GREENVILLE, S.C. (USC SID) – No. 5/5 South Carolina used a late 12-3 run to win an 89-77 barnburner over No. 20/24 Kentucky Saturday evening in the SEC Tournament semifinals at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The Gamecocks (26-4) were efficient offensively early to build an 11-point halftime lead, but a Kentucky (21-10) third-quarter run narrowed the gap to three heading into the final period, which was tight until gritty defense and offensive contributions from a variety of sources sealed the victory.
Junior forward A’ja Wilson led the offense with 26 points to go with five blocks with three other Gamecocks joining her in double figures, including a career-high 17 points from freshman Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who got her second-straight start in place of the injured Alaina Coates. Junior guard Kaela Davis delivered an efficient 17 points and led the team with four assists, while Bianca Cuevas-Moore rounded out the quartet of double-digit scorers with 13 points, including five of the 10 game-sealing free throws in the final three minutes of the game.
After the Wildcats clawed their way back from the double-digit halftime deficit with strong offensive rebounding in the third quarter, Wilson opened the fourth with a putback and a traditional three-point play to doubled the Gamecocks’ lead to six early in the final period. Kentucky seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator looked to put their team on their backs, though, capitalizing on South Carolina miscues to stay within striking distance.
With the Gamecocks clinging to a 70-67 lead with 7:00 to play, Cuevas-Moore delivered a pair of momentum-turning plays. Her defense forced a Kentucky turnover, and her shot-clock beating 3-pointer from the right corner again doubled the Gamecocks’ lead with just under six minutes to play.
The teams exchanged trips to the free throw line, allowing Kentucky to keep it close. Alyssa Rice delivered an easy basket after a broken play left both teams scrambling just outside the lane to make it 76-73 with 3:53 on the clock. The junior center fouled out moments later defending Wilson, who delivered the first of what would be 12 points coming from the free throw line for South Carolina down the stretch. The SEC Player of the Year hit the second of two free throws moments later to put the Gamecocks back up 78-74 with three minutes on the clock.
Kentucky looked to get back in front from long range, despite hitting just being 1-of-12 from 3-point range to that point. Epps fired a 3 that Davis corralled for the Gamecocks, and the Wildcats quickly fouled Cuevas-Moore, who hit the first of her two free throws. Allisha Gray, who had been quiet throughout the game, battled for the rebound. Her putback came up short, but the Gamecocks stifled the Wildcats in transition, forcing a miss from Epps that Doniyah Cliney cleaned up, getting fouled in the process.
Cliney hit both free throws to make it 81-74 South Carolin with 2:15 to play. Again Gray came up big, swiping the ball from Maci Morris and driving in for a tough layup to push the lead to nine point with 2:05 on the clock. From there, solid free throw shooting from Cuevas-Moore and Wilson and tough rebounding delivered the victory and the Gamecocks into the SEC Tournament final for the third-straight season.
Offense dominated the first half for both teams, especially in the first quarter. South Carolina shot 72.2 percent from the field to Kentucky’s 62.5 percent accuracy with the Gamecocks creating extra possessions and hitting from the outside to take a 27-20 lead after the opening 10 minutes. The second quarter saw Kentucky cool off as South Carolina’s defense allowed just two points in the opening six minutes of the period. The Wildcats went to their leaders Epps and Akhator to end the skid as the duo netted their team’s final 14 points of the quarter. South Carolina kept pace, though, and took a 47-36 lead into the locker room at halftime behind a career-high 14 points from Herbert Harrigan.
Dawn Staley Opening Statement
We’re happy to be back in the SEC Tournament final after playing a tough Kentucky team that took it to the wire. It was great to have Alaina Caotes back even for a few minutes, but she will be out the rest of the tournament.
Transition defense that stopped a Makayla Epps layup attempt with 2:20 to play deflated the mounting momentum for the Wildcats.
South Carolina hit 15-of-17 free throws in the fourth quarter, including all eight of their final eight attempts to deliver the victory.
- South Carolina advances to the SEC Tournament final for the third-consecutive season. The Gamecocks won the title in both their previous trips to the championship game.
- The Gamecocks’ 72.2 percent shooting in the first quarter was their most efficient quarter of the season. Their 57.1 percent shooting for the game was also a season high.
- Freshman forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan posted a career-high points for the second-straight game, netting 17, including 14 on 7-of-7 shooting in the first half.
- Junior forward A’ja Wilson scored 26 points, her fourth 20-point game in the last five contests. She scored 16 of her points in the second half, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
- Senior center Alaina Coates was a game-time decision and came in during the second and fourth quarters, logging four minutes before leaving after re-aggravating the right ankle injury the kept her out of Friday’s game. She will not play on Sunday.
Top-seeded South Carolina will defend its SEC Tournament championship on Sun., Mar. 5, at 3 p.m. against the winner of the second semifinal between Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The game will air on ESPN2.