Kentucky overcame a furious rally by South Carolina and a final 10 seconds that made March Madness feel like it had arrived early to defeat the visiting Gamecocks 53-50 to complete a perfect 18-0 home record on Senior Night in Memorial Coliseum.
"I couldn't be prouder of our team because they certainly did not make it easy on us tonight," Matthew Mitchell said. "They challenged us in every way possible, every way imaginable. This was a great victory for us and it was earned and it was tough."
A'dia Mathies led all scorers with 20 points and Bria Goss joined her in double figures with 14, but it was a hustle play by the freshman guard that made the final moments stressful for the 7,062 fans in attendance.
No. 13/10 Kentucky (23-5, 12-3 SEC) had a seemingly comfortable lead with 2:55 remaining after Mathies scored a layup to give UK a 50-43 lead, but South Carolina (20-8, 9-6 SEC) refused to wilt. The Gamecocks clamped down defensively, holding Kentucky scoreless for nearly three minutes while scoring five unanswered points, capped by a basket by Ashley Bruner and a foul on Samarie Walker send her to the free throw line.
Bruner, who had a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, would miss the free throw to keep the score at 50-48. Mathies came away with the rebound and Mitchell would call for UK's final timeout with 32 seconds left. Using the Samarie Walker screen Mitchell called for, Mathies drove through the lane and missed a driving layup off the backboard.
Walker, rolling to the basket after setting the screen, attempted a tip-in that fell well short. The ball would eventually settle in the hands of Maegan Conwright, who was unable to shoot before the 30-second shot clock expired, or so it seemed.
The officials gathered around a television monitor to watch the sequence, determining that Walker's shot did indeed graze the rim. The play was deemed an inadvertent whistle and Kentucky was given possession on a jump ball with eight seconds remaining.
Mitchell and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley were summoned to mid-court in order for the officials to explain the call, but Mitchell admittedly tuned out once he heard the most important news.
"I didn't listen to the details much when they said it was our ball," Mitchell said.
South Carolina would foul to send Goss to the free-throw line for one and the bonus. She made the first, but missed the second, only for Conwright to set a career high with her seventh rebound of the night. She made the two subsequent free throws after a South Carolina foul to give UK a 53-48 lead with under five seconds remaining.
With victory seeming a near-certainty, Mitchell instructed his players to back off as South Carolina took possession, but Goss sensed an opportunity to make a steal as the Gamecocks rolled the ball in to save time. She dove to the floor and made the steal, calling a timeout the Wildcats did not have.
"I was supposed to stay back and I ended up running up when they had rolled the ball," Goss said. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"She was just hustling," Keyla Snowden said. "It was a hustle play and I guess just where you're in the moment of the game, you just kind of react."
By rule, a technical foul was assessed to Kentucky, giving South Carolina two free throws and the ball with three seconds remaining. La'Keisha Sutton would score her team-leading 13th and 14th points at the line before the Gamecocks tried a desperation pass in an effort to set up a game-tying 3-pointer, but Kentucky intercepted the pass, touching off a celebration in Memorial Coliseum.
The celebration, though, was for the victory and UK's three seniors, Amber Smith, Snowden and Crystal Riley, not the SEC title. When the Wildcats left the floor after a speech by Mitchell and a final ovation for the seniors, they had not yet locked down a share of their first SEC title since the 1981-82 season.
It was only during postgame interviews that Arkansas put the finishing touches on an overtime victory over Tennessee, making a dream the Wildcats had long pursued a reality.
"It means a lot," Snowden said. "We're just really glad that our hard work is going to pay off no matter what happens. It feels great just to be a part of this team and to see where it's come throughout the year."
Even after learning of the news, the mood of the UK players was more business-like than festive.
In the not-so-distant past, the idea of earning a share of the conference title would have been exciting. Now that the moment has arrived, the Wildcats have bigger things in mind.
"We don't want to stop here," Goss said. "We got other goals to fulfill. Yeah they lost, but we got to focus on us and what we got to do on Sunday."
This weekend's trip to face Mississippi State affords the Wildcats a chance to win the title outright and clinch the No. 1 seed in next weekend's SEC Tournament.
While Kentucky is not yet ready to celebrate its accomplishments in SEC regular season play, Mitchell does look at the Wildcats' spotless home record as a major milestone.
"I don't put a lot of importance on a lot of stats," Mitchell said. "I'm not a big stats person. I'm an honesty, hard work and discipline person. But I'm telling you, that's a really, really big accomplishment. There's no other team in our league that went undefeated at home this year."