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RECAP: Rhyne Howard’s 32 points not enough to fend off South Carolina’s second-half surge

Rhyne Howard put on another National Player of the Year type performance, but Kentucky came up short down the stretch against another top 10 opponent.

The No. 10 Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team (9-3) pounced on No. 5 South Carolina (8-1) from the jump, but lost its juice in the second half before falling by a final count of 75-70 inside of Memorial Coliseum. Kentucky was outscored 43-29 in the final 20 minutes after taking a 41-32 lead into the halftime break.

Rhyne Howard paced the ‘Cats with 32 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one block, and two steals while shooting 13-25 from the floor and making all six of her free-throw attempts. However, she did miss all five of her looks from 3-point land. Dre’Una Edwards recovered from a rough start to the SEC slate, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds while Chasity Patterson added 12 points herself in addition to four rebounds and two steals.

As a team, Kentucky shot 28-74 (37.8 percent) from the field, a figure that was ravaged by a poor shooting performance in the second half. The ‘Cats were held to 30.6 percent from the floor over the course of the final 20 minutes and saw it dip down to just 22.7 percent in the fourth quarter.

Sunday’s game marked the fourth in a row against a top 12 opponent for Kentucky, as they walk away with a 2-2 record after beating No. 10 Arkansas and No. 12 Mississippi State before falling to No. 8 Texas A&M and the Gamecocks to open up the SEC schedule. It was easily the toughest stretch of games UK will face all season, as they aren’t currently scheduled to play another ranked team until they take on South Carolina again in late February.

The road ahead is still bright, but Sunday’s loss was a tough one to swallow.

Kentucky was in a serious groove on both ends of the court to begin the game, attacking the South Carolina defense with ferocity, especially Howard. The junior guard was going right at Gamecocks star Aliyah Boston, drawing an early foul on her and getting to the free-throw line with physicality.

Both sides went back-and-forth in the opening minutes, powered by transition baskets and excellent team defense. South Carolina took a quick 8-5 lead out of the gate, but Boston picked up her second foul with 4:56 left in the first quarter and was immediately sent to the bench for the remainder of the half.

At that point, Howard decided to take over. She scored six points once Boston took the bench to end the period and was aided by excellent individual defense from Robyn Benton. Edwards was establishing herself in the paint and Jazmine Massengill was forcing turnovers on the other end. Even still, South Carolina converted on an and-1 right before the first-quarter buzzer, trimming Kentucky’s lead down to 19-15 at the first quarter break.

With Boston still on the bench to begin the second period, Kentucky continued to attack the paint. Blair Green opened up the scoring for the Wildcats with the team’s first made 3-pointer before Howard went right back to the rim, working marvelously in the pick-and-roll with Olivia Owens, who received the start in favor of the struggling Edwards.

Kentucky bounced ahead to a 24-18 advantage after a made jumpshot by Howard, but backup 6-foot-4 post player Laeticia Amihere began to work the Wildcats on the glass. Amihere organized six straight points for South Carolina, cutting the UK lead down to 28-24.

Offensive rebounding kept the Gamecocks close but without the 6-foot-5 Boston down low, Kentucky continued to get whatever shot opportunities they wanted. After the first made 3-pointer of the afternoon for Carolina, which put them down just 33-31, the ‘Cats went on a 9-1 run to end the first half. Kentucky held onto a 41-32 lead at the halftime intermission, led by 19 points from Howard.

The offense for South Carolina was stuttering even though they were winning the battle on the glass at the break, 19-17. The Gamecocks had 12 turnovers to Kentucky’s seven through the first 20 minutes, as well.

But to start the third quarter, Kentucky did not come out with the same energy they had in the first two, and they struggled to regain that momentum. South Carolina quickly put the pressure on UK, trimming the lead down to just 43-40 with 7:20 left in the period. The ‘Cats were able to respond to every score from the Gamecocks through the first few minutes, but eventually suffocated under the overwhelming size of the Carolina frontline.

The lead ballooned to eight on multiple occasions in the third quarter for Kentucky, but everything fell apart with two minutes left before the fourth quarter. South Carolina rattled off a 9-0 run to end the period, taking a one-point lead into the final frame, its first of the game since the 5:05 mark during the first quarter.

Boston was back in, playing all 10 third-quarter minutes while dropping in 10 points and six boards. Henderson and Zia Cooke combined for 11 more and all of the sudden, Kentucky had no answer for any of those three.

Howard would open up the fourth quarter with a stepback jumper–one of several she hit on the afternoon–giving the lead back to Kentucky, but they never found a way to recover. From there, South Carolina exerted its will upon the ‘Cats, with Boston adding another six points and five rebounds while Henderson contributed eight more points and four rebounds across the final 10 minutes of action.

The Carolina advantage quickly shot up to five points, then seven, and then nine in the blink of an eye. With just 4:29 left in regulation, the ‘Cats were down 69-60 and hurting for points. That was until Patterson brought Kentucky back in a matter of seconds.

A second-chance layup was followed up by two of the biggest triples of the night from Patterson, which carried Kentucky back within one point, 69-68, and 2:31 left in the ball game. UK forced South Carolina into a miss on the other end and Howard had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer that would have given the ‘Cats a two-point lead. However, the shot didn’t fall and USC countered with a big layup from Lele Grissett that put them ahead by three with 1:54 left.

Howard came right back down with a pair of free throws that made it a one-point affair yet again, now with just 90 seconds left on the clock. But an uncontested second-chance putback from Boston created another three-point cushion for South Carolina, 73-70, and Kentucky did not get a great look for its final shot. A pair of free throws with under 10 seconds left iced the win for USC, who stay perfect at 3-0 in SEC play with the 75-70 victory.

As a team, South Carolina went 46.9 from the field despite only shooting 2-4 from beyond the arc for the game. Boston and Henderson both registered at least 20 points while Amihere contributed 10 points filling in for Boston while she dealt with early foul trouble. The Gamecocks dominated Kentucky in the paint, winning that battle 56-34 while also outrebounding them 46-31.

Benton finished with five points, two rebounds, and five steals in 22 minutes off the bench while Owens added two points and two rebounds in her first career start for UK. KeKe McKinney was held scoreless (0-6) but did register four rebounds and two blocks while dealing with minor second-half foul trouble.

On to the next one…

Kentucky will play next this Thursday against the Auburn Tigers down in Alabama at 8:30 p.m. EST on the SEC Network.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR