A brutal stretch to start the SEC schedule finally quiets down with one more top 10 matchup later on Sunday.
The No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team (9-2) is set to take on the No. 5 South Carolina Gamecocks (7-1) inside of Memorial Coliseum later today at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN. The ‘Cats have opened up conference play against three top 12 opponents, earning wins against No. 10 Arkansas and No. 12 Mississippi State, but fell most recently to No. 8 Texas A&M earlier this week.
UK fought hard against the Aggies in the first half, but eventually slowed up against a team that was simply better on that night. Rhyne Howard was marvelous once again as she continues to dominate her interconference foes, however, she fell victim to tired legs down the stretch. Regardless, losing to a team that hasn’t lost a game this season shouldn’t cloud the fact that Kentucky is still having an incredible year, working the issues out along the way. A win against South Carolina in a few hours would shed a completely different light on the Wildcats.
SC should be playing in its fourth SEC game, but had to postpone its outing against the Georgia Bulldogs that was previously expected for Thursday due to “a positive COVID-19 test, contact tracing and subsequent quarantining”. Despite that, today’s game is still in order to tipoff on time.
*EDIT: According to Mechelle Voepel of ESPN, a player within the Carolina program initially tested positive for COVID-19, sparking the pause, but tested negative three times in a row after that, allowing for the hold to be lifted.*
Kentucky has earned its top 10 rankings, and they can keep it by beating the Gamecocks. This game was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. on ESPN2, but received the bump to ESPN for what is a highly anticipated matchup in the women’s college basketball scene.
Let’s preview the toughest challenge yet for Kyra Elzy and the ‘Cats.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
South Carolina has just one loss on the season, which came in its fourth game of the season against an N.C. State squad that has yet to lose (10-0) and is currently tied with UConn for the No. 3 ranking in the country. SC was admittedly outplayed by the Wolfpack, falling 54-46 in the only game this season that they haven’t scored at least 77 points.
Head coach of South Carolina, the legendary Dawn Staley, was irate in the postgame press conference following the loss, ripping her squad for a terrible performance (although to be fair, N.C. State was hardly any better).
“We just had no flow. We were a team that I’ve never seen before. I’ve never coached a team that performed that way,” Staley said. “It was pickup basketball. I’m just not used to it, so we’re going to have figure some things out.”
*Make no mistake, this team is still incredibly good, but probably not as impressive as the undefeated team that would have gone into the 2020 NCAA Tournament as the undisputed favorites to win it all had it not been canceled. They were a juggernaut from day one; this team has obvious flaws.*
Some context is needed, too. Carolina’s loss to N.C. State was sandwiched in between matchups against two fellow top 25 opponents in Gonzaga (No. 21) and Iowa State (No. 23), both of which resulted in victories. SC has played in four games since falling to the Wolfpack, winning by an average of over 28 points per outing, two of those games coming against SEC schools: Florida and Alabama.
What this South Carolina team does best, as they typically have under Staley, is rebound the hell out of the ball.
As a team, they grab the fourth-most rebounds per game in the nation at 52.2, outrebounding opponents by 18.9 boards per outing, a mark good enough for third in the country. They boast more players on their roster that are taller than 6-foot-1 than ones are smaller. Kentucky may be an improved rebounding team this year (39.4 rebounds per game compared to 33.8 in 2019-20), but still can’t compete on the glass with the Gamecocks to the level they would like. It’s going to be about weathering the storm, maybe forcing some of the key post players into foul trouble, and giving up as few second-chance opportunities as possible (South Carolina also ranks fourth among Divison I schools in offensive rebounding at 19.1 per game).
Looking down at the rest of the stats and advanced analytics for South Carolina, there really aren’t many things they might be considered below average at. They pour in 82.9 points per game–one of the highest in the nation–on 44.5 percent shooting from the field and 34.5 percent from long range–two more-than-respectable figures.
The rebounding is obviously elite thanks to the superior height, which ties into their 6.9 blocks per game, another mark that ranks fourth in the country. Carolina shares the ball well and hardly ever turns it over. Despite all of those post players, they haven’t been susceptible to foul trouble, either.
But as I alluded to earlier, this team does have its imperfections.
