The women’s basketball heavyweight matchup between No. 2 South Carolina and No. 9 Kentucky yielded a clear verdict. There was a team likely to be playing for the 2016 NCAA championship in Memorial Coliseum Thursday night.
Unfortunately for the home folks, it was not the Wildcats.
Sophomore star A’ja Wilson turned in a dominating performance and No. 2 South Carolina wore down No. 9 Kentucky for a 73-62 victory before 5,527 mostly disappointed fans.
Wilson, a home-grown 6-foot-5 sophomore from Hopkins, S.C., just missed a triple-double, finishing with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
“Twenty-six and 13, that’s pretty much NBA numbers,” said Kentucky guard Makayla Epps.
Added UK Coach Matthew Mitchell: “Pretty much the difference in the game (was) they had A’ja Wilson and we didn’t.”
Led by Wilson, star senior guard Tiffany Mitchell (16 points) and 6-4 center Alaina Coates (nine points, 11 rebounds), Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks (16-0, 4-0 SEC) are considered the primary threat to derail Connecticut’s women’s basketball dynasty in 2015-16.
So there’s no disgrace in Kentucky (13-2, 2-2) losing to the second-best team in the country.
However, if UK is going to break through and make the school’s first-ever Final Four, the powerful Gamecocks are the kind of team the Wildcats may well have to beat.
Final Four teams can take a foe’s best punch, and not go down for the count.
Kentucky, which upset a Final Four-bound South Carolina 67-56 in Memorial Coliseum last season on Senior Day, came out Thursday night like it was going to do so again.
With a sharp defensive game plan of dropping guards into the paint to negate the size advantage of Wilson and Coates, UK harried South Carolina into a horrid 10-33 shooting first half.
The Cats led by 11, 30-19, after UK freshman Batouly Camara drained a 10-footer 3:40 before halftime.
South Carolina, however, ended the half on a 9-2 run to pull within 32-28 at halftime.
“I thought our team came out and gave a lot of effort,” Mitchell said. “We’re just not at a state right now where we can execute well enough and sharp enough on defense where we can stop a team like that for 40 minutes.”
Final Four teams can be in adverse game situations against Top 10-level teams yet execute offensively when it matters.
After its horrid offensive first half, South Carolina hit 9-of-13 shots while rallying to take a 51-50 lead after three quarters. The Gamecocks then broke from a 56-56 tie with a 17-2 run. Getting the ball to the hot hand, Wilson scored eight points in that decisive stretch.
“The post players (were) letting their kids get real deep and the guards stopped choking and getting the ball out of their hands,” UK point guard Janee Thompson (16 points) said.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky offense, so fluid while shooting 48.9 percent (42.6 on three-pointers) in the non-league season, produced its fourth straight SEC game in which it shot below 44 percent.
Seeming to be bothered increasingly by South Carolina’s length as the game went on, Kentucky shot 37.5 percent for the game (33.3 percent on three-pointers).
“A’ja Wilson is really long, really talented, very skilled and she knows how to use her length to her advantage,” Epps (16 points, 6-of-15 shooting) said. “It was hard to get shots up in the second half.”
In big games, Final Four teams do the little things that matter.
During the second half, South Carolina rebounded its own missed free throws and scored three different times.
One of those plays, when Wilson tipped the ball out to Tina Roy for a three-pointer, produced a four-point trip that cut a 47-40 UK lead to three points and seemed to turn the game’s momentum for good.
“Our free throw box-outs haven’t been that great,” Mitchell said. “And that was Wilson around there again.”
The good news for Kentucky is that who goes to the Final Four is determined in the spring – not early in January.
There is still much to like about UK.
South Carolina also showed the Wildcats Thursday night where work has to be done if the Cats are going to advance to college basketball’s final weekend this year.
Said Mitchell: “I think our team can definitely improve off of this one.”