Is UK ready for their first shot at a #1 Seed? The Duke loss earlier this week opened the door for UK to step into the top 4 rankings this week with a sweep of both South Carolina and LSU. Kentucky travels to Columbia tonight for the first step in completing that task. UK is now ranked #4 by USA Today, and #5 by the AP. However, the AP poll came out before the Duke loss.
We are entering the world of the elite now, Wildcats fans. UK is truly as good as their hype, and if the last three games are any indication, the climb may not yet be over. What is Kentucky going to see in Columbia? Well let's take a look.
A'Dia Mathies is coming off her best game as a Wildcat, ever. DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker are now controlling the paint and making anyone who enters within pay the price. With Mathies and O'Neill burning UK opponents from the 3, and role players backing up Bria Goss at the 2, Kentucky is balanced, smooth, and starting to eliminate the ugly play from earlier this season when they would win, but never truly look like it.
If we know anything at all about this team by now, it is that if you give them an inch, they will take a mile. They use their "40 Minutes of Dread" to push you, scare you, harass you, and generally make your life miserable until you either break, or break down. Auburn Head Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy saw it as UK was running up the score, and was disrespecting her team.
I thought it was pretty un-classy to continue to press when you're up by 46 points," Williams-Flournoy said. "We're a pressing team also, and at some point, we do take the press off because that becomes not respectful of the other team."
UK sits at 18-1, 6-0 in SEC play. Their 17 game winning streak is the longest in the nation, and they are now hitting on all cylinders, and their defense has been almost flawless. Mitchell is still leery of South Carolina though, and UK still possesses a losing record at Columbia, winning 9 and losing 13.
I think that this is really becoming one of the most hotly-contested rivalries in our conference," UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We play South Carolina twice every year and as you go back and review the history of the games in the past five years, it is two teams that really, really, play hard and get after each other. It appears the players have great respect for each other and play really hard and compete really hard.We know that we will be in a real battle tomorrow night. Coach Staley is one of the toughest coaches to prepare for. Her teams are hard to prepare for because you know that they will play so incredibly tough so this will be a real test for us. It is one of the toughest defenses we have gone up against in quite some time. We will have to put everything we can into this one and play extremely well to earn a victory at South Carolina tomorrow night."
When asked about SC and how the game would be played in Columbia, Mathies had this to say about the Gamecocks:
I think they're just very quick. They have very quick, good guards. They're all strong and everybody is aggressive. Not one person is going to come out on the court and let down. They play hard every possession. They give it their all. I just remember it being a dogfight every time we play them."
South Carolina is ranked at #18/14, with a record of 16-3, 4-2 in the SEC, and they enter tonight's game having won their last two. The Gamecocks beat LSU last week at home 66-59 and won a 52-44 game at Florida on Sunday. South Carolina prides themselves on their defense as well, and they actually lead the SEC in points defense at 47.6 per game, and hold opponents to 34.3%. They also lead the league in rebounding margin at +11.6 per game. On paper, this is like two teams that mirror each other, but on the court it is much different. All of South Carolina's losses have come at the hands of ranked teams. They lost to then #1 Stanford, then #12/13 Tennessee, and then traveled to #13/12 Georgia for their last loss. South Carolina will press, zone, man-to-man, and mix defenses in order to confuse their opponents.
Something has to give here. Either UK's press is going to create a boatload of turnovers for a team that prides itself on not turning the ball over, or South Carolina is going to bring the UK scoring juggernaut to a screeching halt. My bet is on UK. South Carolina has not defeated a Top 5 opponent since Vandy in 1988, and they have lost to every team this season that plays anywhere near UK's level. I see a UK win 78-55. The game will be on SportsSouth TV in most markets, as well as the internet feed through WatchESPN.com.