The No. 20 UK Hoops were due to finally knock off A'ja Wilson and the No. 5 South Carolina Gamecocks. The Cats got so close in the regular season finale in Columbia in their best-played loss of the season. Sweeping another team in three meetings is just plain difficult.
Despite a double-digit deficit early in the second half, a defacto home game for the Gamecocks, and Taylor Murray on the bench due to a neck injury sustained in Friday's win over Alabama, Kentucky was close to pulling the upset.
That was until they ran into a brick wall built by the officiating crew's whistles and the superb play of Wilson down the stretch.
The 89-77 loss drops Matthew Mitchell's team to 21-10, and now he and the team must wait two weeks to find out their draw in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky Fell In A Hole Early
USC pounced on the Cats in the early going, establishing an early 8-2 lead thanks to Wilson's work in the paint and the smooth passing of Kaela Davis.
The lead grew to nine points, 21-12, late in the first quarter. Quick buckets by Makayla Epps and Maci Morris cut the lead to five on two occasions, but each time the Gamecocks' Mikiah Herbert Hartigan sliced UK's momentum with a jumper on the other end of the court.
The teams swapped baskets for most of the 2nd quarter with South Carolina holding a ten point lead throughout. The margin even increased to 13 at one point. Steady play from seniors Epps and Akhator kept the ladies in blue afloat.
South Carolina lead at the half, 47-36.
The Cats Made A Run Late in the 3rd
By the 5:09 mark of the 3rd quarter, South Carolina's lead had grown to 60-47. However, Kentucky managed to silence the Gamecocks for the rest of the quarter thanks to inspired defense and tenacious rebounding.
Stellar passing by Morris, hard play by Akhator in the post, and Epps mid-range shooting fueled a 13-3 run that got Kentucky to within three, 63-60 going into the final quarter.
Enter The Wall
Alyssa Rice scooped up a loose ball and laid it in with 4:13 to play. Her bucket cut South Carolina's lead to two, 75-73. Rice played hard the entire game, even when she was in foul trouble late. Her size also helped counteract the Gamecocks dominance in the post. When she fouled 20 seconds later, the dynamics of the contest changed.
The Gamecocks were able to feed Wilson at will in the post, and as UK's defense sagged to suffocate her, Wilson kicked the ball out to a teammate streaking to the basket. With a defender usually out of place, the Cats had no choice but to foul.
USC hit 12-of-14 foul shots to close the game and ended it on a 14-2 run.
Wilson finished with 26 points, eight rebounds, and five blocks
The Seniors Carried the Cats
After struggling during the game in Columbia, Akhator and Epps played like they had an ax to grind.
Epps led all scorers 31 points, nine rebounds, and three dimes. She provided most of UK's scoring punch in the opening 20 minutes and stayed aggressive throughout the entire contest.
Akhator recorded another double-double, 24 points, and 11 rebounds. Her high motor demanded South Carolina's immediate attention, and if this continues going into the NCAA Tournament, then UK will be able to spread the floor more often.