COLUMBIA — The best player in the SEC the past two seasons lay under her own basket, surrounded by coaches and medical personnel. When Tiffany Mitchell was helped to her feet and led gingerly back to the South Carolina locker room, suddenly a looming clash with the nation’s No. 1 team didn’t seem like the most important matter at Colonial Life Arena.
“When you see one of your sisters go down, you get a bad taste in your mouth. We’ve got to push forward, we’ve got to step up,” said Gamecocks forward A’ja Wilson. “Because Tiffany means a lot to our program, and we were missing a lot of our offense, and defense as well. I think everyone on the court knew, OK, we have to fill that gap.”
USC’s inside game did just that. With the two-time SEC Player of the Year out the second half, Alaina Coates scored 27 and Wilson 18 Thursday to carry the second-ranked Gamecocks past No. 18 Kentucky 78-68, and into a Monday night showdown with No. 1 Connecticut.
The Gamecocks (22-0, 10-0 SEC) received a boost from guard Khadijah Sessions, whose banked-in, three-quarter-court buzzer beater to end the third quarter stymied a Kentucky run. USC played without starting wing Asia Dozier, who wore a cast on the right hand she injured last Sunday at Texas A&M, and held its breath when Mitchell drove the lane, was called for charging, and hit the floor hard with 5:39 left in the half.
Coaches and team physician Dr. Jeff Guy tended to Mitchell for several minutes before she was helped to the locker room with what USC later termed a lower back bruise. Although the All-American returned to the bench in the third quarter and was cleared to play, USC head coach Dawn Staley chose to keep her out.
“The people that were out there were doing a really good job. And when they’re doing a really good job, you don’t want to mess with it,” said Staley, who added that Mitchell will play Monday. “I just thought we were in a good place. Tiffany could probably use the rest more than anything, and it was confidence booster for our entire team.”
It was also a chance for Coates and Wilson to take over, which they did, scoring 21 of USC’s next 25 points after Mitchell left the game. They combined for USC’s first 10 of the second half, playing almost instinctively off one another, as in one instance where Wilson rebounded a missed Coates free throw and flipped it right back to her teammate for a layup.
“I’ve been playing with Lay since we had to hold socks up with rubber bands. That’s just how we play,” Wilson said. “I feel like that’s one of our advantages over some teams — we’ve been playing together so long, we just know each other so well, and know where to put the ball, and know no one’s up there with us.”
Coates called it “undeniable chemistry.” Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell called it unstoppable. “They’re a lot bigger than us, and we are struggling to guard them right now,” he said. “We’re going to have to go work on that. They’re real good players. Real good.”
They received a boost from Sessions, whose three-quarter-court shot came after Makayla Epps had scored nine straight to pull Kentucky (15-6, 4-6) within three. The senior from Myrtle Beach let fly from the N in the South Carolina logo, midway between the opposing 3-point line and midcourt, and uncorked a bomb to go along with another she made earlier this season at the end of the third quarter at Hawaii.
“She’s two-for-two on those,” Coates said.
Kentucky had one last gasp, getting within two in a Taylor Murray 3-pointer with 2:39 left. But again USC’s inside game responded, this time with Coates converting a three-point play. Soon afterward USC’s 45th straight home victory was secured, and the South Carolina student section was chanting “We-want-U-Conn.”
Monday night, they get their wish. The 10-time national champion Huskies (21-0) have a home game Saturday against East Carolina, and barring a stunner the lone two unbeatens in women’s college basketball will provide a potential glimpse of the Final Four.
“It’s a big game, but it’s still a game,” Wilson said. “I think we’re going to take it all in. Seize the moment, really. I think both teams are ready, and I think the Colonial Life Arena is ready as well.”