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The Stretch That Gave it Away and Other Notes From UK Hoops Loss to No. 1 South Carolina

Seven weeks isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things. Seven weeks ago we were just entering a new decade, figuring out our New Year’s resolutions that we all know haven’t lasted. It feels like it hasn’t even been a few days since we first crossed over into 2020.

But over the course of a basketball season, seven weeks is a long time – long enough to change a team.

Seven weeks ago, Kentucky lost in embarrassing fashion to South Carolina down in Columbia by 27 points. It was – and still is – the most lopsided loss the ‘Cats have suffered all season long. But that was seven weeks ago.

On Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum, the No. 14 Wildcats fell to the nation’s top team and now winners of 21 games in a row – the South Carolina Gamecocks, again. UK lost by nine, 67-58, and didn’t play anything near a perfect game.

South Carolina came to Lexington and proved to the most attended crowd of the season that they are legit. They hid no secrets about their game plan and yet they still executed it to perfection. Kentucky didn’t play a bad game by any means (they also didn’t play a good game), the Gamecocks are just on another level.

The good news is the Wildcats won’t have to play South Carolina again for a while; hopefully not until the SEC Championship game. Kentucky only has two more games left in the regular season and would love to earn themselves a top-four seed heading into the SEC Tournament where they’ll snag a double-bye. Losing to South Carolina makes that a lot harder, but not out of the question. Even in defeat, Kentucky proved to their most-attended crowd of the season at Memorial, that they are also legit.

Here’s what we learned from Sunday’s game.

No revenge, but plenty of improvement

In the first meeting between these two teams, South Carolina embarrassed Kentucky. The Gamecocks won 99-72 and the game was over before the second quarter could even begin. Five USC players scored between 11 and 15 points. They doubled-up UK on the glass, 40-20, and filled up 60 points in the paint. It was the first evidence of the season that Kentucky might not be as good as their record indicated. Sunday afternoon was a chance for revenge.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, but we saw plenty of growth from what happened seven weeks ago.

Kentucky didn’t get viciously outrebounded by 20. They held their own through the first half (USC held a 20-15 advantage) before ultimately losing the battle 38-31, a serious improvement from 40-20.

60 South Carolina points in the paint over the course of the first meeting were reduced down to 38 in game two. Kentucky didn’t fall down into a hole in the first 90 seconds like they had in their last two outings against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Even when the Gamecocks could have put the game out of reach going into the second quarter, UK stayed calm and never let USC deliver the knockout punch.

“A big ingredient on how we can be a successful team is being physically tough and mentally tough,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said after the game. “I thought there was a time where we wilted a little bit in the first quarter and sort of just stopped playing there for a couple of minutes, and we gave them some pretty easy buckets. I was real proud that we were able to get it together. We were able to get it together, and we came back and tried to work hard throughout the game.”

Had Kentucky just made more of their open looks, they very well could have won this game.

The ‘Cats shot just 29.6 percent from the field – the team’s second-worst outing of the season. While they did convert on 40 percent of their triples (6-15), it was the shots in the mid-range and painted area that couldn’t stay down. Rhyne Howard posted 24 points thanks to a 10-12 mark from the free-throw line but shot just 5-22 from the field. It was only the sixth time this season and the second of the SEC schedule that she’s hit five or fewer field goals in a game. 17 missed shots were her most in a game all season long. A lot of them came from her sweet spot – about 15-feet out – too, they just didn’t fall.

Jaida Roper shot 2-9 and Amanda Paschal went 2-6. Those two and Howard were a combined 9-37 (24 percent) while the rest of the team went 7-17 (41 percent). In order for Kentucky to beat a team like South Carolina – or even if they want to make a run at say an Elite 8 or Final 4 – the shooting numbers can’t be that bad.

In every other aspect of the game for Kentucky, something positive can be taken away. Even though they turned the ball over SEVEN times in the first 10 minutes, they committed just FIVE in the 30 minutes that followed. They adapted to what South Carolina was doing. They found open shots. It was just a cold night in the gym. And sometimes, there isn’t anything you can do about it.

