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Jan. 9, 2014

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – No. 10/11 South Carolina led by as many as 22 points in the second half and held off a late charge from No. 9/10 Kentucky (13-3, 1-2 SEC) to capture a 68-59 victory in SEC play on Thursday night at Colonial Life Arena. A trio of Gamecocks (15-1, 3-0 SEC) had the offense clicking – guard Tiffany Mitchell poured in a game-high 17 points, forward Aleighsa Welch posted a double-double with 16 points and 14 boards and center Alaina Coates recorded her third straight double-double with 10 points and a South Carolina freshman record 17 rebounds.

“I’m truly proud of our players. They’ve worked so hard all season long, and it was a great win for our program,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “There have been a lot of people that have come before them and have put us in a position where we can win basketball games like this. I thought the crowd was great. They gave us an extra push when we were running out of gas. Kentucky got into our lead in a big way and when you have this type of atmosphere, it usually helps you get over the hump to hold on to get the win.”

Early on, the Gamecocks found it difficult to feed the post against the size of the Wildcats’ frontcourt, and the slow start opened the door for Kentucky to score the first six points of the contest. A pair of free throws from Mitchell put the Gamecocks on the board after two minutes had gone by.

Guard Khadijah Sessions and Coates checked in at the first media timeout – the action was the first for Sessions after missing five games due to an ankle injury. The sophomore wasted no time, draining a 3-pointer on her first touch to draw the Gamecocks to within three at 10-7.

The Wildcats stretched their advantage back out to six at 13-7, but three unanswered buckets from Mitchell, guard Tina Roy and center Elem Ibiam leveled the score at 13-all midway through the first period.

Roy turned an offensive rebound into a runner in the lane to give the Gamecocks their first lead of the night at 15-14. The teams quickly exchanged the lead with Roy putting South Carolina back up with another baseline jumper, and after missed opportunities by both, Welch hit a transition layup and the ensuing free throw to make it a 20-16 South Carolina advantage with 5:59 left in the half.

Just over two minutes later, Coates spiked a shot attempt by Azia Bishop, which ignited the crowd. Feeding off the energy, the Gamecocks hit their stride, ramping up the speed and locking down on the defensive end for the final three minutes of the half. Holding onto a three-point advantage at 23-20, South Carolina allowed just one basket in the remaining time and seized a 10-point advantage. Roy sank an open jumper from the left elbow and added a 3 two possessions later. Mitchell picked the Wildcats’ pocket near midcourt and took it all the way to push the lead to eight. A block from Mitchell on the next possession quickly lead to a Coates bucket, and the Gamecocks had the largest lead of the half with 1:22 left at 32-22.

Samarie Walker drained two free throws to cut the lead to eight, but on the ensuing possession, Welch corralled a shot blocked by Ibiam to set up the final shot of the half. Welch went bounding through the lane to give South Carolina a 10-point half-time advantage on the final play of the stanza.

Out of the break, the teams traded baskets before the Gamecocks picked up where they left off, streaking on an 8-0 run that included traditional three-point plays from Welch and Ibiam. After Ibiam collected two of her career-high six blocks, Mitchell capped the run on a fastbreak opportunity started by Welch. The unanswered points gave the Gamecocks a 44-27 edge with 14 minutes to play.

Trailing by as many as 22 at 54-32 with just over eight minutes on the clock, the Wildcats weren’t done. An 11-1 Kentucky run, aided by a barrage of foul calls and difficulty at the free throw line for the Gamecocks, featured a combined eight points from Bishop and Janee Thompson and brought the visitors to within striking distance at 55-43.

The Gamecocks went to their most experienced player to stop the surge, and Welch delivered with a drive through the lane to make the score 57-43. Back-to-back baskets from DeNesha Stallworth and Bishop chipped four more points off the lead, and the Gamecocks continued to struggle at the free throw line, hitting just 2-of-7 in four trips to the stripe. Despite the cold shooting, the South Carolina defense stayed strong, and the Gamecocks were still on top 59-49 with four minutes to go.

Another bucket from Thompson brought the Wildcats to within eight at 59-51, prompting a South Carolina timeout. Mitchell hit a pair of free throws to return the Gamecocks to form. A Mitchell steal created a layup for guard Olivia Gaines, and the Gamecocks went back up by 12 with two minutes remaining.

Walker added six points in the final 1:40 for Kentucky pulling the Wildcats as close as 63-55 with 1:30 on the clock. A Coates jumper over Stallworth and free throws from Mitchell and Welch sealed the 68-59 victory.

The Gamecocks swatted a school-record 14 shots on the night. Ibiam recorded six of her own, the most ever by a South Carolina player in an SEC game. The defense was key to delivering the victory, holding the Wildcats, who entered the game averaging 92.4 points to just 59 on 31.5 percent shooting – 14 percent below their season percentage.

The Gamecocks continue conference play with a pair of road games at Auburn on Sun., Jan. 12, at 2:30 p.m., and at Texas A&M on Thurs., Jan. 16, at 8 p.m. South Carolina returns to Colonial Life Arena on Sun., Jan. 19, to face Alabama in a 3 p.m. contest.