Jennings

Alexis Jennings and the Gamecocks struggled to hit shots Thursday. File/Jenny Dilworth

COLUMBIA — It would be simple to blame the loss on Te’a Cooper’s injury. South Carolina’s leading scorer and one of their best defenders hit the deck early in the first quarter and didn’t return, the early prognosis a sprained left ankle.

But that would be too easy. The No. 13 Gamecocks didn’t lose to No. 15 Kentucky 65-57 Thursday because of the injury, a defeat that put them a game behind league-leading Mississippi State in the race for the regular-season championship, because Cooper was out.

They lost because they gave the game away.

USC had 21 turnovers, many against Kentucky’s press, and the Wildcats took control with a 13-3 fourth-quarter run. Kentucky (22-5, 9-4 SEC) out-scored USC 23-12 in the final eight minutes and knocked the Gamecocks out of a tie for first place.

“We didn’t stay behind the ball. We tried to force it through hands,” said point guard Ty Harris, who combined with fellow point guards Destanni Henderson and Bianca Cuevas-Moore for 14 turnovers. “It was honestly just us.”

The Gamecocks can still force a championship scenario by winning the next two regular-season games leading into the finale vs. Mississippi State on March 3, assuming the Bulldogs also win until March 3. A win over MSU would most likely clinch a shared regular-season championship (only a tie is needed for a title) but the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament would be up to a tiebreaker.

Whatever the future case may be, the Gamecocks (19-7, 11-2) were wondering why they didn’t respond in the present to the Wildcats, who didn’t overwhelm USC as much as USC showed them the way to do it. And about to head on the road to Tennessee and then Auburn, which loves to press for 40 minutes, the Gamecocks’ suddenly suspect ball-handling is troubling.

“We’ve seen it before, we’ve handled it better. We just didn’t tonight,” said coach Dawn Staley, also pointing out the youth of some of the perpetrators. “We just weren’t very good. It was just a really bad night that happened at the wrong time.”

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* Freshman Victaria Saxton started for the first time and scored seven points with six rebounds and a block. Her fearless energy will be a boon going forward.

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* All Kentucky did was guard half-court and send two at the player with the ball. The Gamecocks never adjusted.

“Uncharacteristic of us, as of lately,” Staley said. “We just didn’t make good decisions out there.”

There was no running to get over the time-line or rush to catch the Wildcats on their heels. Once the double-teams were set, there was no helping from the other four players. There were far too many panicky passes that were knocked away and turned into Kentucky transitions.

* USC has played 26 games and its rotations are still a jumble. Henderson, one of the team’s sparkplugs lately, only played seven minutes in the first half and then the entire second half. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, an All-SEC candidate in the first part of the season, has been lost since she was taken out of the starting lineup before the win at Arkansas.

* Alexis Jennings was a major part of the win at Kentucky in January and the game plan, yet she only shot six times. The Gamecocks were gun-shy about getting her the ball.

“They did a pretty good job, once the ball went into the post, they had four people on it,” Harris said. “It’s hard to get it in and throw it back out and get it in again.”

* Cuevas-Moore was 1-of-11 from the field, although she scored 10 points.

* Staley hadn’t talked to the doctors by the post-game media session, but confirmed Cooper has a sprained ankle. Her status for the next game or the season could be announced Friday.

While it deprives USC of experience and defense, Cooper has been a streaky scorer. She didn’t play against Florida last game due to illness, and was held to seven, 11 and three points in her last three SEC games.

Fridays in Greenville

The Gamecocks have clinched a top-four seed in the SEC women’s tournament, which is being held in Greenville this year and the next two years. They’ll begin play on March 8.

The time of their first game will be determined after their next three games.

Coming up

The Gamecocks are at Tennessee on Sunday.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.