LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Jennifer O’Neill and Makayla Epps combined for 22 second-half points and No. 13 Kentucky made 27 free throws in beating No. 2 South Carolina 67-56 on Sunday, denying the Gamecocks an unbeaten season in Southeastern Conference play.
The Wildcats shot just 32 percent from the field but succeeded in getting to the foul line and converting 27 of 35 chances for their biggest win this season. They also left the Gamecocks tied with Tennessee atop the SEC, though South Carolina earned the No. 1 seed for this week’s conference tournament in Little Rock, Arkansas, by beating the Volunteers last week.
Epps led the way with 8-of-11 shooting from the free throw line and scored 14 points. O’Neill went 7 of 8 and had 15, capping a strong effort by Kentucky’s seniors in their home finale.
Azia Bishop had 11 points and nine rebounds. Bria Goss added six points for Kentucky (21-8, 10-6).
A’ja Wilson scored 16 points for South Carolina (27-2, 15-1), which also shot 32 percent thanks to a slew of missed layups.
The Gamecocks also hurt themselves with 20 turnovers that led to 19 points for Kentucky, especially several down the stretch that thwarted their comeback attempt.
After trailing 51-30 in the second half, South Carolina still managed to make it interesting.
Aleighsa Welch’s three-point play and consecutive 3-pointers by Toni Roy helped spur a rally that got the Gamecocks to 53-46 with 6 1/2 minutes left. But South Carolina couldn’t make the easy basket it needed while Kentucky took advantage of its many chances at the line, making 10 of 11 down the stretch to close out the victory.
The Wildcats avoided a season sweep and thwarted the Gamecocks’ bid for their second straight win in Lexington. Kentucky also won its sixth straight Senior Day game, just the lift it needed after an up-and-down stretch run that featured a three-game losing streak.
Monday’s loss to Mississippi was especially costly and led to a visit by the Wildcats’ seniors to coach Matthew Mitchell’s house to voice concerns. The meeting resulted in more energy than Kentucky had shown over the past month.
Physical play defined the first 10 minutes, which featured more fouls (10) than baskets (seven). South Carolina particularly struggled in missing 10 of its first 11 attempts, though Kentucky was only slightly better at 3 of 19 from the field.
Both teams ended up shooting 9 of 31 in the half (29 percent), but Kentucky scraped out a 27-22 lead by forcing 11 South Carolina turnovers that led to nine points. The Wildcats also went 8 of 12 from the foul line, with most coming during their 15-6 run over the final 6 minutes that included a 3-pointer by Kyvin Goodin-Rogers.
Kentucky began the second half with even more intensity, going on a 24-7 run for a 51-29 lead that appeared safe. Meanwhile, South Carolina was 1 of 11 from the floor.
Before the game, Kentucky honored Goss, O’Neill, Bishop and Jelleah Sydney as the program’s second-winningest senior class. The group is 105-27 with an SEC regular-season title, three NCAA tournament berths and two regional final appearances.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ 11 first-half turnovers were just three off their per-game average.
Kentucky: The Wildcats improved to 30-10 in home finales.
South Carolina plays the Arkansas-Mississippi winner on Friday in the SEC tournament.
Kentucky faces Vanderbilt or Alabama on Thursday in the SEC tournament.
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