Kentucky twice had a chance to play Southeastern Conference championship spoiler this week.
The No. 22 Cats succeeded on Thursday night when their overtime win over third-ranked Mississippi State denied the Bulldogs their first outright championship.
But No. 7 South Carolina had more than enough horsepower to plough through a UK roadblock on Sunday with a 95-87 victory to give the Gamecocks at least a share of the league title for the fourth straight season.
UK’s win Thursday gave the Gamecocks a chance at the championship, and then they seized it on Sunday.
“This is pretty special,” Gamecocks Coach Dawn Staley said after the celebrating was over at Colonial Life Arena. “Especially a week ago, we didn’t control our own destiny. It makes it that much more special because we fought our way back and we got lucky.”
The good news for Kentucky, which saw its five-game win streak come to an end, is that it still goes into next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament with a bye as the No. 4 seed.
The bad news for UK in that scenario is it might get to see top-seeded South Carolina again as soon as Saturday’s semifinals at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C.
Between now and then, Kentucky (20-0, 11-5 SEC) will need to find some answers for the Gamecocks, who scored 95 points and shot 61.8 percent from the field, both season highs for a UK opponent this season.
“I don’t know where our mind was sometimes today,” said Coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team will start its SEC Tournament run on Friday around 2:30 p.m.
Whenever the Gamecocks’ post players were able to get in position, they finished, which frustrated Mitchell.
“Against South Carolina you’ve got to be really mentally sharp, got to grind it out there at the end and see if you can steal one from them,” he said of the Gamecocks, who won their fifth straight over UK. “They’re a good team.”
Reigning SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and she had plenty of help with four other players scoring in double digits, including Kaela Davis, who added 20 points.
“We’re really, really fortunate to be in the position that we’re in,” Davis said. “Obviously, we came out and played well tonight to kind of secure things, which is obviously helpful.”
The Gamecocks also want to remain in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The most recent selection committee release had them as a No. 2 seed.
“We really want that No. 1 seed and we don’t have it,” Wilson said. “Since we don’t have it, it’s something we can really fight for.
“We have to get a lot of stuff done and we have a short period of time to redo things and make a statement.”
They definitely made a statement early against Kentucky, making their first seven shots and rolling out to a 13-4 advantage early.
“They got off to such a hot start and that’s on me,” Mitchell said.
Then the Cats got into significant foul trouble, including Makayla Epps going to the bench with 8:20 still to play in the half, and then having to come in with 5:25 to go when Evelyn Akhator picked up her second.
With Epps on the bench, the Gamecocks ran up their largest lead thus far, 36-22, on a baseline jumper by Davis.
UK came roaring back behind Makenzie Cann and Taylor Murray, with Cann scoring almost as many points in the first half (nine) as she had in the past three games combined (10).
Cann finished with 15 points, but the star for UK was Murray, who had a career-best 29 points to go with five assists and four rebounds.
“She continues to improve,” Mitchell said of the UK sophomore. “I thought she was hard to handle on dribble penetration. She had a great night, great afternoon.”
Murray, who had 13 points at the half for Kentucky, helped whittle South Carolina’s lead to as few as five, but the Gamecocks halted an 8-0 UK run with a Wilson shot in the lane and closed out the half leading 48-40.
Kentucky again cut the Carolina lead to five points early in the second half, but the Cats missed seven straight shots and went five minutes without a bucket.
The Gamecocks (24-4, 14-2) shot 55.6 percent in that decisive third quarter.
Kentucky got as close as six points twice in the fourth quarter, but South Carolina always had an answer.
The Cats got 14 points each from Evelyn Akhator and Maci Morris. The senior forward added eight rebounds, too.
Senior star Makayla Epps finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists, which Mitchell said was a solid performance.
“It was a tough game today, and we came up a bit short, so they’re champions,” Mitchell said. “Give them credit for that.”
He also gave Kentucky credit for its five-game win streak that led them to this place, a top four seed in the SEC Tournament and perhaps the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“Real proud of our team and the regular season that they had,” he said, “and we’ll try to get better from this game.”
No. 22 Kentucky vs. TBD
When: Friday in Southeastern Conference Tournament in Greenville, S.C.
Opponent: Alabama and Vanderbilt play Wednesday with the winner facing Tennessee on Thursday. Kentucky gets the winner of Thursday’s game.