Hoops Falls to South Carolina

Feb. 20, 2014

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky couldn't match South Carolina's toughness.

Four days after rallying for a four-point win at No. 10 Tennessee, the No. 15 Wildcats (19-7, 7-6 SEC) couldn't follow up against the fourth-ranked Gamecocks and were soundly beaten 81-58 on Thursday night.

First-place South Carolina (24-2, 12-1) completed a regular-season sweep of the Wildcats for its eighth straight victory. The Gamecocks set a school record for most regular-season wins and in the conference, and ended a nine-game losing streak at Memorial Coliseum.

"We just didn't compete hard enough," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "When you go up against a really talented, tough team like that, you've got to compete really hard."

Kentucky had trouble keeping up with the Gamecocks in the post on both ends of the court, losing the rebounding margin 44-19.

"It was a tough game for us. We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's really talented and plays real hard," Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively and really active on the boards. We got whipped."

Makayla Epps led the Wildcats with a career-high 16 points and scored 14 in the second half. Epps made six of eight field goals in 17 minutes.

Epps described her performance as a "breakout game," but was disappointed by the outcome.

"I just tried to keep everybody in (the game) mentally and physically and fight to the finish," she said.

Jennifer O'Neill added 12 points and made two of Kentucky's four 3-pointers.

South Carolina led 36-28 at halftime and scored the first seven points of the second half, prompting Mitchell to call timeout less than three minutes in. The struggles merely continued for Kentucky, which eventually trailed 53-32 with 15:09 remaining.

Epps came off the bench and scored six straight points to help the Wildcats pull within 59-48, but they couldn't get closer.

Mitchell said South Carolina's brief spurt led to his team's downfall in the second half.

"It really affected our energy level and our competiveness," Mitchell said. "You can't just let that happen. There's no excuse for that. As coaches and players, we've got to do a much better job than we did there."

Aleighsa Welch had 21 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, and Khadijah Sessions scored 18 points for the Gamecocks (24-2, 12-1 SEC).

Elem Ibiam added 16 points for the Gamecocks, who cruised to their milestone win behind 60 percent second-half shooting and 53 percent overall. Tiffany Mitchell had 12 points and seven rebounds.

Kentucky had wanted to prove its 31-percent shooting performance in last month's 68-59 loss at South Carolina was a fluke, but the Wildcats shot just slightly better (23 of 61, 38 percent) in the rematch.

Defensively, Kentucky's challenge was containing the nation's fifth-best shooting offense (48.7 percent), that included the 6-foot-4 tandem of Ibiam and Alaina Coates, which has worn down opponents.

The Wildcats achieved none of those objectives, and they certainly couldn't break the Gamecocks' steely poise that has earned three road wins during their streak, including at No. 19 LSU on Sunday.

"We emphasized blocking out," Ibiam said. "That's one thing that we really had to do, box out and secure rebounds. We did a great job taking our defensive assignments, boxing out when the shots went up. We communicated, we were able to secure rebounds and get out in transition.

"I don't think we really noticed in the heat of the game, the rebounding margin. I think it just pays off for us working hard in practice."