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March 8, 2014

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DULUTH, Ga. – No. 5/7 South Carolina struggled with turnovers in the first half and could not recover in a 68-58 loss to No. 12/13 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals at The Arena at Gwinnett Center Saturday afternoon. The Gamecocks (27-4) won the battle of the boards and scored 40 of their 58 points in the paint, but the Wildcats (24-7) advanced behind efficient 3-point shooting in the first half and timely shots in the second to hold off any South Carolina rally.

“Obviously we’re disappointed in losing the basketball game,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “But we’re more disappointed in how we played. This is the first I’ve seen our team play this poorly all season. Obviously, the first half was one that we couldn’t recover from. But, we’ve got a few weeks to think about how we get back on track.”

The Gamecock offense got off to a slow start, turning it over on nine of its first 15 possessions to fall behind the Wildcats 12-2 seven minutes into the contest. The last of the turnovers in the stretch was a charge called on Aleighsa Welch, who, having already committed an earlier foul, went to the bench. The absence of a key player seemed to spark the Gamecocks, especially on the defensive end where they locked down the Wildcats on five straight trips. Meanwhile, South Carolina attached in transition with Elem Ibiam hitting from the right block, Tiffany Mitchell turning her own steal into a layup and Alaina Coates taking a great pass over the top from Asia Dozier. Coates hit a free throw on the next possession and the Gamecocks were within three at 12-9 with just under 10 minutes to go in the half.

Kentucky answered the surge with a tough bucket from DeNesha Stallworth and a 3 from Makayla Epps to go back up by eight. South Carolina was chipping away at the lead, but the Wildcats were capitalizing on every Gamecock misfire, hitting two buckets for every productive possession for South Carolina to push their lead to 12 at 27-15 with four minutes on the clock. Kentucky began hitting from the outside to go up 33-20 with 2:20 until the break. The Gamecock offense clicked down the stretch, finding Welch and Ibiam inside to cut the deficit to 37-29 going into the locker room.

The Wildcats’ lead hovered around 10 points early in the second half as the Gamecocks were not able to put together a significant run. South Carolina got the shots it wanted inside, but they were halfway down before spinning out where Kentucky cleaned up the glass. In the half-court, the Gamecock defense was staunch, but the Wildcats stayed ahead with plays in transition.

Ibiam’s 16 points led the offense, while her four blocks led the defensive effort. Welch added 12 points, and Mitchell 11, and both tied for team-high honors with three assists apiece. Coates was the top rebounder with nine boards to go with her six points.

The Gamecocks now await the NCAA Tournament selection on Mon., Mar. 17, to learn the next step in their season.