COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Coach Dawn Staley came to South Carolina promising to build the program into a Southeastern Conference power, and the No. 10 Gamecocks let the rest of the league know they are ready to spend some time on top with a 68-59 win over No. 9 Kentucky on Thursday night.
It was a dominating defensive performance for South Carolina (15-1, 3-0 SEC), which held the league's best offense 33 points below its average, setting a school record with 14 blocked shots and forcing the Wildcats (13-3, 1-2) to shoot just 32 percent (23 of 73). Kentucky was the eighth opponent this season to shoot that poorly or worse against the Gamecocks.
"We're going to play tough. That's what we're about," Staley said.
For long stretches of the game the Wildcats looked hesitant, especially inside. When the Gamecocks weren't blocking shots, Kentucky was coming up short on tentative attempts. The Wildcats missed 19 times in the lane.
"You could actually see it," sophomore guard Tina Roy said of the uncertainty in Kentucky players' eyes. "Coach Staley said, 'Keep going at them.'"
The Gamecocks trailed 10-4 early but outscored the Wildcats 50-22 over the next 27 minutes. South Carolina had 10 more rebounds than Kentucky, which came into the game third in the SEC in rebounding margin, averaging 8.5 more boards than its opponents.
The Wildcats twice went almost 4 minutes in the second half without a point, falling behind 52-30 with 9 minutes left. But they clawed back into the game, cutting South Carolina's lead to 59-51 with 3:04 to go.
"Kentucky is a good team. We knew they might have a run in them. It is how you answer that," Gamecocks junior forward Aleighsa Welch said.
Tiffany Mitchell made two free throws and 40 seconds later stole the ball from Janee Thompson and found Olivia Gaines for a wide-open layup that put the Gamecocks ahead 63-51 with 1:54 left.
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