It seemed unlikely in early February when Kentucky lost by double digits at home to South Carolina, but the Cats are the hottest team in the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky has won five in a row since that loss to the No. 7 Gamecocks, including an upset, overtime victory over third-ranked Mississippi State on Thursday night.
Some of the credit for that victory and the four that came before it goes to No. 22 UK’s opponent on Sunday. The Gamecocks went on a decisive 22-8 run early to make it not much of a game at all.
“That kind of put us a little too far behind to catch up, we sort of fragmented and we weren’t connected through communication,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of that Gamecocks surge.
“We’ve learned some valuable lessons in communication and what we all have to do to weather a storm and to stick together, no matter what the outcome may be.”
Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) learned enough in that game to become a team that not only withstood big runs but made some of its own. The late-season education secured one of the top four seeds in next week’s SEC Tournament.
“We’ve worked really hard on that the last couple of weeks, players, coaches, everybody involved,” Mitchell said of the communication and adjustments UK learned in that game. “It’s making a difference. I think that we’ve all decided that while we all have flaws and we all still make mistakes — coaches, players, everybody — we’re committed to trying to give everybody our best down the stretch and see how far we can push this.”
But have the Cats learned enough to beat one of the nation’s best teams in South Carolina, which has knocked off UK four straight times?
They will find out on Sunday in both teams’ season finale at Colonial Life Arena, where UK hasn’t won since 2012.
Mitchell and his players also are heartened knowing that even though they’ve played well down the stretch, there is still a lot of upside left.
“We are playing really hard from an effort standpoint and where the players really are and how much they care and are wanting to win. I think we are at a maximum there,” Mitchell said.
But he’s excited to see if the Cats have a game in them where they pull all of the finer points together and play a full 40 minutes of confident basketball.
That’s a tall order against the Gamecocks, who are the top defense in the league, allowing opponents to shoot just 35 percent from the field.
Kentucky doesn’t match up well against South Carolina (23-4, 13-2) and its athletic, aggressive post players in SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates, who have combined to wreak havoc on UK the last few meetings.
They anchor a frontcourt that leads the league in blocked shots at 5.4 per game.
One big way UK can improve statistically still and help itself against a team like South Carolina is hitting some outside shots.
“To beat a South Carolina, we’ve got to make 10-13 threes and spread the floor out so they have to come out and you can get to the rim some,” Mitchell said a couple of weeks ago.
The coach is still waiting for UK to round into the shooting team he believes it can be.
“If we ever get to shooting all together on one night, and can make 10 threes in a game, we’re a really dangerous team,” said Mitchell, whose team hasn’t made more than nine threes in a conference game this season. “We have a high ceiling in that regard.”
And even though UK is winning, it’s only shooting 30 percent from long range, including a shooting slump from Makenzie Cann, who has made just three of her 21 attempts in the last five games while battling back from the flu.
UK star Makayla Epps says the Cats have one of those games in them still.
“We’re definitely capable,” said the senior, who has made 39.1 percent of her threes during this win streak. “I’ve seen us do it in practice day after day after day. I get hot; Taylor gets hot; Maci and Makenzie get hot. So we’re very capable. We have all the shooting, outside perimeter scorers that we need. I just feel like on any given night it might happen.”
It’s not necessarily the only formula to beat a top-level team like South Carolina, which is second best in the league at defending the three, allowing opponents to shoot just 27.3 percent from there, but it would help.
“To beat South Carolina time after time — you know one single, 40-minute game a bunch of things can happen — but I think a formula for success against them is hitting some perimeter shots,” he said on Friday.
“They just have what I think is the two best shot blockers and it is so hard to get to the rim consistently. … You can get to the rim some, but I do think making some threes would really help us out and that will have to be part of our game plan going in.”
No. 22 Kentucky at No. 7 South Carolina
When: 2 p.m.
Records: UK 20-8 (11-4 SEC); South Carolina 23-4 (13-2)
Series: UK leads 33-26
Last meeting: South Carolina won 75-63 on Feb. 2 in Lexington
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (11.7 pts, 2.68 rebs); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (15.3 pts, 10.6 rebs); Taylor Murray, 6-5, G, So. (12.2 pts, 5.1 rebs, 3.7 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (17.1 pts, 4.3 rebs, 3.7 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (3.9 pts, 4.4 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (5.9 pts, 3.4 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.1 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (3.0 pts, 1.3 asts)
Probable starters: Kaela Davis, 6-2, G, Jr. (11.6 pts, 3.6 rebs); Allisha Gray, 6-0, G, Jr. (12.8 pts, 2.8 asts); A’ja Wilson, 6-5, F, Jr. (16.9 pts, 7.2 rebs, 2.2 blks), Alaina Coates, 6-4, C, Jr. (13.4 pts, 11.2 rebs); Tyasha Harris, 5-10, G, Fr. (5.1 pts, 2.9 asts)
Key reserves: Bianca Cuevas-Moore, 5-6, G, Jr. (8.3 pts, 2.0 rebs); Doniyah Cliney, 6-0, G, So. (2.5 pts, 3.0 rebs); Tiffany Davis, 5-7, G, Jr. (0.8 pts); Mikiah Harrigan Herbert, 6-2, F, Fr. (4.3 pts, 3.4 rebs)