Just one game at Kentucky was the speed bump between South Carolina and greatness last season.
The Gamecocks came into Lexington on quite the roll. One win over UK in Memorial Coliseum would’ve meant South Carolina finished unbeaten in league play. It would’ve made the Gamecocks the outright league champion.
Those Memorial Coliseum memories still haunt South Carolina’s veteran team as it comes back to Lexington on Thursday night, again ranked No. 2 and this time unbeaten overall.
“It’s been in the back of people’s heads,” center Alaina Coates recalled from that 67-56 upset on March 1. “It kept us from being outright league champions. That’s definitely adding fuel to the fire.
“Especially on their home court, because they really did a number on us last year. We wanted to show up and give the message that it’s not going to happen again.”
Senior guard Khadijah Sessions remembered the loss painfully as well.
“We wanted to seal the SEC championship and we didn’t go in and do what we were supposed to do,” Sessions said. “That really upset Coach, it upset us. We’re looking back at that game and taking it personally, and going in and try to get a win this time.”
Ninth-ranked Kentucky seems equally motivated.
The Cats (13-1, 2-1 SEC) have been a surprise this season. Despite four players parting ways with UK in six weeks early this season, Kentucky has managed a big season with the lone loss coming at the opening of league play.
Big wins over Duke, Louisville and Arizona State have helped bolster Kentucky, picked to finish a distant fifth in the league this year.
“We’re hosting the No. 2 team in the country tomorrow night,” said Makayla Epps, Kentucky’s leading scorer. “That means something to us. We have the home-court advantage, we’ve got to make it play to our advantage.
“I feel like it’ll be a fun game. They’re a good team. I give them loads of respect. We’re a really good team; I don’t know if they respect us, but maybe we could change that tomorrow night if they don’t.”
A “fun game” doesn’t quite describe the Gamecocks to UK Coach Matthew Mitchell, who regularly jokes that going to South Carolina each season is like an annual root canal.
So what has the game in Lexington, where UK has won 10 of its last 12 over the Gamecocks, become?
“Maybe you’re getting a filling or something?” he said. “Is a filling not as bad as a root canal? I just have such excellent dental hygiene that I don’t have any type of those procedures.”
Either way, he acknowledged it’s never a comfortable matchup. Add in that eight of the last 10 meetings with South Carolina have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
“We go at each other on the court,” Epps said. “It’s rough out there; it’s tough out there. Some things might get said out there, but that’s heat of the moment, heat of the game. … Going to be a battle.”
If you covered up the team names and just looked at their numbers, it would be virtually impossible to tell South Carolina and Kentucky apart.
Both teams are averaging right at 78 points a game, give or take a tenth of a point. Both teams are averaging right at 47 percent shooting from the field while holding opponents to 33 percent and around 54 points per game.
Both teams are averaging around 5.3 blocked shots and eight steals.
South Carolina is averaging one more rebound (42.9) than Kentucky and they are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in defensive rebounds a game at 28.9 per contest.
Kentucky’s only real advantage statistically is free throw shooting with UK at 73.3 percent versus South Carolina’s 65.8 percent, but the Gamecocks get to the line more often.
Both teams have had strong post play this season with Alaina Coates (11.7 points, 10.7 rebounds a game) and A’ja Wilson (15.6 points, 9.2 rebounds) for South Carolina, and for UK there’s Alexis Jennings (10.4 points, 7.4 rebounds) and Evelyn Akhator (12.5 points and 10.3 rebounds).
“For them two to go out and play good tomorrow would be huge for us,” Epps said. “(Jennings) and Evelyn are rough; they’re body bangers and that’s what we’re going to need against South Carolina. You’ve got to go up on their body, got to get in there as if you were boxing with them. You’ve go to go with their bodies.”
Epps has her own mirror in two-time SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell (14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists per game). UK’s leading scorer, Epps is averaging 16.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
With matchups so equal, it comes down to “who plays harder and who fights harder and who’s able to get the rebounds and who’s able to make shots,” Mitchell said.
“I don’t know what unit from ours is going to exploit South Carolina. We’ve got to do it together as a team.”
Thompson meets Gamecocks again
It’s been a couple of days more than a year since Janee Thompson broke her leg in a battle for a loose ball against South Carolina’s Sessions.
It will be the first time the guard plays the Gamecocks since that horrific, season-ending injury at their place on Jan. 11.
But Mitchell isn’t worried about his senior’s mindset going into the game.
“I will be more concerned of dealing with her emotions going back into that building,” he said of Colonial Life Arena, where UK plays on Feb 4. “That was a tough day.”
He’s just happy to see her making big progress a year after that injury.
“She’s been real positive and upbeat,” he said. “And I think she’s excited, not because it’s South Carolina, but because it’s our next game at home and I know she wants to be really good her senior year and have a great year.”