COLUMBIA, S.C. (USC SID) – Paced by a season-best shooting performance and 20-point outings from juniors A’ja Wilson and Kaela Davis, No. 7/7 South Carolina topped No. 22/- Kentucky 95-87 to capture its fourth-straight SEC Regular-Season Championship Sunday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks, who finished the regular season at 24-4 overall and 14-2 in league play, secured the top seed in next week’s SEC Tournament. Kentucky ends the regular season at 20-9 and 11-5 in conference action following the loss.
Carolina shot a season-high 61.8 percent from the floor and maintained a double-digit lead throughout much of the second half. The Gamecocks connected on 10 of their final 14 field goal attempts, and Kentucky could not get any closer than within five over the final 20 minutes. Wilson finished with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting and added a game-high 10 rebounds, all of which came on the defensive end. The Hopkins, S.C., native tallied eight fourth-quarter points and assisted or scored on three of Carolina’s first four baskets of the period to deny any chance at a Kentucky comeback.
Davis powered the Gamecock offense in the early going and netted 13 of her 20 points in the first half. She shot 8-of-11 from the floor and added three assists in 31 minutes of action. Carolina freshman guard Tyasha Harris facilitated the offense throughout Sunday and finished with a career-best eight assists to go with 13 points, while junior guard Allisha Gray totaled 14 of her 17 points in the second half. Center Alaina Coates, one of two seniors to be honored prior to the game, nearly pushed her team-leading double-double total to 16 after finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds.
The Gamecocks opened the game perfect from the floor, connecting on their first seven field goals to jump out to a 15-9 lead with 6:03 left in the first period. Davis accounted for three of the baskets, the third of which rattled in following her shot attempt from the right side. The junior guard continued to generate the Gamecock offense, and a great look inside set up Wilson for an easy bucket to make it 17-11 midway through the quarter. Carolina’s backcourt delivered two more plays to stretch the lead to 22-14 when Harris knocked down a 3-pointer and junior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore registered a steal and layup on the break 20 seconds later. Coates’ three-point play late in the period capped an 8-0 Gamecock run, and Carolina headed into the first break with a 25-17 lead. Six players registered first-quarter points for the Gamecocks, who shot 57.9 percent from the floor over the first 10 minutes.
The Carolina guards remained the main source of the Gamecock offense, with the unit tallying 10 of the team’s first 12 points of the second quarter. Gray netted three points in the period’s first two minutes on a layup and free throw before a great heads up play from Cuevas-Moore put the Gamecocks ahead by double-digits at 32-22 with seven minutes to play in the first half. She followed her own shot and connected from just inside the free throw line, and a jumper from the right corner by Davis pushed the advantage to 36-22 with just under six minutes left in the second quarter.
It remained a double-digit cushion for the Gamecocks over the next few minutes before an 8-0 Kentucky run brought the Wildcats to within five at 43-38 with 1:57 to go in the half. A jumper inside from Wilson halted the run, and Carolina scored five of the half’s final seven points to grab a 48-40 lead as the teams headed into the locker room. Wilson totaled 12 first-half points, while Davis led all Gamecocks with 13 in the opening two periods after beginning the game 5-of-6 from the floor.
The teams traded jumpers out of the break before a 3-pointer from the Wildcats cut the Gamecock lead to 50-45 less than three minutes into the third quarter. Carolina responded when Gray drove into the lane before converting a difficult layup from the left block to make it 52-45, and a layup from Wilson 32 seconds later gave the Gamecocks a 54-47 advantage with 6:23 to play in the third period. Harris’ jumper from the top of the paint put Carolina ahead 57-47, and the advantage grew to 13 at when Gray knocked down three free throws after being fouled on a 3-pointer attempt from the corner with four minutes left in the quarter. The Wildcat offense struggled for much of the period but showed signs of life down the stretch with six of the quarter’s final eight points. Wilson again made plays down the stretch, as the forward came up with a crucial steal before adding three free throws over the final 1:40 to help send the Gamecocks into the final break with a 65-55 lead.
With Wilson still in a groove, Carolina scored on each of its first four possessions of the final quarter to stay comfortably in front. The junior found Coates down low for a basket that made it 67-55, and her jumper from the left corner of the paint gave the Gamecocks a 68-58 lead with 8:30 left in the contest. Another jumper from Wilson put her above 20 points for the game and established a 74-60 advantage for Carolina less than a minute later, and Coates’ second field goal of the period kept it a 14-point margin at 76-62 with 6:35 remaining. The teams exchanged layups over the next minute before the Wildcats reeled off seven-straight points to get back to within single digits and make it 78-71. Wilson answered the call again with a timely bucket down low, but Kentucky responded with another field goal from deep to cut the Carolina lead to 80-74 midway through the quarter. The Wildcats couldn’t get any closer the rest of the way, and baskets inside from Gray and Wilson stretched the advantage to 84-74 with less than three minutes to play. Each of Carolina’s final nine points came from the line, with Harris accounting for six of them.
The Gamecocks held a 42-32 advantage in points in the paint and received 21 points from their bench. Carolina recorded four of the game’s five blocks and scored 11 points off nine Kentucky turnovers.
On Carolina’s road to another SEC Regular-Season Championship and how it compares to years past
“They’re all equally special because you have a different group of players that you share them with. Although everyone had us winning the regular-season championship, I thought we would take some hits going into SEC play. They’re new and inexperienced, and I didn’t know how quickly we could gel. This is pretty special, especially since a week ago we didn’t control our own destiny. It makes it that much more special because we fought our way back.”
Carolina’s efficient start to the fourth quarter kept the Gamecocks in control down the stretch of the game. The Gamecocks scored a bucket on each of their first four possessions of the period, the fourth of which made it 74-60 with 7:39 to play.
The Gamecocks shot the ball well from start to finish against the Wildcats, sporting a season-best 61.8 percent shooting from the field. Juniors A’ja Wilson and Kaela Davis finished a combined 18-of-25 from the floor.
- South Carolina joins Tennessee as the only programs to win at least four consecutive SEC Regular-Season Championships.
- The Gamecocks finished the regular season with a mark of 7-1 against ranked opponents. Three of their seven victories came by double-digits.
- Carolina’s 95 points against the Wildcats were its most in SEC play this season. The performance marked the second time the Gamecocks scored at least 90 points in conference action this year.
- Forward A’ja Wilson has registered 20-point outings in three straight games for the first time in her career.
The top-seeded Gamecocks open play at the 2017 SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C., on Fri., March 3, in the quarterfinal round. Carolina’s opponent will be determined in Thursday’s second-round action, and the game will tip off at Noon on SEC Network.