For one, they are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country. Carolina only makes its freebies at a 61.9 percent clip, which ranks in the 12th percentile among all Divison I schools, according to Her Hoop Stats, and aren’t exactly nuanced when it comes to drawing fouls. You put the South Carolina post players on the free-throw line and they will give away points (except for Zia Cooke. Do NOT foul her).
South Carolina isn’t going to over-push the pace or force Kentucky into a multitude of turnovers. The ‘Cats will hopefully be able to play at its own speed.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH
Kentucky has faced three consecutive National Player of the Year candidates in its first three SEC games, so why not close out the fourth with one more? Unfortunately, South Carolina’s star might be the best of the lot.
Sophomore center Aliyah Boston has been tearing apart opposing frontcourts since the moment she stepped on the floor a season ago. Rhyne Howard might the favorite to repeat as the SEC’s Player of the Year, but Boston has been coming for that crown. Through seven games she’s averaging 13.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per outing while shooting 49.4 percent from the floor.
Here’s what you need to know about Boston. She’s 6-foot-5 and cleans up rebounds better than nearly anyone in the nation and has expanded her offensive game beyond the paint. She’s coming off a 28-point, 16-rebound performance against Florida in her most recent outing where she went 11-18 from the floor and 3-5 from deep. Boston (along with Howard) was recently tabbed to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 Watch List. She was the SEC Freshman of the Year a season ago and is now a team captain in year two.
Next to Boston in the frontcourt will be 6-foot-2 junior forward Victaria Saxton, the Gamecocks’ second-leading rebounder at 7.4 boards per game. She’s the team’s leading overall shot blocker with 17 on the year but also contributes on the offensive end, putting up 9.4 points. Saxton is a two-time captain for Coach Staley, steadily improving as the season has gone along. She’s averaging 12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks over her last three games.
Rounding out the starting lineup is a trio of talented guards, led by 5-foot-9 sophomore Zia Cooke, one of the best in the nation at her position and the one player Kentucky cannot let shoot from outside. Her 32 3-point attempts are tops on SC and she’s hitting them at a 50 percent clip. She leads Carolina in scoring at 18.9 and has recorded double-digits in every game this season, including 26 points against Florida. Cooke has also improved during league play, and alongside fellow guard Destanni Henderson, the duo has made for a deadly backcourt.
Henderson is the third and last Gamecock who averages double-figures in scoring at 11.0 per game on 42.9 percent shooting and has shown the capability to knock down an outside shot or two if left open. At 5-foot-7 she’ll be the smallest starter for SC, yet she still manages 5.6 boards per game while directing the offense to the tune of a team-high 39 assists, or 5.5 dimes per game, good enough for second in the SEC.
Last but certainly not least is 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Brea Beal, who has gotten off to a rough start to the year after being named to the Cheryl Miller Award Watch List earlier in the preseason. She’s still started all seven games this season, averaging 7.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game while shooting 38.9 percent from the floor.
Diving into the bench is nothing but height. Coach Staley will bring 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Laeticia Amihere off the pine first, as she keeps Carolina’s size up without sacrificing much scoring. Amihere is averaging 8.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in under 20 minutes per game as the backup post. Her shooting isn’t a strong suit for her, however, and she leads the team in personal fouls.
Next we have 6-foot-2 senior guard LeLe Grissett who comes in for roughly 17 minutes per game. She’s incredibly versatile and can even handle some point guard duties when necessary. Grissett is also a well-rounded defender. The last two players off Coach Staley’s bench will likely be 5-foot-9 junior guard Destiny Littleton and 6-foot-1 first-year guard Eniya Russell.
ABOUT THE MATCHUP
This will be the 68th all-time meeting between these two programs, with the Wildcats barely holding onto a 34-33 edge.
I say “barely” because South Carolina has dominated Kentucky over the last five or so seasons, even if 17 of the last 19 matchups have come with both teams ranked in the top 25. The Gamecocks are currently on an 11-1 winning streak that dates back to 2016 and hold a 17-10 record since Coach Staley took over.
Last season, SC took down Kentucky twice, once down in Columbia by a blowout score of 99-72 before UK performed slightly better in round two, but still losing 67-58 in Lexington.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that it will be nice when Kentucky doesn’t have to play a nationally ranked opponent.