Box Score (South Carolina athletics media relations)
A week ago, the South Carolina women's basketball team no longer controlled its destiny. The Gamecocks lost control when they dropped a game at Missouri. However, the team made it a goal to control only what they could control and finish strong.
South Carolina did just that.
First, the Gamecocks beat Texas A&M on the road before coming back home on Sunday, Feb. 26, to pick up an exciting, 95-87 victory over rival Kentucky before a sellout crowd at Colonial Life Arena.
"It's the same mindset that we had at the beginning of the year," said A'ja Wilson, who led South Carolina with 25 points and 10 rebounds against the Wildcats. "Just sticking to our program and our system. I don't think I had a doubt in my mind that we weren't going to bounce back. I know a lot of people probably doubted us. It was a bumpy road for us this year."
With the win, the Gamecocks clinched at least a share of their fourth-straight SEC regular-season championship. Tennessee is the only other team to accomplish that feat. Kentucky actually helped the Gamecocks by upsetting Mississippi State at home earlier this week, which brought South Carolina back into the title conversation.
However, the Gamecocks were not helpful to the Wildcats on Sunday, using a balanced and efficient offensive attack to outscore Kentucky. It's becoming normal for the Gamecocks to celebrate SEC titles, but head coach Dawn Staley said this particular one has an extra special feel.
"It was much harder," Staley said of this year's journey to a title. "Much different personnel, the newness of it, the chemistry is a little bit different. It's just hard. It's a hard league to win in. There were things that we had to bring to our players' attention for them to really understand the importance of it."
The Gamecocks (24-4, 14-2 SEC) came out on a tear offensively to take an early lead over the Wildcats. A Wilson jumper was sandwiched between two Kaela Davis jumpers to make it 6-2. The senior Tiffany Davis then drilled a three and Kaela Davis' third make of the game gave South Carolina a 15-9 lead less than five minutes into the game.
The Gamecocks made their first seven field goal attempts.
"I think everyone is starting to click a little bit," Davis said. "Starting to get the hang of things. We've kind of figured each other out a little bit. Once that happens, it makes it easier to do what they do."
A Makayla Epps 3-pointer cut the Gamecock lead to three points, but South Carolina responded with an 8-0 run to stretch it back out. A Tyasha Harris three answered the Epps trey and Alaina Coates' three-point play ended the run as South Carolina held a 25-17 lead after one quarter.
A Kaela Davis shot and free throw by Allisha Gray extended South Carolina's lead to 30-19. Jumpers by Wilson and Kaela Davis allowed the Gamecocks to stay hot, but baskets by Maci Morris and Makenzie Cann brought the Wildcats within nine at 37-28 just over halfway through the second quarter.
Two free throws by Wilson and a Harris pull-up jumper made it a 13-point game again, but back-to-back traditional three-point plays by Taylor Murray brought Kentucky (20-9, 11-5 SEC) even closer. Suddenly, it was an 8-0 run and the Wildcats trailed, 43-38.
As they did the entire first half, the Gamecocks were able to respond. Two free throws by Kaela Davis made it 48-38, and South Carolina entered the halftime break with a 48-40 lead.
Kaela Davis had 13 points and Wilson added 12 points for the Gamecocks, who made 19-of-32 (59.4 percent) field goals. Kentucky was efficient on offense as well, making 14-of-31 (45.2 percent) field goals to keep itself in the game.
Cann nailed a three early in the third quarter to bring Kentucky to within 50-45, but once again the Gamecocks responded. A Harris shot restored a 10-point lead before Gray was fouled on a 3-pointer. She made all three free throws to give the Gamecocks a 60-47 lead.
A trey by Jaida Roper cut the lead to eight points, but Gray zipped into the lane for a layup that sent South Carolina into the final quarter with a 65-55 lead.
Kaela Davis registered a three-point play and Wilson drained a jumper that forced Kentucky to call timeout with just under eight minutes to play. The basket by Wilson gave the Gamecocks a 74-60 lead, which matched their largest of the game to that point.
Coates would go down in pain after scoring a basket later in the fourth quarter and had to be helped off the court and into the locker room. She would later return to the bench, and after the game Staley said her senior felt a little pain in her injured ankle, but should be fine.
Kentucky immediately went on a little run with Coaters out of the game. Aided by a Gamecock turnover, the Wildcats got a basket that made it a seven-point game midway through the final quarter.
Wilson responded on the other side of the court with a basket, but Morris drained a trey to make it 80-74. Layups by Gray and Wilson extended it back out to 10 and the Gamecocks would hang on for the monumental victory.
Along with Wilson's outstanding performance, Kaela Davis added 20 points, Gray pitched in 17 and Coates and Harris scored 13 points apiece. South Carolina shot extremely well in the first half, but it was even better in the second half. The Gamecocks finished by making 34-of-55 (61.8 percent) field goals. The Wildcats made 30-of-67 (44.8 percent).
South Carolina next plays in the SEC Tournament in Greenville on Friday, March 3. The opponent is to be determined, but the Gamecocks will be the No. 1 seed and will play at noon on Friday.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**