COLUMBIA - Focus and finish. That was the goal Sunday for South Carolina's unbeaten women's basketball team.
And against a top-10 opponent, it was tested in more ways than one.
No. 10 Kentucky threw everything it had at the Gamecocks, and both teams were emotionally impacted by a grisly injury suffered by the Wildcats' starting point guard. But top-ranked South Carolina rallied from a halftime deficit behind its powerful inside game, and before a season-best crowd of 17,156 at Colonial Life Arena muscled to a 68-60 victory that might have been a harbinger of March.
"To win a game like this against a top-10 team in the country, I think it's all about building a good profile for March, for when the NCAA committee gets together," USC coach Dawn Staley said. "We want it favorable to us. We're thinking big picture, even though we're still in the regular season. We want to be able to host. We want to be able to host in our house where we draw 17,000 fans."
Sunday was certainly a step in that direction. USC (16-0, 4-0 SEC) trailed by six points in the first half and was behind at halftime for just the third time this season, but reigning SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell shook off an uneven start to lead all scorers with 19 points. The bigger Gamecocks pounded the ball inside against Kentucky's man-to-man, scoring 36 points in the paint and pulling away behind 20 second-half free throw attempts.
"It was just a matter of finishing, really," said forward Aleighsa Welch of Goose Creek, who had nine points and 11 rebounds. "We missed a lot of layups. . We missed a lot of easy shots. Coach Staley said it at halftime - you guys have to make layups, because it's easy points. It's just a matter of focusing and finishing. We had the height advantage, so it was just a matter of finishing when we had the ball."
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, whose Wildcats (14-3, 3-1) shot just four free throws in the second half, was ejected with 2:18 left after receiving two technical fouls while arguing a call. "It's hard when you get in foul trouble," he said, "and it's hard when a team has a huge discrepancy in free throws."
But nothing Sunday was more difficult than watching Kentucky point guard Janee Thompson scream in pain, her left ankle bent at an unnatural angle, after battling USC's Khadijah Sessions for a loose ball. The injury with 4:06 remaining silenced the raucous home crowd and left players on both sides covering their faces with their jerseys as medical personnel attended to the junior from Chicago.
"When I turned, it just didn't look right," said Welch, who was on the floor at the time. "Her leg, it didn't look the way a leg was supposed to look. I honestly think it sent shock waves through everybody. No matter who it is, no matter who you're playing against, you never want to see something like that happen to somebody."
Players from both teams walked over to Thompson to show support as she was rolled off the floor on a stretcher. The crowd responded with an ovation. A Kentucky spokesperson said Thompson suffered a dislocated ankle and had been taken to an area hospital.
"It's not a minor injury," Kentucky's Mitchell said. "It doesn't look good."
Both teams had to refocus and complete the final four minutes of the game. "We all said, 'Let's just finish this game. Let's do what we have to do, and try to put it in the back of our minds,' " Welch said. "But it's difficult. Don't get me wrong, it's difficult."
The two technicals on Kentucky's coach, which were followed by four made Tiffany Mitchell free throws that pushed the lead into double-digits, made it a bit easier for USC down the stretch. The result was a 26th consecutive home victory - snapping a tie with Connecticut for the longest active streak in the nation - in front of the second-largest crowd ever to see a women's basketball game at South Carolina.
"It's a beautiful thing to see unfold, it really is, because a lot of people didn't think it could get done," Staley said. "We're inching toward selling the place out, and I hope we do it."