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.
The Wildcats cut the lead to eight again before a layup by freshman Alaina Coates with 1:03 left gave her a fifth double-double in 16 games.
Mitchell scored 17 points, and Welch had 16 points and 14 rebounds. Coates added 10 points and 17 rebounds, and Elem Ibiam blocked six shots.
Thompson, Samarie Walker and Azia Bishop each scored 12 points for Kentucky, which lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2012 and started the SEC season at 1-2 for the first time since 2011.
Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell isn't worried. He said in a long season, sometimes teams go through stretches in which easy shots don't fall.
"They didn't lose tonight because they didn't play hard," Mitchell said.
It was the first time South Carolina played in a game between top 10 teams in almost 12 years and only the second time since 1982. The game drew a raucous crowd of 5,689 — the Gamecocks used to struggle to get more than a couple hundred fans before Staley took over six years ago. Staley is 3-4 against top 10 teams, with two of those wins coming against Kentucky.
The schedule is favorable for the Gamecocks. None of their next eight games are against the SEC's Top 25 teams or Florida, which joins South Carolina atop the league standings at 3-0. But then the Gamecocks have a tough slate down the stretch.
"The last five game of our SEC season are eye openers," Staley said." So we have to take care of what we need to take care of."