COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — With her best point guard and shooting guard out with injuries, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows moving the ball around is her best chance to win.
She got what she has been pressing for over the past few weeks Sunday as the No. 8 Gamecocks (22-5, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) had assists on 21 of 26 baskets in an 81-63 victory over Kentucky.
Nine of those assists went to A’ja Wilson who scored 29 points. The senior had a typically dominant game in her All-American career, shooting 9 of 16 from the field, making 11 of 12 free throws, pulling down nine rebounds and dishing out five assists in just 26 minutes.
“A’ja had it going on,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.
Maci Morris’ shooting and Kentucky’s collapsing defense kept the Wildcats (13-15, 5-9) in it for a quarter. But the Gamecocks held the Wildcats scoreless until two free throws with 4:17 left in the second quarter that cut South Carolina’s lead to 29-20.
Wilson sat on the bench the rest of the first half. But South Carolina still managed to extend its lead by three points. The Gamecocks outscored the Wildcats 29-18 in the third quarter to put it away.
At one point, South Carolina had 20 assists on 21 baskets.
Morris had a career-high 35 points for Kentucky on 13-of-23 shooting, including 5 of 9 on 3-pointers. The rest of the Wildcats were 9 for 32 from the field.
Bianca Jackson had 12 points and five assists for the Gamecocks, and Tyasha Harris added eight points and seven assists.
South Carolina made 23 of its 25 free throws (92 percent). The Gamecocks came into the game shooting 68 percent from the foul line.
Wilson is now 9-1 against Kentucky in her four years at South Carolina.
“We didn’t have the answer for A’ja,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “She has been tough to compete against for four years.”
Kentucky: The loss assures the Wildcats their first losing season in SEC play since 2009 and only the second in Mitchell’s 11 seasons. Kentucky has won at least 10 SEC games each season since 2010 and hasn’t had an overall losing season since 2003-04. The loss also knocks Mitchell from second to third in wins by active SEC coaches. Staley passed him with her 108th league win.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks four-year run as SEC regular season champions ended Sunday after No. 2 Mississippi State beat No. 17 Texas A&M 76-55 to win the league outright. But the win by the Gamecocks did help them close in on another goal. They remain in sole possession of second place. The top four teams in the SEC get double byes in the conference tournament.
Kentucky’s offense didn’t have much going for it outside of Morris shooting off screens. After her 35-point game Sunday, she has at least 20 points in each of the Wildcats past four games.
Mitchell praised her junior guard’s toughness. He said while she didn’t get a lot of help scoring, her teammates at least screened well to get her open.
“She didn’t have to do a whole lot of one-on-one. But we didn’t have enough scoring punch beside her,” Mitchell said.
Wilson has done so much in her South Carolina career — a national championship, three SEC regular season and tournament titles, 55 points away from being the school’s scoring leader, the school leader in blocks over second place by 134 and a two-time All-American.
But he hasn’t dunked. For a moment Sunday, it looked like she would slam one down. Wilson was out in front of the entire Kentucky defense after a Harris steal and the crowd roared. But Wilson ended up with a layup.
“She threw it kind of fast,” Wilson said, smiling. “I couldn’t get my feet straight.”
Kentucky: At Mississippi on Thursday night.
South Carolina: Host LSU in the final regular-season home game of Wilson’s career.
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