The frigid cold temperatures didn’t stop the Big Blue faithful from piling into Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night, but their No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats (17-5) couldn’t pull off the win over the No. 16 South Carolina Gamecocks (15-5).
Behind a combined 49 points from the excellent scoring trio of Maci Morris, Rhyne Howard, and Taylor Murray, the Wildcats couldn’t come up with enough offense in the second half, falling at home by a score of 70-74.
The last few games have seen a flat-footed Kentucky team come out of the gates and it was a welcome surprise to see the Wildcats break out to an early 7-2 lead.
Kentucky was getting open looks through the first few minutes and knocking them down with regularity. The defense was even holding its own on the other end, as well.
The first eight minutes of this game was all about the blue and white. A 6-0 personal run from Morris, a big three from Howard, and a drawn charge from freshman Blair Green had Memorial rocking early.
Then that infamous slow start reared its ugly head, but in the form of a second-quarter meltdown.
The Cats were leading 20-17 after the first quarter, but managed only eight points in the second and gave up 14 in the process.
Had it not been for back-to-back made triples by Morris, the score could have been even more lopsided. Kentucky’s offense went completely stagnant. Players were constantly moving in halfcourt offensive sets, but with hardly any direction. Plays would be called out only for them to immediately die if the first action wasn’t there. Some credit should be given to South Carolina’s defense, as they did their best to run Kentucky off the perimeter and forced them to try and make plays inside. Outside of Morris, scoring was hard to come by.
The Gamecocks were playing an inside game while the Cats were playing on the outside. The former proved to be the more effective style throughout the game. Carolina outscored Kentucky in the paint 18 to 8 in the first half behind eight points from both Alexis Jennings and Te’A Cooper.
Perhaps the most glaring point of emphasis that was completely absent from Kentucky was their lack of full court press. The Gamecocks did a terrific job of immediately pushing the ball after a made basket, refusing to allow the Cats even a second to get into their dangerous press. At halftime, Carolina had only five turnovers.
The third quarter did not get off to an encouraging start.
Everything that plagued the Cats through the first 20 minutes stuck to them through the majority of the third period. Kentucky had no luck establishing the full court press and it felt like they were constantly defending an onslaught of fastbreak opportunities.
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell was forced to burn two timeouts less than four minutes into the third quarter just so his team could refocus and try to settle down.
Every time the Cats hit a big shot or wanted to make a run, the Gamecocks would immediately counter. A quick 5-0 run powered by Murray to end the third quarter gave Kentucky a chance heading in the fourth, but they still trailed 44-55.
Unfortunately, that last minute energy couldn’t translate into the final quarter.
South Carolina continued to run all over Kentucky, pushing the pace any chance they got and punishing the Cats for lackadaisical defense. The Gamecocks would win the overall battles in the paint, in transition, and on the glass. Kentucky, known for their defensive intensity, forced only 12 Carolina turnovers on the night.
Kentucky would cut the double-digit lead down to nine on several occasions – and even had it down to only a three-point Carolina advantage with 1.6 seconds left – but could never get enough stops down the stretch to make it a truly nervous ending as the Gamecocks iced the game away with late free throws.
After shooting over 55 percent from the field in the first quarter, Kentucky would convert on only 34 percent of their attempts through the next three.
Kentucky will take on Florida at Rupp Arena on Sunday, Feb. 3 with the game being televised on SEC Network.
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