LEXINGTON — The confidence gained by Kentucky’s 75-71 win at 10th-ranked Tennessee Sunday proved to be just a smokescreen as fourth-ranked South Carolina came to Memorial Coliseum Thursday and embarrassed the 15th-ranked Wildcats, 81-58.
Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks improved to 24-2 overall and 12-1 in the Southeastern Conference by whipping Kentucky (19-7, 7-6) in every way imaginable.
Aleighsa Welch, a 6-foot junior forward, played like she was 7-feet, pouring in 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking five shots.
“She has to be the player of the year in our league,’’ said UK coach Matthew Mitchell of Welch.
But Welch was just one cog in what seemed like a wave of big, strong, fast and hungry Gamecocks.
Elem Ibiam, a 6-4 junior, added 16 points and four rebounds.
Alaina Coates, a 6-4 freshman, had eight points and six rebounds.
Those three dominated Kentucky’s highly touted senior bigs, 6-3 DeNesha Stallworth and 6-1 Samari Walker, holding Stallworth to six points and five rebounds and Walker to six points and three rebounds.
“They’re just so big and aggressive,” Mitchell said of the Gamecocks. “And we didn’t compete hard enough. When you go up against a talented team like that, you’ve got to compete really hard. We didn’t compete nearly as hard as South Carolina, and that’s what makes tonight so disappointing.”
Mitchell’s team was further frustrated because when the Wildcats tried to tighten things up in the lane, South Carolina’s guards made Kentucky pay on the perimeter.
Sophomore guards Khadijah Sessions and Tiffany Mitchell were both formidable, with Sessions contributing 18 points and Mitchell 12 points and seven rebounds.
South Carolina out-rebounded Kentucky by the mind-blowing margin of 44-19.
“Toughness was definitely lacking,” said UK junior guard Jennifer O’Neill. “We didn’t have enough people going to the boards. I don’t think people wanted to grab rebounds, to be honest.”
“I think we gave Kentucky a taste of its own medicine,” said USC’s Staley. “They like to push the ball and get the ball into the paint. Sometimes when that is your strength, it is also your weakness. We wanted to make sure we were equally as aggressive getting the ball to the paint, whether that was through our post players or through penetration.”
South Carolina hit 52.6 percent of its shots from the field, on 30 of 57. The Gamecocks were also 17 of 20 at the free throw line.
Kentucky was 23 of 61 from the field for 37.7 percent, and eight of nine at the free throw line.
“I think Kentucky shot a lot of shots,” Staley said. “Fortunately, we were in a position where we could get the rebound.”
“I think it was just a great team effort,” Welch said.
The Wildcats trailed 36-28 at the half, fell behind 52-32 in the first five minutes of the second half, rallied within 59-48 with 9:31 left and then rejoined the collapse.
Now Kentucky faces the daunting task of picking up the pieces Sunday at 13th-ranked Texas A&M.
“We just have to stay really disciplined and really focused, let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that will actually impact the game,” Mitchell said. “The score of this game will not impact Sunday’s game unless we come in down tomorrow and act defeated and discouraged.”
Staley, meanwhile, hopes the glory days continue for her Gamecocks, who don’t have a senior in their top 10 players.
“Our coaching staff is thrilled every day to go to practice,” Staley said.
Freshman guard Makayla Epps, oh by the way, had 18 points Thursday in her best game at Kentucky.
But Epps wasn’t in any mood to celebrate that or anything else.
“We’ve been there before ... it’s not like this is our first loss,” Epps said, looking at the bright side, sort of. “We’ve been in this position before.”
Sadly, that’s true.