Coach Mitchell said in the postgame press conference that “a bad shot versus South Carolina is really like a turnover”. A missed, open shot versus South Carolina is basically the same thing.

The stretch that gave it away

But the cold-shooting could have been completely wiped away had one five-minute stretch not put Kentucky out of reach; oddly enough, it came in the first quarter.

With the ‘Cats leading 13-10 at the 5:26 mark of the first quarter, they had all the momentum. KeKe McKinney made a three to open things up, Rhyne Howard was getting to the rim, and Roper and Paschal hit their first couple of shots. It was as perfect as a start as coach Mitchell could ask for. But after a pair of Howard free-throws gave UK a three-point lead, South Carolina decided to take over.

Over the course of five minutes, the Gamecocks went into Championship mode, outplaying the ‘Cats on both ends. A 15-0 run ensued that saw Kentucky turn the ball over five times and forget what game they were playing. USC dug down for five minutes and unleashed everything they had with one perfect bundle of fundamentals and overwhelming talent. Any team on the other side of the ball would have suffered the same result.

In this particular game, it was enough to win it for South Carolina. They took a 27-14 lead into the second quarter and never saw their advantage dip below six points before winning by nine. Had Kentucky connected on just one of their four shots over that span, maybe the result is different.

We can take away that we can show that we can compete with them,” Howard said following the game about what they can learn from the loss. “They are number one in the country, but I think we did a lot of good things today and that is the thing that we need to focus on. Even with the things we didn’t do too well, we can just refocus and work on those.”

Less Patterson and Green, more Cole

The impact of South Carolina’s size meant coach Mitchell had to change his rotation. As a result, two players found themselves on the bench while another found some extra minutes.

Chasity Patterson and Blair Green were not their typical selves on Sunday. Patterson played six first-half minutes and just one in the second-half, finishing with one rebound, zero points, and two turnovers. Green didn’t even register two minutes before she was sent back to the bench where she stayed the remainder of the afternoon.

Combined, those two average over 18 points per contest and those points were sorely missed on Sunday.

Green was not equipped enough to stay in front of the quick, yet tall, Carolina guards, while Patterson was too short at 5-foot-5 to control USC. The outcome was roughly nine minutes between the two of them and little production. It came down to who could defend the Carolina ball handlers and keep them out of the paint. Patterson and Green are not the answer to the problem.

Enter Nae Nae Cole, who hadn’t played since the game against Missouri on Jan. 30. The 6-foot-3 center came in and immediately battled with the trees down low. She topped 10 minutes for just the fifth time this season and finished with 13 minutes – tied for her second-most on the season. In those extra minutes, Cole added four points on a perfect 4-4 mark from the free-throw line while grabbing two rebounds in the process. It was her effort that was needed more than anything and she deserves a huge slice of the credit for keeping Kentucky in the game.

An impressive crowd atmosphere

The crowd at Memorial Coliseum was the best I have seen it all season long. Other than the game against Lousiville from earlier in the year that was played inside Rupp Arena, this was easily the most fun and rowdy crowd yet. Only the very tips of the corners of Memorial had open seats. UK announced that over 7,000 fans were in attendance, including some members of the men’s team. Our own Matt Jones even made a visit.

“Great crowd, incredible crowd,” Mitchell said. “We need another one on Thursday. We have five really special seniors, it’s a very special senior class for us. We will be highly motivated to win. The crowd today was just terrific, they got behind us all day long and I appreciate that. I can’t tell you how much we care about this group of seniors and a big crowd in their seats early would be a great way to send out a group of seniors that’s worked hard for us.”

*Shoutout to KSR’s Dr. Michael Huang for the awesome pictures.*

The ladies will need that same type of energy this Thursday for Senior Day. Kentucky has a special class of five seniors that will be honored before they take on Georgia at 7 pm. Make sure to show out.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

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