It's amazing what just one win can do for team morale.
Kentucky had been mired in a four-game losing streak and was falling toward the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. "It's been a tough couple of weeks to say the least," Coach Matthew Mitchell said. All of that seemed like ancient history Thursday night as UK overwhelmed South Carolina early and then dropped the Gamecocks 61-47 at Memorial Coliseum. "It's like a breakthrough, really," said senior Eleia Roddy, who led a balanced Cats attack with 11 points and 11 rebounds. "We'd been down for so long. ... We were definitely needing this win."
Kentucky looked like a team playing with a sense of urgency at the start, racing out to a 26-9 lead and holding the Gamecocks to 2-for-24 shooting. In the first half, they were held to 14.3 percent from the field. "We made a statement that we were going to play real hard tonight and do what we have to do to win and that needs to be contagious for us," Mitchell said. It wasn't all UK, though.
South Carolina was without its two leading scorers, who were both out with knee injuries. The Gamecocks struggled to find a rhythm and the basket, even on close-range shots. "They were getting a lot of offensive rebounds and that kind of deflates you and takes your breath away on offense," said first-year coach Dawn Staley, whose team was held to a season-low 23.6 percent shooting. The three-time Olympic gold medalist didn't sugar coat what she thought of her team's performance against Kentucky (13-10, 3-5 SEC). "Poor," she said, preceded by an alliterative adjective. "Quite simply, we don't compete for 40 minutes. What we don't have in our lineup we have to make up for in certain areas like effort, being scrappy, doing the intangible things."
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In those areas, Kentucky played much better, Mitchell said. UK outrebounded South Carolina 49-29 and outscored the Gamecocks 19-3 on second-chance points. Every player that saw the floor scored and got at least two rebounds.
Mitchell had asked for more board work from his guards — even devoting an hour-long practice to just rebounding — and he got it. Amani Franklin had eight rebounds to go with her nine points. Carly Ormerod had eight points and six boards (all defensive). The Cats scored 11 straight midway through the second half to grab their largest lead of the game, 51-27 before South Carolina made a game of it. A 19-3 run threatened UK's dominance and cut the Cats' lead to eight points with 4:15 to go on a C.J. Pace three-pointer, which was one of four straight treys. "They got too good of looks," said point guard Amber Smith, who led UK with 13 points. "That was all on us. We weren't pressuring the ball." But Kentucky righted itself and held the Gamecocks (9-12, 1-7) to a single point the rest of the way.
The Cats connected on seven of eight free throws in the final four minutes to seal a much-needed win. "We didn't handle it well at the end, but we bounced back and toughed it out," Smith said. "We knew we needed one; we needed one in a bad way. We just had to go out there and work hard and get it." Smith went a step further, predicting the end of these long losing streaks for her team, which will face Vanderbilt on Sunday. "We're getting over the hump right here," Smith said. "We're trying to win every game from here on out, that's the goal."