In what seems to have become a troubling trend, it was too little too late for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team on Thursday night.
A first-half flurry by Maci Morris kept them close for a while, but the 19th-ranked Wildcats couldn’t find enough offense when it mattered to keep up with No. 16 South Carolina. Kentucky made it interesting in the closing moments, but after pouring it on in the second half the Gamecocks held on for a 74-70 victory in Memorial Coliseum — their ninth win in a row over Kentucky dating to 2015.
Kentucky has now lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. The Wildcats dropped a nail-biter at No. 24 Texas A&M last Sunday. UK fought back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in College Station and had a shot to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds, but Rhyne Howard’s jumper rimmed out.
On Thursday, Morris owned the first half for the Wildcats. She scored 14 of her game-high 21 points before the break. The senior sharpshooter caught fire midway through the second quarter, scoring six straight points. She got her defender in the air with a pump fake and drove for a nifty one-handed floater, then broke free on an inbound play for an easy layup. After her pull-up jumper on the next possession, the Cats led 20-10 and Morris went to the bench for a breather.
That’s when the wheels fell off for the Wildcats. South Carolina scored seven straight points to cut Kentucky’s lead to 20-17, but that was just the beginning of a stretch in which the Gamecocks outscored Kentucky by 25.
“When you give up a 40-15 run and they’re scoring at will it’s hard to get your break going,” said UK Coach Matthew Mitchell. “What you like to do is get some stops, get a defensive rebound, a long outlet and get on the attack.”
But that never happened for the Cats on Thursday, as the Gamecocks finished with a 10-0 edge in fast-break points.
Morris was back on the floor to begin the second quarter. Her three-pointer from the top of the key put the Cats ahead 23-19, ending a 9-0 South Carolina run and a Kentucky scoring drought of more than five minutes.
Kentucky struggled to find any offense outside of Morris in the first half. After hitting an early three-pointer Howard went cold, missing her next five shots. She finally made her second field goal with just over four minutes to go in the second quarter. Howard finished with 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting, but did most of her damage after the Gamecocks built a commanding lead.
Kentucky never found its range from the perimeter. Morris went 3-for-8 behind the arc and the rest of the Cats combined to go 4-for-19.
After trailing the entire first half, South Carolina (16-5, 8-1 SEC) took its first lead, 29-28, on Victaria Saxton’s short jumper with 1:10 to play. Taylor Murray’s three-pointer came up short at the buzzer, and the Gamecocks took a 31-28 lead into the locker room. The Cats ended the half on another scoring drought, this one lasting more than four minutes. Murray finally ended the dry spell with a pair of free throws to pull the Cats within 33-30 early in the third quarter.
But Carolina steadily pulled away in the third, going ahead by 16 before UK got a layup from Morris and an easy bucket by Tatyana Wyatt off a Murray steal to draw within 55-44 heading into the fourth.
Kentucky twice drew within nine points early in the final period, but South Carolina responded with back-to-back baskets both times. Morris’ three-pointer got the Cats within seven with 25 seconds to play and Howard’s layup cut the deficit to five with nine seconds left. After Carolina missed a pair of free throws, KeKe McKinney converted a layup. But Te’a Cooper hit a free throw to ice the win for the Gamecocks.
Now, the Wildcats face a critical stretch in the race to earn one of the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament, which would mean a bye into the quarterfinals. After hosting Florida on Sunday in Rupp Arena, Kentucky (17-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) will play three of its next four games on the road.
“It was a great opportunity for us tonight and we let it slip by us,” said Mitchell. “Right now it’s just difficult games. It’s SEC time and they’re close games. The margin for error is very, very thin. And you’ve got to find a way to win some of these games.”
Florida at No. 19 Kentucky
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rupp Arena