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PREVIEW: No. 17 Kentucky WBB looks to exact revenge on No. 2 South Carolina in Columbia

Hannah Phillips | UK Athletics

Hannah Phillips | UK Athletics

Kentucky has come a longggg way since losing to South Carolina earlier in the season.

The No. 17 Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team (15-5, 8-4 in SEC) initially faced the Gamecocks (17-3, 12-1 in SEC) all the way back on Jan. 10 inside of Memorial Coliseum, losing 75-70 in a tightly contested affair. It was the fourth and final matchup for Kentucky in which they played four consecutive teams ranked among the AP top 12. The ‘Cats posted a 2-2 record over that span–which opened up SEC play for them–and have since gone 6-2 during conference play.

UK sits on an 8-4 SEC record, which is tied with Georgia for the fourth-best record in the league. Despite what the win-loss column might indicate, Kentucky has had to do some serious soul-searching the last few weeks. After Tennessee destroyed the ladies by 17 points nearly one month ago, the ‘Cats shrunk under the continuing pressure. A 6-point win over a Missouri squad that was 6-6 at the time did no favors to inject optimism and the season felt to be on the cusp of a total collapse after losing by 12 to Ole Miss the next time out, who is 3-8 in SEC play this year.

But rookie head coach Kyra Elzy just needed some time to toy with her rotations. The insertion of Jazmine Massengill into the starting lineup, where she plays points guard with Chasity Patterson sliding down to the two-guard, has unleashed a rhythmic offense for the ‘Cats. While it’s resulted in Blair Green taking a seat on the bench, the move has proved to work thus far. Massengill, a former Tennessee transfer, has started the last two games for UK–wins over Tennessee and Florida by a combined 23 points–while putting up monster figures. She recorded 11 points and three assists in the rematch win over the Lady Vols and popped off for nine points, seven rebounds, and 10 dimes against the Gators.

Following the postponement (likely to be a cancelation, by the time it’s all said and done) of Kentucky’s game against LSU earlier in the week, the ‘Cats now only have three regular-season games left on the schedule before the SEC Tournament begins. Game one starts against South Carolina later on Sunday with another important outing against the Georgia Bulldogs to follow–both on the road.

In past seasons, the Gamecocks have looked otherworldly; regularly pouring in 40-, 50-point wins over Power 5 programs. This year, however, has still seen a dangerous USC squad, but one with clear flaws. Carolina is actually coming off just its third loss of the season, falling to the same UT team, 75-67, that Kentucky beat last week. In fact, South Carolina has lost two of its last four outings after UConn beat them earlier in the month. But make no mistake, the Gamecocks are still one of the premier teams in all of women’s college basketball.

Just judging by the basic stats in the graphic above, this is going to be another tough battle on the glass for Kentucky. It’s no secret that the Wildcats Achilles heel is rebounding and a lack of overall height–as it has been for years now. UK was outrebounded by 15 in the first meeting between these two and deeply exploited in the paint, 56-34. Plus-13 points in the second chance category for Carolina set them up for success. USC only attempted four 3-point shots compared to 20 from the ‘Cats. Had Kentucky made more than a mere three of them, they easily could have snuck away with the upset.

Kentucky did an excellent job of forcing South Carolina’s star player, Aliyah Boston, into foul trouble during the first outing, even if she still finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. UK will need to do a much better job this time around of limiting Gamecocks guard Destanni Henderson from finding wide-open lanes to the rim, as she did several times in the first game.

As they showed in the first contest, Kentucky is more than capable of beating this top-ranked foe. UK led by nine at the half before collapsing in the third quarter and having to fight its way back down the stretch. Lately, opponents are seemingly starting to figure out what makes the Gamecocks tick while the ‘Cats are hitting a groove.

Think about it like this: when these two met back in January, South Carolina shot nearly 47 percent from the floor and went to the free-throw stripe 21 times. The ‘Cats, on the other hand, shot a mere 38 percent from the floor and 15 percent from distance with just 12 free-throw attempts. Rhyne Howard, who posted 32 points, missed all five of her 3-pointers. Kentucky lost by five points.

It’ll be a tougher environment down in Columbia, even with a reduced crowd capacity, but there isn’t a player or personnel member on the Kentucky sideline who doesn’t believe they can head back to Lexington with another resume-changing victory.

Tipoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Recruiting reporter for KSR. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR