the third quarter that helped UK get back within eight points, 56-48, before South Carolina responded.
Wilson was the answer almost every time the Cats got within striking range and the announced 6,521 in Rupp Arena got into the game.
KeKe McKinney had a career-best 12 points and seven rebounds. Fellow freshman forward Dorie Harrison added 11 points and seven boards for the Cats.
The other freshman forward, Tatyana Wyatt, sat out while working her way through the concussion protocol. This is the second time Wyatt has been sidelined by a concussion this season.
Despite the loss, UK’s ninth in 10 games, Mitchell saw progress on Sunday for a UK team that looked lost at Vanderbilt on Monday.
“We’re certainly disappointed in the result, but we have to keep getting better, keep working,” he said of Kentucky, which shot 38.7 percent from the field. “We saw some growth from our young post players today. They’ve been working so hard, so I was happy for them to see some encouraging things happen.”
Alabama at Kentucky
7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network Plus)