Freshmen lead No. 4 South Carolina past No. 13 Kentucky

Freshmen lead No. 4 South Carolina past No. 13 Kentucky
4th ranked South Carolina picked up a win at home on Thursday over 13th ranked Kentucky (Source: USC Athletics)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is trying not to get ahead of herself.

As good as her freshman-powered, fourth-ranked Gamecocks appear to be - and they looked plenty good in a 99-72 win over No. 13 Kentucky on Thursday night - they're still very young, and often young players make mistakes.

Confidence was not a problem against the Wildcats (11-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference).

Freshmen Brea Beal and Zia Cooke led the Gamecocks (13-1, 1-0) with 15 points apiece while two more first-year players in Aliyah Boston and Laeticia Amihere had 14 points each.

It was quite a showing for South Carolina's No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

If the Gamecocks play as ruthlessly as they did in romping past a Kentucky squad that features an All-America candidate, perhaps it will live up to its preseason projection as the SECâs regular-season champion.

But as Staley warned, there’s a long way to go.

âœThereâs a rematch. In Lexington,❠she said. âœWe got to be aware of that.â

The Gamecocks opened a 12-point lead in the first quarter and stretched it to 21 by halftime. Constantly carving through Kentuckyâs overmatched defense, South Carolina had nine players score by halftime, and the Gamecocksâ defense had forced 11 turnovers, seven of them steals.

The Wildcats got a game-high 28 points from star guard Rhyne Howard, but South Carolina also forced her to commit six turnovers. Kentucky managed to stay close early thanks to its offensive rebounding but became flustered by the Gamecocksâ relentless pace and tenacity on defense.

âœWe got rattled early against a real tough physical defense. Just a good team, with really good athletes,❠Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. âœWe were just kind of back on our heels all night long and had a hard time finding rhythm.â

Staley credited her teamâs defense, which accepts the challenge of not letting opponents score on it and gets angry when they do. Kentucky had 14 turnovers while South Carolina blocked three shots and recorded nine steals.

The Gamecocks could also barely miss from the field, shooting 61% and bombarding Kentucky 60-24 in points in the paint.

South Carolina finished with six players in double figures.

Chasity Patterson added 15 points for the Wildcats.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: As good as Howard is, Kentucky needs some help around her. The Wildcats struggled to run against the Gamecocks and had no answer after their offensive rebounding slowed.

South Carolina: There was no rust from a long holiday break and the Gamecocksâ three starting freshmen led the first-half surge. South Carolina executed its game plan efficiently and finished shooting 61% from the field (36 of 59).

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky has a chance to keep its ranking or at least not drop too far if it can beat Tennessee on Sunday. The Gamecocks, as they have been throughout the season, wonât move up unless Connecticut, Oregon or Oregon State loses.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

With less than 4 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Kentucky tried a length-of-the-court inbound pass. It flamed out at midcourt, where South Carolinaâs Victaria Saxton grabbed it.

She quickly passed to Cooke, who took one dribble and touch-passed the ball to Lele Grissett. Grissett just beat the buzzer for a 27-point lead.

GAMECHANGER

Kentucky entered tonight's game giving up 73.1 points per game but did not have an answer for the high-powered Carolina offense as the Gamecocks hung 99 points on the Wildcats, eclipsing the previous high of 66 points given up by Kentucky against then No. 7/7 Louisville on Dec. 15.

KEY STAT

Carolina doubled the Wildcats in rebounding, 40-20, and notched 25 second-chance points off 17 offense rebounds.

NOTABLES

• The Gamecocks went 36-of-59 from the field, good for 61.0 percent and their highest field goal average of the season.

• The Gamecocks' 99 points were their most in a regular-season SEC game since netting 102 at Alabama on Jan. 8, 2015, and just their fourth 90-point SEC regular-season game in the last five seasons.

• The 99 points given up by Kentucky were the highest by a Wildcat opponent this season and the most they allowed since Feb. 26, 2017, when they lost, 87-95, to the Gamecocks in Columbia.

• Six Gamecocks cracked double figures, marking the seventh game this season in which six Gamecocks scored in double figures, and the first against a ranked opponent.

• This was the seventh-straight SEC opener that the Gamecocks have won.

• Brea Beal finished with a new career-high 15 points, and she tied her career high with three steals.

• Zia Cooke made it four straight games in double figures with her 15 points.

• Aliyah Boston tallied 14 points, eight of which came in the first quarter.

• Destanni Henderson dished out eight assists, blowing past her previous career best five assists.

• Laeticia Amihere scored a career-high 14 points.

UP NEXT

The Gamecocks (13-1, 1-0 SEC) head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a clash with the Alabama Crimson Tide on Sun., Jan. 5. Action is set to get underway at 6 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.