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UK Hoops Open SEC Play Against No. 4 South Carolina

Tipping off at 7 p.m. on the SEC Network later on Thursday, the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats will officially kick off the new year with inter-conference basketball. The ladies have already made it down to Columbia, SC, where they’ll take on the No. 4 South Carolina Gamecocks in the SEC opener for both teams.

USC has recently dominated this series, winning nine of the previous 10 outings, however, they did fall to the ‘Cats a season ago during the most recent trip to Columbia thanks to 17 points apiece from Rhyne Howard and Taylor Murray. Kentucky leads the overall series 34-31, but South Carolina has posted a 15-10 record since Dawn Staley took over as head coach. Also, 15 of the last 17 games between these two teams have been ranked matchups.

Speaking of Staley, the Hall of Fame head coach has been at the helm for the Gamecocks since 2008, leading South Carolina to three Elite Eight appearances over the last four seasons, which includes winning the 2017 NCAA Championship. Since her arrival, Staley has turned USC into an SEC powerhouse with a 12-year record of 285-98. They are riding eight consecutive seasons of at least 20 wins and have been ranked in the AP top-25 for 140 straight weeks.

In short, South Carolina has been one of women’s basketball most dominant teams over the last decade and they head into the next 10 years on track to maintain that status.

Coming into Thursday’s game, USC is 12-1 with its lone loss coming to a ranked Indiana team back in late November. They fell by 14 to the Hoosiers, but have proved that game to be a fluke. The Gamecocks have earned three wins already over ranked teams; a 63-54 win over No. 3 Maryland early in the season, a 74-59 win over then-ranked No. 2 Baylor, and most recently a 73-60 victory over No. 25 South Dakota. Led by a youthful yet diverse set of scorers (six different Gamecocks have led the team in scoring through 13 games), South Carolina has quickly established itself as the team to beat in the SEC.

So what do we know about the top-5 team so far?

South Carolina is third in the SEC in points per game (81.0) and 10th in the nation, although no players on the roster average higher than 13 points per game. Four ladies average double-digits in scoring per game – two freshmen and two seniors. Senior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan leads the squad with 12.9 points, followed quickly behind by star freshman Aliyah Boston, who posts 12.6 points per outing. Boston has been a physical presence in the paint at 6-foot-5, already collecting four double-doubles on the season including a 12-point, 12-rebound, 10-block triple-double performance in her collegiate debut against Alabama State.

Freshmen Zia Cooke and Brea Beal – both guards – help make up one of the top recruiting classes in the history of the SEC from 2019 (USC pulled in four of espnW’s top 11 recruits from the 2019 class). Cooke is another Gamecock averaging double-figures (10.4 ppg) while Beal has started all 15 games as a rookie. Senior guard Tyasha Harris leads her team in assists and steals while shooting 37.5 percent from deep and putting up 11.8 points per game.

Similar to Kentucky, defense has been a calling card for South Carolina early in the season. Led by Boston’s innate shot-blocking abilities and her 6-foot-9 wingspan, the Gamecocks have incredible length and size down low. Along with Boston, redshirt freshman Laeticia Amihere also boasts a massive wingspan that extends further than 6-foot-9. Two fellow Gamecocks – Victaria Saxton and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan – also feature wingspans of 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4, respectively. Which helps explains why USC is limiting its opponents to just 52.7 points per game. In 10 of their 13 games thus far, Carolina has kept teams from hitting the 60-point notch, including wins over No. 4 Maryland and No. 2 Baylor.

While Kentucky holds an advantage in that category – as the Wildcats hold its opponents to 48.7 points per game – USC has done a better job of keeping teams from going off. South Carolina allows opposing shooters to make just 30.8 percent of their overall attempts with a three-point percentage of 27.6.

The size USC uses to run teams off the three-point line leads ball handlers into a brick wall of a front line. Whether its blocking shots (USC leads the country in that department, swatting nearly nine shots per game) or outrebounding the opposition (their +11.3 rebounding advantage is 15th best in the nation), the Gamecocks have intimidating size and length that has caused all sorts of problems for even the best programs at the college level. They are an elite rebounding team on both sides of the ball, specifically on the offensive end.

It’s no wonder the coaches and media picked South Carolina as the preseason SEC favorites.

Where Kentucky is going to have an advantage is on the perimeter and with the full-court press. USC doesn’t turn the ball over too much, although they are anything from a perfectly disciplined basketball team. The Wildcats force defenses into turnovers better than 99 percent of the country and the Gamecocks will turn the ball over if forced into tough positions. They also aren’t a deadly outside shooting team. USC has attempted 186 triples on the year, hitting on 35.6 percent of them, compared to 266 for Kentucky, who is knocking those looks down at a 36.8 percent clip.

But when the Gamecocks aren’t shooting threes, they’re working the ball inside to their strengths. NINE South Carolina players have already attempted at least 24 three throws this season (that number is just two for the ‘Cats). As a team, they shoot 65.7 percent from the charity stripe and are a top-15 squad in the country in terms of free throws attempted and made.

Coming off an impressive road win against Cal thanks to some classic Howard heroics, Kentucky is about to enter a hellacious stretch of games, starting with USC. They’ll host a ranked Tennessee team this weekend before taking on No. 11 Texas A&M not even two weeks later in Lexington. Make sure to tune in to tonight’s game. A win would mark a program altering victory for the Wildcats and could be the start of a special SEC run for head coach Mattew Mitchell. It would be a perfect way to start 2020 off on the right foot.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

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