COLUMBIA, S.C. - No. 18/14 South Carolina outlasted No. 5/4 Kentucky 55-50 in a hard-fought, physical battle at the Colonial Life Arena. Gamecock senior guard Ieasia Walker played every second of the contest and carried her team to the program's highest ranked victory since 1998, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and a blocked shot. Sophomore center Elem Ibiam also reeled in eight boards, largely during a second-half surge that pushed the Gamecocks (17-3, 5-2 SEC) into the driver's seat in the game.
"The crowd was a huge lift for us when we weren't scoring as much as we'd like, but we were still getting good looks," South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. "Sometimes it's exhausting to play as hard as we play defensively, and it takes the wind out of you. I really think the crowd put the life back in us, and we made some big plays down the stretch. We just fed off the energy that was in the building."
The Gamecock defense, highlighted by strong rebounding on the defensive glass held Kentucky under control early in the game until the offense found a rhythm midway through the first half. Ibiam got a 9-0 run started with her basket that was followed by back-to-back buckets from Walker, starting with a transition layup and ending with a pull-up jumper that tied the score at 12-12 with 5:58 left in the period. Aleighsa Welch added a free throw and Khadijah Sessions turned a steal into an easy layup to put the Gamecocks up 15-12 with four minutes to go. Kentucky looked to rally behind a pair of buckets from Jennifer O'Neill, but the teams went to the locker room tied 19-19.
Coming out at the half the teams continued to keep the score tight. The Wildcats opened with a 6-0 run that the Gamecocks answered with a 7-0 spurt that included a Tiffany Mitchell 3-pionter, a Welch basket and a transition layup from Walker that put South Carolina back on top 26-25 less than four minutes into the final period.
The teams traded the lead seven times over the next four minutes until the Wildcats took advantage of consecutive turnovers to stretch their advantage to 40-34 with 11:37 on the clock. Once again, South Carolina had the answer. A Walker steal turned into an Ashley Bruner transition layup, and a Welch steal yielded a pair of free throws from Walker to pull within two at 40-38. A DeNesha Stallworth drive only briefly interrupted what would turn out to be a 10-2 Gamecock surge. Ibiam's putback kicked off the last of the run, and it was followed by one from Welch. A pair of missed opportunities at the free throw line kept the Wildcats scoreless, and Sessions hit a baseline floater to make it a 44-42 South Carolina advantage with 6:01 to play.
A pair of A'dia Mathies free throws tied the game for the sixth time, 44-44, with 5:53 on the clock, but the Gamecocks were running again as their aggressive defense wore down and frustrated the visiting Wildcats. Ibiam took a lob underneath and made a strong move to the bucket to open up an 8-0 run. Her powerful defensive rebound on the next possession set the tone down the stretch. After missing the front end of a 1-and-1, Bruner hit a free throw on the next trip up the floor. Sessions converted another transition layup to stretch the lead to five, and after a defensive rebound by Walker, Welch converted a traditional three-point play for an eight-point edge, 52-44 with 3:32 to go.
The Wildcats kept after it, forcing back-to-back turnovers, but the Gamecocks continued to force them into just one shot per possession, making it difficult to make up ground quickly. Mathies tried to carry her team to the win, scoring Kentucky's last six points, but it was not enough as the Gamecocks sealed the game at the free throw line in the final 22 seconds.
"All the credit needs to go to South Carolina tonight," Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "South Carolina came out extremely physical, and we just didn't respond in a manner that would allow us to win this game. They made all the hustle plays and were really tough tonight. They just played really good D and were committed to stopped [A'dia Matheis] and really just all-around fantastic defense. I don't know that that is extraordinary for a team like South Carolina who is so good on defense."
Walker's 16 points led the way, and Welch added 11, including eight in the second half. The Gamecocks out-scored the Wildcats 30-18 in the paint and forced 18 turnovers to help hold Kentucky just short of 30 points below its season average. South Carolina shot 50.0 percent from the field in the second half and hit 10 free throws to deliver the victory.
The Gamecocks go back on the road this weekend, heading to Arkansas for a 3 p.m. tipoff on Sun., Jan. 27.