COLUMBIA — Dawn Staley has done a lot in her five seasons at South Carolina. Add beating a top-five team to her list of accomplishments.
The No. 18 Gamecocks (17-3, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) beat No. 5 Kentucky 55-50 Thursday night, using their pressure defense to hold the Wildcats 30 points under their average. It was South Carolina’s first win over a top-five team since 1998.
Staley has revived South Carolina’s program, bringing the team to its first NCAA tournament in nine years last season. But a win over one of the elite programs has been just out of her reach, such as the four-point loss to then top-ranked Stanford in December.
“We kept coming up short against opponents like a Kentucky, like the Stanfords and Tennessees. I’m happy to see their hard work, what they put into it, paid off,” Staley said.
Kentucky (18-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) led for most of the second half before the Gamecocks went on an 18-4 run to take a 52-44 lead with 3:34 left. South Carolina hit just three free throws down the stretch, but the defense hung on.
The Wildcats hadn’t lost since an 85-51 defeat to then-No. 1 Baylor on Nov. 13. But they appeared rattled at the end. O’Neil missed a teammate entirely with a pass with Kentucky down three with 17 seconds to go. The Wildcats turned it over again 5 seconds later as Ashley Bruner ended Kentucky’s last chance knocking away an inbound pass with 12.7 seconds left.
“This was the first time we have faced serious adversity,” O’Neil said. “Like coach said, we didn’t have poise.”
Kentucky came into the game as the second-best offense in the SEC at 79 points a game. But the Wildcats ran into the best defense in the SEC. South Carolina allows just 48 points a game and has held every opponent but one under 60 points.
Kentucky went almost nine minutes without a point in the first half, and scored just one bucket in six minutes as South Carolina built its biggest lead of the game at eight points. The Wildcats shot 32.8 percent (19 of 58) from the field. A Kentucky team that led the SEC by forcing 10 more turnovers than its opponents, turned the ball over 18 times — two more than South Carolina.
South Carolina scored five more points on the fast break against a Kentucky team that prides itself on getting easy baskets after turning up the pressure.
“We just were not nearly as tough as them tonight,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
The Gamecocks shot just 37.7 percent (20 of 53), but that is fine with Staley, especially when the game stays in the 50s.
“It’s exhausting to play as hard as we play defensively. It takes the wind out of you. But the crowd put the life back into us and we came up with some big plays,” Staley said.
Ieasia Walker had 16 points and eight rebounds, while Aleighsa Welch scored 11 points and had seven rebounds and Elem Ibiam added eight points and eight rebounds for South Carolina.
Jennifer O’Neil led Kentucky with 17 points, while DeNesha Stallworth added 12 points and 10 rebounds and A’dia Mathies also scored 12 points.
The Gamecocks even overcame their biggest weakness. South Carolina is next-to-last in Division I in free throws, shooting just 54 percent. But they hit 10 of their last 16 foul shots, even though they shot just 48 percent from the foul line in the game (13 of 27).
The biggest foul shots came with 13 seconds left as Welch went to the line for two shots and the Gamecocks ahead three points.
“I just wanted her to shoot our average,” Staley said.
Welch missed the first, but made the second. It was enough to seal the win.
The Gamecocks celebrated their milestone win, but not too much. Staley has bigger goals than an upset in January. She wants this team to finish at the top of the SEC and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“We just talked about it in the locker room,” Ibiam said. “We talked about not getting too comfortable.”
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley reacts during the first half of their NCAA college basketball against Kentucky, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 55-50. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)×
South Carolina's Ieasia Walker (2) drives for the basket as Kentucky's Samarie Walker (23) and DeNesha Stallworth (11) defend during the second half of their NCAA college basketball, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Columbia, S.C. Walker scored 16 total points as South Carolina won 55-50. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)×
Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill (0) battles for a loose ball with South Carolina's Khadijah Sessions (5) during the first half of their NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)×