UK Women's Basketball

All too familiar foe awaits Kentucky women in SEC semifinals

Evelyn Akhator was pressured as Kentucky topped Alabama 65-55 in the SEC Tournament on Friday.
Evelyn Akhator was pressured as Kentucky topped Alabama 65-55 in the SEC Tournament on Friday. UK Athletics

Kentucky hasn’t even had time to forget the scouting report against South Carolina.

It’s been less than a week since the Cats faced the Gamecocks at their place just two hours from the site of this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Less than a week since No. 20 UK lost its fifth in a row to the defending league champions.

“It’s not unfamiliar territory for us,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the Cats’ next opponent in the semifinals of the tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. “We’ll have to go back and rest up and get ready to play our best basketball tomorrow.”

There certainly won’t be a lot of catching up to do, senior Makayla Epps said of meeting the sixth-ranked Gamecocks, who have topped UK 75-63 and 95-87 so far this season.

“We’re playing the same team three times in one month, so I feel like we know each other pretty well on both ends,” Epps said. “But you’ve got to respect them for what they do. They’re a top team in the country, top team in the conference.

“So for us to accomplish our goal of winning the SEC championship, we’ve got to go through them. We know it’s not going to be easy. They want to win, too. It will be their third in a row.”

The Gamecocks (25-4) won their quarterfinal game on Friday handily over Georgia, 72-48, despite being without starting forward Alaina Coates.

“We look forward to having her hopefully tomorrow,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said of Coates, who arrived at the arena riding a scooter with a boot on her injured ankle in the fourth quarter of the opener.

Staley had Coates stay in Columbia for more treatment on her ankle. She thought having the senior “in the building now gives us a lift.”

Even if Coates sits, that doesn’t mean much, Epps said.

“That’s one half of the twin towers, so we might be able to see the basket a little clearer, but even though they might not have Coates, you can’t count them out,” she said of South Carolina, which also features SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson in the post. “They’ve got the depth.”

In the teams’ first meeting in Lexington on Feb. 4, Kentucky buckled under a huge run in the first half by the Gamecocks. The Cats were closer in the game a week ago in Columbia.

“I liked the fight our kids had,” Mitchell said of the most recent loss. “It’s going to be a real challenge.”

But if a team other than South Carolina is going to win the tournament, it’s going to have to knock off the defending champ.

“We came down here with our goal to win the tournament,” Mitchell said. “I think you have to go through the champion, whether it’s tomorrow or Sunday, you’re going to have to beat them to have a chance in it.”

‘Terrible, terrible collision’

South Carolina isn’t the only team with a question mark in its starting lineup.

Kentucky lost a key cog in its team with 11 seconds to play against Alabama on Friday when point guard Taylor Murray slammed into a screen at midcourt and crumpled to the floor.

After the victory, Mitchell said he wasn’t sure the extent of the sophomore’s injury. She was still being evaluated by medical staff as of Friday night.

“She ran right into that kid full speed,” Mitchell said of Murray, who walked off the floor on her own and went back to the locker room with ice on her neck. “She doesn’t feel great right now, but it’s too early to tell what’s going to happen. It was a terrible, terrible collision.”

The UK coach was quick to point out that it was a “clean, legal play.”

Just unlucky, Mitchell added.

“Taylor was hustling, and it is a bad break for us if it is anything that lingers,” he said. “We don’t know right now. Doc is checking her out.”

Last week at South Carolina, Murray had a career-high 29 points along with five assists and four rebounds.

Rice making strides

Kentucky’s Alyssa Rice picked a good time to start playing her best, scoring a career-high 11 points and grabbing five rebounds in the quarterfinals win on Friday.

“Alyssa is just blossoming in front of our eyes right here,” Mitchell said of the forward. “Every day she gets a little bit better. Those were not poor players she was scoring against. Those are really good, tough post players in our league. Just thrilled for her and her progress. She’s put a lot of work into it.”

Before this season, Rice hadn’t scored in double digits, but she’s done so three times this season.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Matchups

South Carolina

Probable starters: A’ja Wilson, 6-5, F, Jr. (17.4 pts, 7.6 rebs); Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, 6-2, F, Fr. (4.4 pts, 3.6 rebs); Allisha Gray, 6-0, G, Jr. (13.1 pts, 4.4 rebs, 2.7 asts); Kaela Davis, 6-2, G, Jr. (11.7 pts, 3.7 rebs, 2.2 asts); Tyasha Harris, 5-10, G, Fr. (5.4 pts, 3.2 asts)

Key reserves: Doniyah Cliney, 6-0, G, So. (2.7 pts, 2.9 rebs); Bianca Cuevas-Moore, 5-6, G, Jr. (8.4 pts, 1.9 asts)

Kentucky

Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (11.8 pts, 2.8 rebs); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (15.5 pts, 10.5 rebs); Taylor Murray, 6-5, G, So. (12.7 pts, 5 rebs, 3.8 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (16.7 pts, 4.4 rebs, 3.6 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (4.1 pts, 4.4 rebs)

Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (6 pts, 3.5 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.3 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (2.9 pts)

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