COLUMBIA, S.C. — Zia Cooke scored 21 points and No. 2 South Carolina got back on track after its first Southeastern Conference loss in two seasons with a 76-55 victory over No. 17 Kentucky on Sunday.
The Gamecocks (18-3, 13-1 SEC) had won 31 straight over league opponents before blowing a double-digit, second-half lead at No. 21 Tennessee this past Thursday night.
Cooke and South Carolina’s stingy defense ensured it wouldn’t be two straight defeats. The Gamecocks held Rhyne Howard to 12 points on 2-of-11 shooting as senior LeLe Grissett shadowed the Kentucky star much of the game.
Point guard Destanni Henderson added 14 points as the Gamecocks’ backcourt took control in a game where standout center Aliyah Boston finished with a season-low four points, nine fewer than her average coming in.
South Carolina broke out quickly in the second half as Grissett and Henderson had baskets to open a 38-30 lead.
A time out by Kentucky (15-6, 8-5) less than a minute in didn’t stop the Gamecocks’ charge and when Cooke drove to the hoop for a layup, got fouled and hit the free throw, they were up 43-32 and cruising to their fourth straight over the Wildcats.
Cooke said losing at Tennessee after lead 37-21 was a “bummer” because of how hard they worked. “But we came together, we practiced hard and knew we’d come out victorious if we stuck with the game plan.”
Kentucky entered pointing to this one. After all, the Wildcats held a nine-point lead at home on South Carolina last month before falling 75-70.
But they couldn’t get past South Carolina’s relentless defensive pressure. The Wildcats had just eight field goals and Howard was scoreless over the first 17 minutes as they fell behind 31-21.
Howard, however, broke free with a pair of 3-pointers to lead a 9-2 Kentucky burst down the stretch and trailed just 34-30 at the half.
South Carolina blunted any hopes of Kentucky rally with their fast start to the third quarter. The Gamecocks held Howard to just six foul shots in the final 20 minutes as she missed all six of her field goal tries after halftime.
Grissett said Howard was the most important person on the court for Kentucky and the Gamecocks made sure to make it difficult on her. “Just lock in and focus what’s in front of us,” she said.
Grissett, the team’s lone senior honored before tipoff, had 13 points and Laeticia Amihere had 12 points and 12 rebounds for her third double-double this season.
Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy didn’t think Howard was off her game, instead crediting South Carolina with defensing her side of the floor to take away open shots. Elzy said the loss was as much her team’s struggles to rebound.
“We did not have the toughness we needed to rebound,” she said.
THE BIG PICTURE
Kentucky: The Wildcats have had their problems with South Carolina the past few seasons, losing 13 of the last 14. When Howard struggles as she did against the Gamecocks, it makes things that much harder for Kentucky.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks played more through Boston and, while she didn’t score much, the ball flowed more smoothly to Cooke and Henderson on the outside for open looks. Boston still had an impact with 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals.
South Carolina will lose positions in the national rankings for a second straight week because of its loss to Tennessee. The Gamecocks were No. 1 in the rankings two weeks ago before falling to No. 2 UConn on Feb. 8 and dropped into second. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said the team has to stay the course and not buy into those who think any loss means problems. “We can’t believe because we lose a game, the bottom falls out,” she said.
Kentucky had trouble getting to the foul line and in keeping out of foul trouble. The Wildcats fell behind early as they were called for 12 fouls the first two quarters. South Carolina had 18 free throw attempts in that stretch. Kentucky finished 10 of 11 on foul shots while the Gamecocks were 16 of 24 from the line.
Kentucky plays at No. 22 Georgia on Thursday night.
South Carolina finishes its home season with Mississippi on Thursday night.