The game we've had circled on our calendars since before the season began is here. The undefeated Gamecocks, the second best team in the country and fresh off their first Final Four appearance, are descending upon Lexington. Put your game faces on, Wildcat fans, because these kinds of games are what we all live for. It's a rivalry game, it's best on best, it's emotional and it's the reason SEC Women's basketball is the gold standard.
The Cats are coming off a solid but not terribly impressive road win Sunday over Georgia. The Cats shot a subpar 37% from the field, an acceptable 36% from three point range, and a fantastic 79% from the charity stripe. Four of five starters had double digit scoring performances: Makayla Epps (13), Alexis Jennings (12), Evelyn Akhator and Janee Thompson (10 a piece). Evelyn and Alexis both had double-doubles on the night, with this being Alexis's third straight double-double. Rebounding was definitely a strength, as the Cats managed to turn 17 offensive rebounds into 19 second chance points. Turnovers were the biggest issue, as this was the second SEC game where the Cats had over 20 turnovers. It wasn't a pretty win by any measuring stick, but it was a W on the road and we'll take it.
So what should we expect to see when South Carolina descends upon Lexington, the only place they suffered a loss in SEC play last season?
- Impressive Size: South Carolina is BIG, averaging over six feet in height. That's small by comparison when you look at two of their star players. Alaina Coates, who leads the league in career double-doubles is 6'4". She's tied for first in double-doubles on the season with her 6'5" Gamecock sister A'ja Wilson, who is trailing Alaina by a 100th of a point on rebounds per game. Adding insult to injury, Alaina is shooting 70% from the field. There's a reason they were pre-season all everything.
- Incredibly talented guards: She may be 5'9" in height, but the 2 time SEC POY and Naismith Trophy finalist Tiffany Mitchell isn't backing down from anyone. Tiffany is #2 in the league on both steals and scoring, and merely fourth in assists. She's also the third best three point shooter in the league.
- Extremely aggressive defense. Basically the Gamecocks are the Germans and we're the Allies trying to take Hill 314 in France. They will attempt to bludgeon us to death as we work our way up the court.
- Equally impressive offense. They're fast, they're aggressive, and they will force their way into the paint. As good as Evelyn and Alexis are getting, they will have to put on a monster performance to slow down the Carolina onslaught.
Interestingly enough, as good as Carolina is, it doesn't really show in their stats. At 65% they are the third worst free throw shooters in the SEC. They rank 5th in 3 point shooting, and are a hair behind #2 Kentucky in overall shooting (47% to UK's 47.2%). They only average 5.4 blocks per game, which puts them at 11 out of 14 in the league. They're ranked 8th in steals and assists. At this point you're probably asking "So how come they're so good?" Easy: most teams have to spread out their performances a little more. Carolina has that much talent locked into a few key players, whose athleticism really leaves you speechless. In short, Carolina is napalm: concentrated, lethal and incredibly destructive.
All that said, UK split the series with Carolina last year and we're starting off this one with a healthy Janee Thompson. Janee may be too smart to this to the media, but there will be a lot of emotion going on in that head. Matthew Mitchell referenced as much in his pre-game press conference. "We're passing a year (since the injury), so really, I'm amazed at how well she's done...She's getting better, she's moving better...I'll be more concerned about her dealing with those emotions. I just can't imagine that that's just going to be inconsequential. I think that will be tough... I talk to her every day about different things. And I always ask her how she's doing because I am concerned with her recovery, because it was not minor. It's not a sprained ankle. There's a piece of metal in her leg. So we're always talking about those things...She has a good poker face. I don't know if she plays a lot of poker or what but it's always, ‘I'm doing well, Coach.'"
So what are our keys to victory?
- Make every possession count. Smart shooting always matters but doubly so against Carolina's inside presence. We're not going to get a lot of looks at second chance points, so make the first shot count.
- Embrace the emotion. Anyone who thinks smart athletes play without emotion is deluded: the smart ones embrace it and use it to drive their performance. Janee will be emotional, but so will every one of her sisters. The crowd will be crazy. I've yet to see Dawn and Matthew pull off an attempt at getting along. It's going to be everything an SEC rivalry game should be: best on best, playing your hearts out, and drama at its finest.
- Effective Ball Movement. We simply cannot have 20 plus turnovers. If we do we'll lose any chance of managing to stay in this game.
TL; DR version of this preview: This is must see tv. You won't want to miss it. Tipoff is at 7 PM EST on the SEC Network. As always, you can listen in to Neil Price calling the game on 630 WLAP. However you tune in, you're in for a treat.
Until 7 PM EST WIldcat fans....GO BIG BLUE!!!!!