JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (USC SID) – No. 3/2 South Carolina opened the game on a 7-2 run and kept its foot on the gas throughout to power past No. 13/13 Kentucky, 93-63 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament Saturday night. Five Gamecocks (30-1, 16-0 SEC) scored in double figures, including 20 points from senior guard Tiffany Mitchell, who hit four of the Gamecocks’ season-high 12 3-pointers. The offense was perfectly balanced with 36 points coming via the 3-pointer and 38 scored in the paint, which helped junior center Alaina Coates deliver her 17th double-double of the season.
Mitchell hit a pair of 3s early, netting six of the team’s first 14 points just four minutes into the contest. Meanwhile, Coates and A’ja Wilson hit mid-range jumpers early to loosen the Wildcats’ interior defense. On the other end of the floor, South Carolina pressured Kentucky from the outset, turning miscues into easy offense that had the Wildcats on their heels. Kentucky’s Makayla Epps scored on back-to-back possessions, looking to stop the Gamecocks’ early momentum, but the defense would not have it.
With a 16-10 lead after a Wilson jumper from the free throw line, Khadijah Sessions emphatically blocked Taylor Murray’s layup attempt out of bounds. On the in-bounds Wilson disrupted interior passes, getting the ball quickly to Asia Dozier who found Mitchell leaking out for an easy layup. Coates stepped up with solid defense on the next trip up the floor, forcing an offensive foul the secured the defensive board on the next Wildcat trip up the floor. Another block from Wilson sent the Gamecocks back on offense where Sarah Imovbioh pushed the lead to 21-10 before Alexis Jennings ended a 2:32 scoreless drought.
Trialing by seven heading into the second quarter, Kentucky opened the period with a 3, but South Carolina went right back to work with Sessions burying the first of her two 3s on the night. While Coates locked up the Wildcats on the other end, securing a physical rebound and blocking a shot on back-to-back possessions, she added a putback and Mitchell closed the 7-0 run with a driving layup for a 30-19 South Carolina advantage. Kentucky found their footing offensively in the second quarter, but the Gamecocks would not relent on the offensive end, carrying a 42-13 lead into halftime after Sessions’ 3 closed out the period.
The intensity of the rivalry continued to stoke the Gamecocks in the second half, who locked up defensively, holding the Wildcats scoreless over a nearly five-minute stretch, while Wilson and Coates scored nine straight points and Mitchell capped the 11-0 run with a pull-up jumper at the free throw line to make it a 53-33 margin with 4:59 to go in the third quarter. Leading 63-42 heading into the fourth quarter, South Carolina kept up the pressure and further extended its lead with a barrage of 3-pointers, including back-to-back strikes from Bianca Cuevas, another from Mitchell and one from Tina Roy to close out a 14-8 quarter-opening run that put the game well out of reach.
Mitchell’s 20 points led all scorers, marking her sixth 20-point outing of the season and her second in the last three games. Wilson scored 18, including 10 in the second half on 4-of-4 shooting despite taking a hard foul early in the third quarter. Cuevas posted 15 points, her most against an SEC opponent this season. Coates’ 13 came on 6-of-10 shooting, and Sessions rounded out the double-digit scorers with 10 to go with her three steals. Senior guard/forward Asia Dozier handed out a career-high nine assists as the Gamecocks assisted on 23 of 37 made field goals.
Head Coach Dawn Staley
On if this was her team’s most complete game of the season
“It felt pretty good to have the balance that we had on both sides of the ball, the energy on the bench. When everyone’s number was called, people came in and impacted the game. That’s kind of what you want to see. I want to bottle it up and take it into tomorrow’s championship game.”
South Carolina’s defense held Kentucky scoreless for 4:57 early in the third quarter while Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson scored 11 unanswered points to establish a 53-33 lead from which the Wildcats could not recover.
After turning in its worst shooting percentage of the season in the quarterfinal against Auburn, South Carolina launched its fourth-best mark of the season against Kentucky, hitting 52.9 percent, including 84.6 percent in the fourth quarter
• South Carolina’s 52.9 percent field goal shooting was its highest this season against a ranked opponent, just topping the 52.0 percent against the Wildcats at Colonial Life Arena on Feb. 4.
• The 12 made 3-pointers were the most by the Gamecocks in the Dawn Staley era, taking over the previous record of 11.
• The Gamecocks’ 30-point victory made South Carolina the second program to win consecutive SEC Tournament semifinal games by 20-plus points, joining Vanderbilt, which did it in 1993, 1994 and 1994.
• South Carolina’s 93 points were the most in an SEC Tournament game since Florida netted 98 against Mississippi State in the first round of the 2006 tournament. It is the Gamecocks’ highest point total in SEC Tournament history, shattering the previous record of 80 against Kentucky in 1994.
Top-seeded South Carolina faces No. 16/16 Mississippi State, the tournament’s third seed, in the SEC Championship game on Sun., March 6, at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN. It is the Gamecocks’ second-straight title game appearance as they look to become just the third program to win both the regular-season and tournament championships in back-to-back seasons.