GREENVILLE – South Carolina had to fight hard for it, but in the end the Gamecocks were able to do enough to punch their ticket to the SEC Tournament Championship game for the third consecutive season.
The Gamecocks held a 14-point second-half lead against Kentucky on Saturday, March 4, but the Wildcats cut the lead down to two points before South Carolina pulled away for an 89-77 win at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
"Basketball is a game of runs, and I think Kentucky had their run and we were kind of slacking on the defensive end," said A'ja Wilson, who led South Carolina with 26 points. "Once we got back on track, I think we started to see South Carolina basketball."
South Carolina got off to a roaring start offensively, and was able to set the tone against the Wildcats early.
"We were excited to get out here and play once again," head coach Dawn Staley said. "We got behind the crowd that was really loud and proud."
The last meeting between these two teams was a shootout, and it started that way once again on Saturday. Wilson started the game with a midrange jumper before Mikiah Herbert Harrigan grabbed an offensive rebound and scored. Wilson added another basket, and Kaela Davis scored five straight to give South Carolina an early 11-4 lead.
Wilson added another jumper before Kentucky (21-10) answered, and it was 17-10 Gamecocks with 4:36 left in the first quarter.
Davis kept up her hot start with a nice up and under move that resulted in a basket. On the next possession, the junior lofted a pinpoint pass to Wilson, who finished with the layup. With her team down nine points, Makayla Epps scored back-to-back baskets to bring the Wildcats to within 23-18.
It was still a five point game when Herbert Harrigan nailed a long jumper at the first quarter buzzer to give the Gamecocks (26-4) a 27-20 lead after one.
South Carolina was hot from the field in the first quarter, making 13-of-18 field goals.
Bianca Cuevas-Moore would give the Gamecocks a 13-point lead with a 3-pointer, but Epps would continue to keep the Wildcats in the game. Back-to-back scores by her brought Kentucky within nine points before the Gamecocks were able to answer again.
Herbert Harrigan ended the first half with a flourish, hitting a nice turnaround shot, and the Gamecocks got another basket when Allisha Gray knocked the ball loose, stole it and scored on the other end to make it a 13-point game again.
Kentucky's Evelyn Akhator scored late in the half to make it a 47-36 South Carolina lead at halftime. Herbert Harrigan notched 14 points in the first half, which was already a career high for the freshman.
South Carolina stayed hot from the field and made 22-of-34 (64.7 percent) field goals in the opening two quarters. The Wildcats made 16-of-33 (48.5 percent) field goals. Epps' 16 first-half points for the Wildcats were a game high.
Makenzie Cann's 3-pointer to start the second half cut the Gamecock lead to single digits again, but South Carolina responded with a run. Wilson recorded a layup and Davis notched back-to-back baskets to give the Gamecocks a 53-39 advantage. Tyasha Harris added a trey at the shot clock buzzer to make it 60-47.
Then it was Kentucky's turn to make a run. Akhator converted a traditional three-point play, then scored again after a Maci Morris basket, and Epps added a shot of her own and it was suddenly a four-point game.
Two Herbert Harrigan free throws broke the 9-0 Wildcat run, but Epps' score moments later made it 62-60, forcing South Carolina to call a timeout.
Coming out of the timeout, Alaina Coates was fouled on a drive to the basket, but on the play re-injured her ankle. The senior missed the quarterfinal game with the injury, but returned against Kentucky. She left the game unable to put any weight on her ankle.
Staley said after the game that Coates will miss the championship game, but will be back in time for the NCAA Tournament.
The Gamecocks were able to cling on to a 63-60 lead at the end of three quarters, but Kentucky ended the frame on a 16-3 run and had the momentum entering the final quarter.
A tip-in and three-point play allowed Wilson to score the first five points of the fourth quarter for the Gamecocks, who led by six at that point. Epps used a steal and score, however, to bring Kentucky right back to within three points just moments later.
Cuevas-Moore made it a six-point lead when she dribbled through the paint, brought the ball back outside the three-point arc, and drained a three. However, Alyssa Rice's shot made it 75-73 with just under four minutes to play.
That would be as close as Kentucky would get.
Wilson made two free throws, Cuevas-Moore made one and Doniyah Cliney made a pair of her own to give South Carolina an 81-74 lead with 2:15 to play. Allisha Gray recorded a giant steal on the next possession and scored on the other end to bring the roof off the Gamecock-leaning crowd at Bon Secours.
"It was the CLA in there," Wilson said. "I remember playing defense one time and my ears were ringing, and I was like, 'Well, Gamecock fans are here.' It was nice seeing everyone head up here to Greenville to support us."
From there, South Carolina made the necessary free throws to come away with the win that sent them to the SEC Tournament Championship game.
"We weren't going to leave until we knew the game was won," Wilson said.
Wilson's 26 points and eight rebounds led South Carolina while Davis and Herbert Harrigan added 17 points apiece. Cuevas-Moore chipped in 13 points as well.
The Gamecocks will take on the winner of the Mississippi State-Texas A&M game on Sunday, March 5, for the right to be called champions. Tipoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. and can be seen nationally on ESPN2.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**