COLUMBIA, S.C. (USC SID) – Junior center Alaina Coates poured in an SEC career-high 27 points, while forward A’ja Wilson added 18 points to propel No. 2/2 South Carolina to a 78-68 win over No. 18/18 Kentucky on Thursday night at Colonial Life Arena. The duo accounted for 15 of the 26 field goals for the Gamecocks, who forced the Wildcats to miss five of their final six shots of the game. Coates, who registered her SEC-leading 12th double-double after grabbing 13 boards, powered the Gamecocks throughout the contest and came up clutch on both ends of the court down the stretch.
With Gamecocks holding a four-point lead heading into the fourth quarter thanks to a banked-in 3-pointer from beyond halfcourt by Khadijah Sessions at the third-quarter buzzer, the teams traded baskets early in the final period before buckets from South Carolina senior guard Tina Roy and Coates made it 64-57 and forced a Kentucky timeout with 6:17 left to play. Tough defense from South Carolina forced five straight misses by the Wildcats and helped the Gamecocks maintain a seven-point advantage midway through the period.
After a 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Taylor Murray cut the South Carolina lead to 68-66, Coates delivered on South Carolina’s next trip down the floor, converting a three-point play to push the lead back to five. Less than a minute later, a block by Coates gave the ball back to the Gamecocks, who scored to make it 74-66 with 1:24 remaining. Off a Kentucky miss 16 seconds later, Coates’ pass in transition led to a layup by Sessions to make it a 10-point contest and out of reach for the Wildcats.
Wilson and Coates jumpstarted the South Carolina offense early in the first quarter, as the two combined for three field goals down low to give the Gamecocks a 7-4 advantage. Baskets in transition from guards Tiffany Mitchell and Sessions pushed the advantage to 11-4 over the Wildcats, who missed 10 of their first 12 attempts. The Gamecocks shot 50.0 percent from the floor in the opening 10 minutes, but their seven turnovers kept Kentucky within striking distance, and South Carolina headed to the first break with a 15-11 lead.
Redshirt freshman guard Doniyah Cliney came off the bench following the start of the second period and made an immediate impact, converting a three-point play to help South Carolina match its largest lead of the contest at 18-11. Kentucky saw its shots begin to fall over the next few minutes, and a 3-pointer by guard Janee Thompson followed by two jumpers helped the Wildcats grab a 21-20 lead with 5:53 left in the first half.
South Carolina regained the lead on a Bianca Cuevas layup before back-to-back hustle plays from Wilson helped the lead grow to 29-22. The sophomore grabbed the rebound off a missed free throw attempt by Coates and fed the ball back to Coates, who went on to register a three-point play after being fouled. On South Carolina’s next possession, Wilson again came down with the rebound following a Coates’ missed free throw, and she drew a foul before converting both attempts from the line. Wilson and Coates tallied 11 of the Gamecocks’ final 13 points of the half and combined for 20 first-half points for South Carolina, which took a 35-30 advantage into halftime.
Wilson reached double figures after scoring the first basket out of the break, and two more field goals from Coates in the paint made it 41-30. Kentucky answered South Carolina’s strong start to the period with a 10-2 run to cut the deficit to three before the Gamecocks pushed the advantage back to 49-40 after rattling off six-straight points. Led by guard Mikayla Epps, the Wildcats hung tough over the next couple of minutes and closed the gap to just one. She scored 13 third-quarter points, and her three-point play made it 54-53 late in the third quarter. The momentum swung back to the Gamecocks seconds later after Sessions banked home a 3-pointer from well beyond the half court line to send South Carolina into the final quarter with a 57-53 lead.
Epps finished with a team-high 17 points for the Wildcats, who saw four players reach double figures in the loss. South Carolina boasted a 39-32 rebound advantage and held Kentucky to just two 3-pointers. The Gamecocks went 7-of-11 from the floor in the fourth quarter and shot 62.5 percent in the second half.
Head Coach Dawn Staley
On the play of Alaina Coates
“I thought tonight was one of her best games. She focused on finishing and playing both sides of the ball. I thought she did a great job in the back of our defense and directing everyone on that end. I hope this is a prelude to the rest of the season.”
After an 11-3 run late in the third quarter brought Kentucky to within one point of the lead, guard Khadijah Sessions knocked down a 3-point buzzer beater from over 70 feet away to extend South Carolina’s lead heading into the last period.
South Carolina attempted 21 more free throws than the Wildcats, finishing the game 24-of-35 from the line. The Gamecocks entered Thursday’s contest ranked fifth in the nation in free throw attempts.
• With Thursday’s win, the Gamecocks completed the regular-season sweep of the Wildcats for the second time in the last three seasons. South Carolina has won five of its last seven contests against Kentucky overall.
• Junior center Alaina Coates’ performance against the Wildcats marked her third 20-point game of the season. Her 10 field goals were the most for her in SEC play this season.
• South Carolina has held six of its last seven opponents to three or fewer 3-pointers.
• The Gamecocks have totaled double-digit conference wins in each of the last five seasons.
• South Carolina senior guard Tiffany Mitchell left the game in the second quarter with a lower back injury and did not return. Head coach Dawn Staley indicated in the postgame press conference that Mitchell was cleared to return to the game and did not on Staley’s decision.
The Gamecocks round out their non-conference schedule on Mon., Feb. 8, when they host No. 1/1 UConn at Colonial Life Arena. The showdown between the nation’s top two teams tips off at 7 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.