Beat ’em once, should be able to beat ’em again, right?
If only it were that simple.
“They’re starting to play like the Kentucky that’s been at the top of this league,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Wednesday. “It’s alarming that they’re starting to play their best basketball at this time of the season.”
The No. 4 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) beat Kentucky, then ranked ninth, 68-59 in Columbia on Jan. 9. The Wildcats have spent most of the time since struggling to regain their edge. But then the Wildcats beat Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time since 1985 and found their touch.
USC blasted LSU on the road in its last game — a stellar start to its crucial end-of-season stretch — giving the team confidence that it can go on the road and beat anyone.
Just win, and all of the title talk, No. 1 seed discussion and other considerations fall into place.
“We control our own destiny,” Staley said. “We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
USC will try to get a handle on Jennifer O’Neill, who doesn’t start but leads the Wildcats in scoring. The Gamecocks must also try to disrupt Kentucky’s rhythm. A physical yet fast team, the Wildcats like to push teams into hurried passing so they can get a turnover.
“Probably more than half the game, they want to play in transition and push it and score in the paint,” Staley said. “We’ve got to make sure we have layers in our defense. It’s hard to stop a team’s strength, as far as when they’re just pushing it at you and taking quick shots. It’s keeping you off-balance.”
The Gamecocks will counter with their strength — being efficient on offense and getting enough defense to get a few fast-break buckets. The inside game was slightly derailed at LSU — Alaina Coates shook off early foul trouble to score 13 points but starter Elem Ibiam had one point — but the Gamecocks again turned to their duo to get their points.
Welch and Tiffany Mitchell combined for 38 points and led the Gamecocks over the Tigers. Mitchell, lauded by ESPN this week as one of the top 10 clutch players in the game, will be doubly tasked — keep putting the ball in the hole and be the first woman up to defend O’Neill.
The Gamecocks knew it would be a challenge to finish what they’ve started, but they are eager to start playing the hand they were dealt.
GAMECOCKS VS. WILDCATS
WHO: USC (23-2, 11-1 SEC) at Kentucky (19-6, 7-5)
WHEN: 7 p.m. TV: SportSouth
WHERE: Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, Ky.
USC’s probable starters: G Khadijah Sessions 5-8 So. (7.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg); G Asia Dozier 6-0 So. (7.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Tiffany Mitchell 5-9 So. (15.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F Aleighsa Welch 6-0 Jr. (13.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg); C Elem Ibiam 6-4 Jr. (9.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
Kentucky’s probable starters: G Bria Goss 5-10 Jr. (9.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Janee Thompson 5-7 So. (9.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Kastine Evans 5-8 Sr. (9.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); F Samarie Walker 6-1 Sr. (9.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg); F DeNesha Stallworth 6-3 Sr. (11.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg)
NEXT: USC hosts Florida at 1 p.m. Sunday
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