It was said so quietly the microphone barely picked it up.
“Love you guys,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said as seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator left the stage after their final news conference at their final Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The two UK seniors had combined for 55 points and 20 rebounds while playing nearly every minute of a physical, draining semifinal matchup with South Carolina on Saturday night.
“Just so proud of our team for fighting hard,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t execute the way we wanted to, but we sure battled. I can’t say enough about these two seniors. I love them. They came to play today. They gave a championship effort.”
But they came up a game short, falling to defending SEC champion and fifth-ranked South Carolina 89-77 at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Epps had 31 points and nine rebounds in the loss, UK’s third this season to the Gamecocks and their sixth in a row in the series. Both Epps and Akhator led UK’s unlikeliest of comebacks in the third quarter.
Kentucky learned this morning that it was playing without starting point guard Taylor Murray, who suffered whiplash and neck strain in the quarterfinal victory the day before.
Shorthanded already and then some with Murray out, UK fell behind by as many as 14 points early in the third quarter. It looked like the score was going to get much more lopsided.
“The only thing I asked of them today was a positive attitude at all times, never hang your head,” Mitchell said. “That’s a really, really talented, powerful, physical team. If you hang your head, you can get your head handed to you.”
Instead, UK put its head down and went to work, using a 13-3 run to end the third quarter trailing just 63-60. South Carolina didn’t score the final five minutes of that quarter.
“Everybody showed fight,” Epps said. “We got scrappy after some loose balls. People laid their body on the floor. Evelyn had some great and-one plays down the stretch. I feel like this team never gave up.”
Kentucky (21-10) was beating the Gamecocks to loose balls, Coach Dawn Staley said after the win, in which South Carolina was outrebounded 42-26.
“When they came back, it got our attention,” Staley said. “I think we focused in on rebounding the ball a little bit, coming up with some 50-50 balls, converted them to easy buckets.”
UK’s big run certainly got A’ja Wilson’s attention. The defending SEC Player of the Year helped bring her team back from the brink.
Several times UK was able to cut the lead to three points and even managed to get within two with 4:13 to go on an Alyssa Rice layup. Then Wilson, who finished with 26 points and eight rebounds, made three free throws to keep the Cats at arm’s length.
“I was just thinking we got to win this ballgame,” Wilson said of South Carolina, which is going for its third straight tournament title on Sunday. “We weren’t going to leave it till the game was won.”
Wilson was one of four Gamecocks (26-4) in double figures, including 17 points apiece for Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, a career high, and Kaela Davis. Bianca Cuevas-Moore added 13 points.
South Carolina (26-4) jumped out to an 11-4 lead in the opening minutes, hitting 72.2 percent from the field in the first quarter. UK wasn’t much worse, making 62.5 percent of its shots.
The lead ballooned to 13 points early in the second quarter before Kentucky’s mini run got it to within nine points a couple times, but the Cats couldn’t get any stops. The Gamecocks shot 64.7 percent in the first half.
Paced by Epps’ 10 points in the second quarter, the Cats trailed South Carolina 47-36 at the break before they made their big run.
After going without Murray, UK also lost reserve guard Jaida Roper in the fourth quarter. The freshman suffered a head injury on a collision under the basket.
It wasn’t the ending Kentucky wanted in the SEC Tournament.
“We will build from this one, get ready for the NCAA Tournament,” Mitchell said. The women’s selection show will be on March 13 and the tournament starts a few days later, nearly two weeks from now.
“We’re going to be a very good tournament team. We’re excited about that opportunity. Wish we were playing for the championship here, but can’t say enough about our players’ effort tonight.”