‘We are connected.’ Kentucky’s Elzy sees rays of hope in loss at No. 1 South Carolina.

With just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter, as Kentucky trailed the nation’s top-ranked team by 10 points, South Carolina blocked three shots on a single UK possession. If you were looking to sum up Thursday night’s 87-69 Wildcats road loss in one sequence, that was an excellent contender.

When Kentucky hosted South Carolina at Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 12, the Wildcats led by as many as 10 before the Gamecocks ignited in the fourth quarter and defeated UK by 29. A Wildcats victory was not impossible on that night. In Thursday evening’s rematch, the Gamecocks came prepared.

UK (10-12, 2-8 SEC) has tools at its disposal to fend off impossibilities. The Wildcats’ three-point shooting has wreaked havoc against South Carolina in the past, especially in the 2022 SEC Tournament championship game. However, in Thursday’s loss, Kentucky made only six of 17 from long range. Worse yet, UK was 19-for-63 from the field overall (30.2 percent) and fell victim to 14 blocked shots, from seven separate players, by the defending national champions.

Height is almost never on UK’s side, but the Wildcats looked particularly outmatched against a South Carolina team that has players like 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso or 6-foot-4 Laeticia Amihere, both of whom come off the bench.

“South Carolina, they are the No. 1 team in the country for a reason,” UK head coach Kyra Elzy said. “They have depth after depth after depth. They keep coming. And a lot of size. They’re a talented basketball team, Coach Dawn (Staley) does a great job with them.”

South Carolina outscored Kentucky 62-14 in the paint and out-rebounded the Wildcats 51-32.

All but two of the 14 players who took the floor for South Carolina scored at least two points. South Carolina’s bench outscored Kentucky’s 48-13 as the Gamecocks (22-0, 10-0 SEC) extended the nation’s longest active winning streak to 28 games.

The Wildcats looked tired, defeated, and ultimately, unlike the team that routed Missouri 77-54 just four days earlier.

“I think when we started to get fatigued, some of our shots were short,” Elzy said. “They started getting the rebounds, transition points. I thought they scored some easy points in transition. And then, I didn’t think our first-shot defense was bad, but it was the second and third rebound that we allowed them to get for offensive clipbacks which was easy scoring opportunities for them. And I thought that really changed the game.”

With 5:10 remaining in the final period, tensions boiled over when Kentucky’s Maddie Scherr picked up her third foul on a shot by South Carolina’s Ashlyn Watkins. Following the play, there was a tie-up between the two, and Watkins received a technical foul.

Elzy has expressed that she wants her team to reach the free-throw line at least 20 times a game. Though UK made 25 of 26 free throws Thursday night, the Wildcats’ own foul trouble was a significant handicap. By the end of the third quarter, both Adebola Adeyeye and Nyah Leveretter had four fouls each. The Gamecocks cashed in by making 17 of their 19 foul shots.

“25-for-26 from the free-throw line, that’s a victory for us,” Elzy said. “We will take that. We wanna get there 20-plus times, so proud of our players for that. We did get in foul trouble early in the post. Obviously, they’re trying to play aggressive. When you’re guarding Boston and Cardoso and all the other posts that they can throw in, obviously, you want to be aggressive, try to belly up. Think we need to be more disciplined, thought we broke the plane instead of just going straight up and trusting the double to come.”

Kentucky’s Robyn Benton led all scorers with 24 points. Scherr and Blair Green contributed 11 each.

Reigning national player of the year Aliyah Boston had 14 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and two steals to lead South Carolina. This game marked her 75th career double-double. Cardoso finished with 14 points and five blocks.

For the second time this season, the Wildcats scored the most regulation points of any opponent against the Gamecocks.

“I think this team is really coming into their own,” Elzy said of the Wildcats. “It’s taken us awhile to get the team chemistry. To play with each other offensively, to understand the nuances of our offense. To trust each other defensively. But we are together. Even today, when they made the run. We always talk about touching someone, talking to someone when things aren’t going great. That’s a sign for me, as the head coach, that we are connected. Even when things aren’t going our way, we only have each other. That’s a big area of improvement for us, and this team continues to get better. And I look forward to what the future holds in the next games.”

South Carolina’s Talaysia Cooper and Kentucky’s Jada Walker battle for the ball during the second half on Thursday night.
South Carolina’s Talaysia Cooper and Kentucky’s Jada Walker battle for the ball during the second half on Thursday night.

Next game

Alabama at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: SEC Network Plus (online only)

Radio: WLAP-AM 630

Records: Kentucky 10-12 (2-8 SEC), Alabama 16-6 (5-4 SEC)

Series: Kentucky leads 35-17

Last meeting: Kentucky won 67-63 on Feb. 12, 2022, at Tuscaloosa, Ala.