COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley never panicked as she watched Tiffany Mitchell struggle in the first half against No. 10 Kentucky. Staley knew what was ahead for the Wildcats.
“With Tiffany, I’ll take her bad halves because I know a good half is going to be coming,” Staley said.
Mitchell, the defending Southeastern Conference player of the year, scored 13 of her 19 points in the second half to keep No. 1 South Carolina perfect at 16-0 this season in a 68-60 victory over Kentucky on Sunday. Mitchell was 2 of 7 shooting in the first 20 minutes as the Gamecocks (4-0 SEC) trailed at the break for just the third time this season.
But with Mitchell leading the way, South Carolina used a 15-6 to start the second half and take control in the first of several ranked-on-ranked SEC matchups left this season.
Gamecocks senior Aleighsa Welch said no one’s harder on Mitchell then herself so Welch calmed her down at halftime and told her the shots she’d missed would eventually fall.
“I think she just needed to see one go in and when she got herself off to a quick start in the second half, she got in her rhythm,” Welch said. “You can always count on Tiffany to bounce back when she starts off slow.”
The Wildcats (14-3, 3-1) closed to 50-46 on Jennifer O’Neill’s bucket with 11:11 left. But Khadijah Sessions followed with her third 3-pointer to restore South Carolina’s margin and Kentucky could get no closer.
The game was marred by a gruesome-looking left ankle injury to Kentucky junior Janee Thompson. She left the court on a stretcher and the initial diagnosis was a left ankle dislocation. The school later announced she had a broken fibula and would miss the rest of the season.
“We are so sad for Janee,” UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We never want to see a player sustain an injury like that. We are particularly sad for Janee because she’s worked so hard and has really come into her own.”
Thompson’s teammates, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and leading scorer A’ja Wilson ran out to console the sobbing player as she was helped onto the stretcher, rolled off the court and taken to a hospital. A short time later, Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell was ejected from the game after two consecutive technical after loudly arguing with officials.
O’Neill scored 13 to lead Kentucky.
Sessions finished with 12 points and Aleighsa Welch had nine points and 11 rebounds for South Carolina.
South Carolina came out shooting well, Khadijah Sessions hitting a pair of 3s as the Gamecocks took a 16-12 lead. That’s when Kentucky and O’Neill put together a 20-9 run to take control.
O’Neill, a former starter who’s come off the bench in SEC play, opened the surge with a 3-pointer and had two more buckets in the run. When O’Neill closed things with jumper with 4:24 to play, Kentucky was up 32-25 over South Carolina.
The Gamecocks got within a point, 36-35, with 14 seconds left in the period, but Thompson drove past three defenders to put the Wildcats up 38-35 at the break. It was just the third time South Carolina had trailed after 20 minutes this season, all to ranked opponents.
The Gamecocks rallied from their two previous times to defeat No. 21 Syracuse in November and No. 13 Duke last month.
South Carolina’s first-half shooting struggles matched those of its two top scorers. Wilson, the country’s No. 1 recruit last season, was 1 of 6 from the field. Wilson ended with eight points on 3 of 13 shooting. She also had nine rebounds.
Kentucky went cold during South Carolina’s second-half rally, making just three of its first 19 shots to fall behind.
FOUL SHOT DISPARITY
South Carolina moved in front in part because of its physical play underneath the boards. The Gamecocks took 20 of their 26 foul shots in the second half while Kentucky went to the line just four times after halftime. Mitchell led things with 9 of 10 free throws in the period, including all four foul shots after Mitchell’s technical fouls.
Matthew Mitchell would not comment when asked if frustration led to his two technical and ejection late in the game. “I would love to have a good discussion with you, but it’s just not allowed to talk about officiating,” he said.
Kentucky: The Wildcats fell to 1-17 all-time against No. 1 opponents, their only victory against top-ranked teams coming over Tennessee in 2006.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have won 26 straight games at Colonial Life Arena, the longest active such streak in the country.
Kentucky returns home to play Florida on Thursday night.
South Carolina hits the road to play Missouri on Thursday night.
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