LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s seniors met with Matthew Mitchell last week to clear the air. The coach followed by putting the No. 13 Wildcats through some extra defensive drills Sunday morning before facing second-ranked South Carolina.
It all culminated in a huge win against the Gamecocks.
Jennifer O’Neill and Makayla Epps combined for 22 second-half points and Kentucky made 27 free throws in a 67-56 victory that denied the Gamecocks an unbeaten season in Southeastern Conference play.
The Wildcats shot just 32 percent from the field but succeeded in getting to the foul line and converting 27 of 35 chances for their biggest win this season. They also left the Gamecocks tied with Tennessee atop the SEC, though South Carolina earned the No. 1 seed for this week’s conference tournament in North Little Rock, Arkansas, by beating the Volunteers last week.
Epps led the way with 8-of-11 shooting from the free throw line and scored 14 points. O’Neill went 7 of 8 and had 15, capping a strong effort by Kentucky’s seniors in their home finale.
“It was joy,” said O’Neill, who also grabbed eight rebounds. “Just to get this win meant a lot.”
Azia Bishop had 11 points and nine rebounds. Bria Goss added six points for Kentucky (21-8, 10-6), which celebrated at midcourt as a sellout crowd cheered in delight.
“I’m really proud of our team, especially proud of our seniors,” Mitchell said. “(The win) probably wouldn’t have been possible without their input and how much they care about the program. ... I wasn’t really worried about the outcome. I was so proud of them for what they’ve done, but it sure is just icing on the cake to get the victory.”
A’ja Wilson scored 16 points and Tina Roy added 10 for South Carolina (27-2, 15-1), which also shot 32 percent thanks to a slew of missed layups. Reigning SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell had just eight points and fouled out.
The Gamecocks also hurt themselves with 20 turnovers that led to 19 points for Kentucky, especially several down the stretch that thwarted their comeback attempt.
“We got ourselves back in the game and then we fell into a trap of just missing point-blank layups with no defense around us,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “When you’re fighting back and miss those types of layups, it makes it hard for us to get back in the game.”
After trailing 51-30 in the second half, South Carolina still managed to make it interesting.
Aleighsa Welch’s three-point play and consecutive 3-pointers by Toni Roy helped spur a rally that got the Gamecocks to 53-46 with 6 1/2 minutes left. But South Carolina couldn’t make the easy basket it needed while Kentucky took advantage of its many chances at the line, making 10 of 11 down the stretch to seal the victory.
The Wildcats avoided a season sweep and thwarted the Gamecocks’ bid for their second consecutive win in Lexington. Kentucky also won its sixth straight Senior Day game and has back-to-back wins, just the boost it needed after an up-and-down stretch run that featured a three-game losing streak.
Talking things out helped.
“It wasn’t just about us at that moment, it was about everybody,” Goss said. “I think from there on out, we understood that, he understood that and we all came together.”
Before the game, Kentucky honored Goss, O’Neill, Bishop and Jelleah Sydney as the program’s second-winningest senior class. The group is 105-27 with an SEC regular-season title, three NCAA tournament berths and two regional final appearances.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks had 12 blocks and their bench outscored Kentucky 39-20, but South Carolina finished even in the paint (24-24).
Kentucky: Kyvin Goodin-Rogers had nine points and Linnae Harper seven.
South Carolina plays the Arkansas-Mississippi winner on Friday in the SEC tournament.
Kentucky faces Vanderbilt or Alabama on Thursday in the SEC tournament.